Indonesian soldiers shot at least 11 civilians in the remote interior of Irian Jaya, a new report has established. GERRY VAN KLINKEN reports.
The soldiers were anxious to reestablish government control after they forced OPM rebels to release foreign hostages in May 1996. To permit negotiations during the five months hostage crisis, the Indonesian army had withdrawn from the area.
The Indonesian armed forces (Abri) may have regarded the entire population as hostile for looking after the OPM bands during that time. The villages of Bela, Alama, Jila and Mapenduma are located about 150 km east of the huge Freeport copper and gold mine. The frightened population responded to aggressive Abri patrols by seeking refuge in mountain-side caves.
Among the harrowing stories in the report, some describe hungry villagers coming out of hiding only to be gunned down by soldiers camped in their gardens for that very purpose. In all, eleven were shot dead, two remain missing, while three were injured between December 1996 and October 1997. More (about 137 by April 1998) died of lack of food and disease while in hiding.
The area is extremely inaccessible. It has a long history of suffering at the hands of powerful outsiders. Natural disasters and disease are also taking a dreadful toll. Bushfires swept the area in August and September 1997. Cholera is often fatal in the dry season. Serious strains of malaria are spreading rapidly.
In March 1998, the 'Rajawali' unit had just arrived in the Amongkonop village as part of a military operation. Some soldiers invited Elias Aim and his 22-year old nephew to come bird shooting. After walking for some distance, the two men were separated from one another. The nephew was never seen again.
Elias Aim said afterwards: 'I was told to squat facing a soldier. He put a round in his rifle to shoot me while his friend was looking over the edge of a cliff. But his friend said: "Don't shoot him there, later we'll have a hell of a job dragging him to the cliff. Make him go to the cliff's edge and then shoot him." '
'The soldier guarding me put down his rifle and they told me to go to the cliff's edge. They pointed their rifles at me from my left and from behind. I was shaking with fear. The cliff was more than 150 metres high. So high that the river below was not clearly visible. When I reached the edge I decided it was better to kill myself than be shot. I threw myself over the edge before they could shoot.'
'When I woke up I realised I was still alive. I checked my whole body and found only scratches. I said a prayer of thanks to God for saving me from the hands of Abri, and another for saving me after I jumped off a cliff so high none of my ancestors had ever been there. After that I managed to climb down'.
Soldiers also destroyed at least twelve churches and a large number of houses, as well as much livestock, the main form of capital in Irian Jaya.
Servant of Christ
After leading a church service in the village of Gilpid on Sunday 12 October 1997, the evangelist Wenesobuk Nggwijangga, 48, went out to check his cus-cus traps.
When villagers went to look for him that evening, soldiers from Battalion 751 camped nearby denied that they had seen him. But after two days searching, the persistent villagers found the body buried by a river.
When they confronted the local Kopassus commander with the badly damaged body, he first said soldiers had found it and wanted to give it a decent burial. He then pleaded with them not to spread the news that Abri had killed him.
The commander offered them food and drink but they refused, saying: 'We have given you chickens, pigs, rabbits, and vegetables. We almost always fulfilled your requests. But you wanted human life. You wanted the life of a servant of Christ. And we did not want to give him to you.'
'Now we have been visited by disaster. We have lost a church leader who worked among us and guided us. We can do nothing. We are just little people.'
Instead of helping relieve the difficult conditions villagers face, the government, represented mainly by the army, appears to be on a permanently hostile footing with the population. Yet Australian soldiers are working with them giving drought relief.
Volunteers compiled the detailed report during visits to the area between August 1997 and April 1998. They took great personal risk, because the area remains under strict military control and outsiders are banned. They interviewed numerous eyewitnesses and victims.
It is signed by parish leaders of three Christian churches in Mimika, the nearest town. The report calls for a detailed investigation, and for punishment of those guilty.