By dusk, Indonesian Army Corp. Sahrudin was dead, hunted to exhaustion and pierced through the chest and side with three long arrows. Next to him, lower jaw ripped away and back of his head blown off by Sahrudin’s dying shot, lay Bambier Wenda, 35, a West Papuan guerrilla fighter and Dani tribesman.
At dawn that day, Dec. 15, 2000, Sahrudin and four fellow soldiers had climbed the high hill where the Dani of Tiom and Pirime villages in Irian Jaya’s western Baliem Valley had hoisted the banned West Papuan independence flag. The Indonesian soldiers severed the flagpole with bursts of their automatic rifles.
“We asked them, ‘Why did you take down our flag?’ ” says Wenas Tabuni, 30, a Dani warrior and guerrilla of the Free Papua Organization (OPM). For nearly four decades OPM has been fighting to gain independence for West Papua, the name the indigenous population give to Indonesia’s easternmost province.
Tabuni and four dozen guerrillas, armed only with bows and machetes, surrounded the Indonesian soldiers near the bottom of the hill. “I told them, ‘This is not a game.’ They began shooting,” said Tabuni.
In the subsequent nine-hour exchange of bullets and bamboo arrows, Sahrudin and four Dani fell dead.
Dani warriors like Wenda and Tabuni, from Indonesia’s most remote region, have come violently to the fore in one of the world’s longest and least-noticed wars. With an armed independence movement in Aceh, at the northwest tip of the Indonesian archipelago, the conflict in Irian Jaya has the central government worried about a breakup of the world’s fourth most populous nation. Aceh and Irian Jaya, which occupies the western half of the island of New Guinea, are among Indonesia’s most resource-rich provinces.
In part, the Dani’s assertiveness results from expectations raised by an independence congress in Jayapura, the provincial capital, last June, when the Papua Presidium, the congress executive, promised a full break from Indonesia by the Dec. 1 anniversary of a 1961 independence declaration.
“We believed we were going to get independence on Dec. 1 because the presidium said so,” said Sobye Wenda, the head of Pirime village. “Now it’s Kelly’s turn. War is our tradition.”
That tradition is the other reason for the Dani’s emergence. Kelly is Kelly Kwalik, the guerrilla commander of all OPM highlands fighters. In 1996, Kwalik grabbed international headlines when Dani men under his command took several European research scientists hostage for three months in the thickly forested mountains four days hard walk from Tiom.
In the highlands, a boy’s defining act is to make his first bow. Although Christian missionaries and the Indonesian government ended traditional warfare decades ago, village men are rarely without their 1.8 meter-long bow and a half-dozen arrows.
Irian Jaya’s 1 million indigenous, ethnically Melanesian inhabitants were never allowed to freely exercise the right to self-determination promised them when the United Nations oversaw the transfer of the Dutch colony to Indonesia in 1963. A 1969 referendum run by the Indonesian military, in which only 1,026 men were permitted to vote, is widely considered a sham.
More than 100,000 West Papuans have died as a result of the war and the occupation, according to human-rights organizations.
Irian Jaya’s isolation has helped the Indonesians hide these deaths from international scrutiny. And the highlands are among the province’s most isolated places. Only in the 1930s did outsiders discover that hundreds of thousands of Dani and other Stone Age farmer-warriors, half the territory’s population, were living in remote valleys running along the mountainous spine of the province. Even after 39 years of Indonesian rule, most villagers here speak no more than a few words of Indonesian and there is no electricity outside a few towns.
In the roadless Kuyawage Valley, west of the Baliem, the Dani live in scattered compounds of squat, circular thatched huts set amid an unforgiving 160-km muddy savanna of long grass, countless rivulets and forest islands.
Yet even there, political organizing has taken root. At weekly collective pit cookouts of sweet potato and chardlike greens, village leaders analyze events in the capital and gather money to buy the guns that have always eluded the guerrillas.
Defiant rallies combine mock bow-and-arrow battles with independence agitation and OPM fundraising. At an illegal flag-raising attended by 1,000 people in the village of Ilaga Dec. 30, villagers pledged $5,000, most of it in the form of small vials of long-hoarded gold.
With Indonesian police and soldiers sticking to the towns and military posts in the largest villages, guerrilla couriers carry news and messages at will to the thousands of guerrillas and their families eking out a living here.
Dani were at the center of the most recent incident of mass violence in the province. Last Oct. 6 in the highlands’ principal town of Wamena, Indonesian police forcibly lowered flags, shooting and killing as many as four dozen Dani, according to an American observer. That day and the next, tribesmen there fought police and killed dozens of Indonesian migrants, who though poor dominate the local economy.
Two months later, the presidium’s Dec. 1 promise unrealized, Dani guerrillas killed two policemen in coastal Abepura, using the only weapons they have: machetes and bow and arrow.
The attackers acted on the orders of Matthias Wenda, a top OPM commander and a Dani. Wenda, living across the border in Papua New Guinea, fled the highlands with thousands of Dani after Indonesia put down a 1977 uprising. Human-rights groups estimate tens of thousands of highlanders died at the time; Indonesia says less than 900.
“They killed everything here — babies, women,” said Minus Wanimbo, a farmer in Pirime. Local OPM leaders have kept lists of the dead. “We keep the experience in our hearts. The names we keep to tell the world after independence.”
Despite the Dani’s passion, independence seems far less likely than it did at any time since the 33-year rule of Indonesian President Suharto ended in May 1998. The Indonesian government showed its determination to hold Irian Jaya by doubling security forces in the province, to an estimated 30,000 soldiers and police, as the Dec. 1 anniversary approached. Indonesia arrested five civilian leaders on charges of treason and they remain in jail.
After the Abepura guerrilla attack, police officers beat three Dani university students to death and shot a fourth in the back. Many Dani activists have fled across the border to Papua New Guinea.
But even there sanctuary has diminished. OPM commander Wenda and 12 of his men were arrested by the Papua New Guinea military in mid-January, charged with raising an illegal army.
Sitting with a dozen warriors, traditional leaders and ministers in a smoke-filled hut in the western Baliem, Pirimum Wanimbo, a veteran guerrilla, wondered what lay ahead. “We wanted our independence in December as promised and so we raised our flag,” he said. “Now our men are dead and we don’t know what to do.”
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.