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Human Rights Watch:

Witness to a Bloodbath   door  Lindsay Murdoch

Sydney Morning Herald, November 14, 1998

The weeks after the fall of the Soeharto regime in Indonesia were full of hope and excitement in Irian Jaya. The people of the western half of the island of New Guinea, who had lived under the thumb of the Indonesian regime since 1969, could sniff the scent of freedom. On 1 July, the anniversary of their 1971 proclamation of independence, supporters of the Free Papua movement took to the streets, flying their flag. What followed was an atrocity, reports Lindsay Murdoch.

For four days the striped 'morning star' flag of the West Papuan independence movement fluttered on top of a 35-metre water tower at Biak's jetty. It was a powerful symbol of defiance, prompting the arrival on the windswept coral island, just off New Guinea, of hundreds of Indonesian troops. Villagers sang and danced into the night, celebrating what they believed was their escape from 35 years of Indonesian repression. The people of Biak have traditionally seen themselves as great warriors and they collected Molotov cocktails and spears to defend their new land and lives as independent West Papuans. But church leaders, fearing a bloodbath, convinced them to hand over the weapons, promising God would protect them. The villagers pledged on the Bible, however, to defend the morning star to the death.

Embolded by international calls for East Timor and Irian Jaya to break away from Jakarta's rule, independence leader Dr Filip (Yopy) Karma declared before hundreds of people on 2 July that the people of West Papua would stand united and 'live or die' under the flag. 'We, the people of West Papua, declare that the Republic of Indonesia cannot interfere in the affairs of West Papua,' vowed 39-year-old Karma, a provincial government employee.

The July flag-raising in Biak and several other Irian Jaya towns at the same time, including the capital, Jayapura, marked the anniversary of a 1 July 1971 proclamation of independence of West Papua. The Indonesian military had learnt of arrangements to raise the flags and sent a memo to police stations warning of a 'rash of OPM-led pro-independence actions' (OPM is the acronym for the Free Papua movement). The memo warned of elements inside and outside Indonesia wanting to destabilise the country and fuel anti-Indonesian sentiments. The flag-raising in Biak on 2 July had turned violent, fuelling anger among the Indonesian security forces on the island and prompting orders to bring in troops from Ambon and other provinces. After a local military commander had, in his words, tried to 'give guidance and direction' to the demonstrators, the crowd turned on soldiers and police, apparently wounding 13 troops, two of them so seriously they had to be airlifted out of Irian Jaya. Still, the mood beneath the flag at the water tower on the evening of 5 July was festive. A new demand by military commanders to leave the area was ignored and they settled in for the night.

The attack came at 5.30 the next morning. Of about 200 people at the tower, most were asleep when the soldiers opened fire from four sides. 'They treated the people like animals,' one of the villagers later told Australian teacher Paul Meixner and his partner Rebecca Casey, who were awoken in their nearby house by the gun shots. The soldiers fired low and many of the villagers were shot in their legs and arms as they scrambled to their feet and ran for their lives. Some wounded were shot again as they tried to crawl to their homes. Others were dead before they knew what was happening. A woman sleeping next to a villager was shot in the chest. 'She asked me to help ... she was just drooping,' the witness told the couple in a video-recorded interview. Rebecca Casey says witnesses told her of blood and dead bodies around them. Karma was shot at point blank range in the elbows and knees and rifle-butted in the head after falling to the ground, two witnesses told her. Karma was dragged off to jail and faces life imprisonment on charges of rebellion.

Human rights and church groups that have investigated the massacre and the military's subsequent abuse of the survivors have failed to establish how many people were killed, raped, tortured or thrown into the sea from two Indonesian navy ships, never to be seen alive again. But they agree the atrocities were among the worst committed by the military in the former Dutch territory now known as Irian Jaya since it became part of Indonesia after a sham United Nations-sponsored referendum in 1969. They have gathered evidence they say disproves claims by the Indonesian military that only one or two people were killed when soldiers went to disperse the crowd and take down the flag. They also have evidence that bodies washed up on shores were not victims of the tsunami that swamped the Papua New Guinea coast 900kilometres away two weeks later, as claimed by Indonesian authorities. Many of the bodies were washed up before the tsunami hit and were almost certainly those of people rounded up on Biak.

When the shootings started, locals rushed to the house where Meixner and Casey were staying and told them to stay inside. Over the next few nights, until the couple were forced to leave the island, villagers came to them and gave graphic accounts of the military's reign of terror. Rebecca Casey says that in the hours after the shootings about 200 people, some of them wounded and others who only came into Biak town to get petrol and rice, were taken to the docks. 'They were forced to crawl along the road while the soldiers rifle-butted, kicked and walked on them,' she says. 'They were forced to lie by the docks and look at the sun for two hours while soldiers marched on their stomachs and faces. After further beatings they were then forced to crawl along the road to the cells. The whole town was blockaded and there were no people on the streets. Everyone stayed in their homes and many did not leave them for days. There were about 28 men to a cell and many people became sick from the unsanitary conditions.' Witnesses say that prisoners could not lie down and were forced to urinate and defecate where they stood. Some were school children. Witnesses told Meixner and Casey that some villagers were tied and repeatedly dunked into the sea from the jetty, apparently a form of torture to get them to name independence movement leaders. Others were bashed and, under the threat of further violence, sent to spy on independence supporters. Meixner and Casey believe at least 20 people were killed in the initial shootings and more than 100 wounded. 'What happened was an absolute outrage,' Casey says. 'The soldiers opened fire without warning. The wounded taken to hospital were denied treatment and relatives were not allowed to see them.'

Sidney Jones, of the United States-based organisation Human Rights Watch, says in a soon-to-be-released report that, according to witnesses, five civilians lying prone on the ground were deliberately shot. She says the body of one man who died in hospital after being shot in the head had not been returned to his family one month later. Jones quotes a young man who was in the crowd when the shooting started as saying the army loaded the dead, wounded and others on to a truck that was driven into the jungle. He and 10 others were let off and taken to navy headquarters where he was held for five days. He had no idea what happened to the dead and wounded. Investigators from the Indonesian Council of Churches, who have released a report into the killings, quote two witnesses saying they were forced to throw human corpses into shipping containers. They name four of the possible victims.

After the shootings, people were too scared to be seen talking with the couple and Meixner was forced to abandon his English classes. Before the couple left the island and returned to Australia they kept hearing disturbing stories about prisoners, the wounded and others being taken away in two navy ships that had brought the soldiers to the island. 'There were two theories,' Casey says. 'One was that they were being taken to Jakarta where they would be jailed and the other they had been dumped at sea.'

Australian student Andrew Kilvert sensed something terrible had happened when he arrived at Biak five days after the shootings. He was already rattled, having seen soldiers brutally put down pro-independence demonstrations in the provincial capital, Jayapura. One student had been shot dead. A police intelligence officer also died after mobs turned on him during street demonstrations in which Free Papua supporters paraded the morning star. At the airport in Biak, family members were weeping and soldiers were everywhere. In town, a lawyer told him that he had been representing some of the protesters, who had by then disappeared. The man was afraid, but wanted the outside world to know what had happened. According to the lawyer, 24 people were killed on the morning of 6 July. But many more were killed when soldiers went from house to house shooting people. Wounded people could not get medical care and were hiding in homes and churches. Some died because of lack of medical help. Women had been raped on the back of army trucks, the lawyer had claimed. The Indonesian human rights group Kosorairi says that in the Irian Jaya town of Sorong 'women had been thrown in the back of a truck and stripped naked and jumped onto by the soldiers and one died due to internal bleeding because she was pregnant'. Kilvert says the lawyer's most shocking information was that 139 people, including women and children, had been taken out to sea on two navy ships. 'He told us that they couldn't have been taken very far because one of the frigates had just returned and had only been out of port a day or two,' Kilvert says. Locals became alarmed when bodies started washing up. The Christian Evangelical Church in Biak has documented the finding on 11 July - six days before the tsunami - of 23 bodies in offshore fishing nets. Another 21 bodies, most of them men, were found on 13 July in the same area. On 16 July the bodies of two young women were found naked near a village east of Biak. On 25 July the bodies of three women, a boy and child were found washed up at Opiaref village. The mother was still clutching the child.

Reverend Phil Erari, of the Independent Council of Churches in Jakarta, says an investigation by his organisation uncovered almost unbelievable crimes committed on at least one of the navy ships. One witness testified that several bodies were cut up and put into bags. According to two children who escaped by jumping into the sea and swimming away, women were undressed and raped on the deck, Erari says. The children listened to people screaming for help. The council's 14-page report says: 'These two children are key witnesses for the missing persons case. Another witness also described how he was miraculously saved. He was put in a plastic barrel and thrown into the sea.

This witness is ready to testify under oath.' When bodies began washing up on or around Biak, the Indonesian military insisted they were from the tsunami. Church investigators have documented the discovery of 70 bodies. Erari says 10 to 15 of them were almost certainly from the tsunami while the rest were apparently Biak victims. The church report concludes that many of the bodies 'had connection with the report of missing people since the 6 July incident'.

Sidney Jones says the bodies of 33 men, women and children were washed ashore from 27 July. She reports: 'There were unconfirmed reports from local people that some of the bodies had their hands tied behind their backs and one was wearing a Golkar (Indonesian) T-shirt, giving rise to the belief that at least some of the bodies might be those of shooting victims. Activists have questioned why bodies from the tsunami only showed up in Biak and nowhere else, whereas there are many other places along the Irian Jaya coast closer to Papua New Guinea than Biak.

On the other hand, reports in the local newspaper Cenderawasih Pos, quoting military sources, stated some of the bodies were tattooed with marks only found among PNG natives and other artefacts, including school books and a map washed up with the bodies, suggested strongly that they were tsunami victims. A medic who helped bury the bodies reported that one had washed ashore with the remains of a house. All were buried quickly, however, without proper autopsies, so the cause of death remains uncertain.

John Rumbiak, of the Human Rights Advocacy Team for Irian Jaya, a group backed by churches and Jakarta-based non-government groups, says the fact authorities in Irian Jaya did not notify PNG of the bodies 'raised suspicion of something fishy going on'. Local groups and church leaders are urging that the bodies be exhumed as part of a full investigation. The military's violent response to the flag raising is likely to boost Irian Jaya's independence movement rather than crush it, diplomats and experts say. In October, a series of pro-independence demonstrations took place across the province. Many government buildings were burnt to the ground. Up to 20 people, including Filip Karma, have been charged with rebellion or treason and face life imprisonment. If convicted they will not be the first. In 1989, a former civil servant, Dr Tom Wanggai, 52, was sentenced to 20 years' jail after raising the morning star flag. He died later in a Jakarta jail.

Irian Jaya specialist Dr George Aditjondro, who spent five years living in Irian Jaya and now lectures at the University of Newcastle in New South Wales, says that although the independence movement is portrayed by Indonesian authorities as being a small group of OPM savages with bows and arrows in the jungle, it has wide support among indigenous students, intellectuals, civil servants and villagers. Aditjondro says the success of the student movement in Jakarta in ousting Soeharto in May had encouraged people to renew their struggle for self-determination. In the euphoria following Soeharto's resignation anything seemed possible, including an independent state in the western half of the island of PNG. People had seized upon a recent letter several members of the United States Congress had sent to Indonesia's President Jusuf Habibie calling, among other things, for talks on the political status of East Timor and Irian Jaya. Many wrongly interpreted this as the most powerful country in the world backing their independence. According to Casey, locals believed that if the morning star flag flew over Baik for more than 72 hours, as it did in July, they had obtained their independence. When people were singing and dancing in their traditional way in the hours before the massacre, they believed their new millennium had begun. Their confidence was not far removed from cargo-cult beliefs that have in the past spread through small, isolated Pacific island states. Aditjondro says that among 240 different tribes in West Papua, as he prefers to call Irian Jaya, the people of Biak are the most dominant, with a long tradition of contact and trading throughout neighbouring islands. 'Biak is the heartland of West Papuan independence feelings,' Aditjondro says. 'This is probably why the military acted with such brutality against the demonstrators.'

The military says 24 people were wounded and one or two killed when it broke up the Biak crowd and have announced a fact-finding team to investigate the events. Its mandate and composition are unclear. Initially, the military denied any deaths or the use of live ammunition. Growing calls for a full and official investigation independent of the military coincide with proposed talks between President Habibie and community, church and student leaders from Irian Jaya early next year. For decades the Irianese have complained of being treated like second-class citizens in their own villages. One-third of the province's 1.5million people are settlers from western Indonesia, who dominate trade and commerce. The Irianese want the talks to focus on 'aspirations towards a peaceful settlement of the political status and human rights violations in Irian Jaya'. But a foreign priest living in Irian Jaya has told friends in Australia that while the attitude of the Indonesian military is very bad, because they don't understand the local people and the way they express themselves, efforts to co-ordinate an Irianese political agenda are weak. 'There is not yet a generally accepted forum which can voice the issues properly and take a stand respected by all,' he says.

After sending representatives to Irian Jaya recently, the Indonesian Council of Churches reported Papuans demanding 'freedom and liberation from the Indonesian Government, which they regard as more cruel than Dutch or Japanese colonialists.'

Casey and Meixner have just moved to Sydney, where Casey started a new job in marketing this week. 'I can't believe there hasn't been an outcry about what happened,' she says. 'But it is not too late.'

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