Jul 19, 2024 Last Updated 5:22 AM, Jul 16, 2024

Counting scars

Published: May 04, 2021
A personal view on human rights and identity in Papua
Versi Bh Indonesia

Yuliana Langowuyo

Don’t be so vocal about the Papua issue, don’t do that kind of work. Why don’t you take the civil servant entry exams, don’t talk about Papuan politics – all that human rights stuff is dangerous! Don’t keep doing this work kakak, we are scared…

As a woman born to a non-Papuan father and a Papuan mother who is also a humanitarian worker closely engaged with human rights issues, I’ve heard these kinds of statements repeated by both sides of my family. The same prohibitions, the same fears, but for different reasons.

On the topic of Papua, several relatives from my paternal family believe the issue is final; it is already part of the Indonesian nation and so I should not speak about politics. On the other hand, many in my family acknowledge the injustices experienced by Papuans, and in our respective work we all do our best to ensure that Papuans are not victimised further by a discriminative legal system.

Lewo Tanah molo, kame dore, ti pana akena todok, gawe akena wallet; Lera Wulan Tanah Ekan
Our hometown, our homeland – God has opened the way for us, so that we may not stumble along the way, so that we may not face challenges and obstacles

Pete heket, senera, tete ake toon. Seba bisaan kawesan, pi tana ekan lolon. Soga gerian, senera toon gelekat. Gewayan liko lapak riburatu pi, tanaekan lolon. Gelekat soren, pi tanaekan, tete taoro keniki lau ekan gehan.
Remember, the sustenance we receive is not ours to seek more wealth, rather, it is merely a test. A noble service on this earth will sustain us in the afterlife.

These two passages are words of advice my father often repeats to me. Although I was born far away from this homeland and I am not fluent in it the language, my life values have always been taught in my father’s local dialect.

What about the family of the brave woman who gave birth to me? As the daughter of a Papuan woman (from Depapre, Jayapura), it saddens me that I do not speak my mother’s language, save a few common expressions like Poi (congratulations). I only know a few words of her language. Did my siblings and I not want to learn the language she speaks? Ironically, we were born and raised in her hometown. My inability to speak my mother’s mother tongue is due to the violence that has been subjected to Papuans for decades.

I am reminded of a childhood memory of sitting with my Papuan grandparents and counting the scars on their shins.

Me: What is this, grandma?

Grandmother: I was hit there with a rifle.

Me: Why?

Grandmother: Because I was speaking in my dialect on the streets.

Me: Why?

Grandmother: (Answered in the local dialect, with the intention so I could not understand her answer.)

It was only after I became an adult that I heard stories from the past. With the Indonesian government’s presence in Papua, our parents were forbidden to speak in their local tongues. This was an unwritten rule implemented through military sanctions. Perhaps at the time the Indonesian government saw the local dialect as a weapon of resistance.

It was during these times that several members of my mother’s family ran away to PNG due to the fear of torture and the dangerous political situation. It is because of their own traumatic history that my human rights work, often perceived as political, was heavily challenged by my own family. "Please stop. I’m scared, many in our family have become victims," my mother often tells me.

Past traumas are often passed down to my generation through advice prohibiting us from certain things. Since I was a child, my grandparents and mother would often say to me and my siblings, "When you grow up, don’t go into the military or police force, or marry soldiers or police officers. [Being or marrying] taxi drivers or market peddlers would be better, anything but those two."

When we were kids, none of us were brave enough to question our parents on their rules; we took their warnings as requests rather than restrictions. As it turns out, no one from my Papuan side of the family became, or married, soldiers or police officers. It was only as an adult and after meeting other Papuans that I discovered that many others grew up with the same warning from their parents and family.

Before I started working in the human rights sector I did not really consider the reasons behind such restrictions. As I learnt more more about the dark past behind Papua's place in Indonesian history and the Indonesian military’s violence against Papuans who are often not seen as human beings, I began to understand. It is not without good reason that our parents chose not to explain the reasons for their restrictions. They did not want to pass down their sorrowful stories. Perhaps they wanted us to live as free beings; if we felt free, we may find it easier fight for Papuans' justice, peace and humanity.

Papuans’ experiences at the hands of the military or police officers are not so different to the racial violence that occurs in other parts of the world, particularly in the United States. That is why the #BlackLivesMatter movement feels familiar, inspiring many Papuans to raise a similar call: Papuan Lives Matter.

Human rights

It took 15 years for my family to finally accept my decision to work in human rights. My father's non-Papuan family perceives it as a form of service and gratitude to the earth that gives us life; while my mother's Papuan family sees it as the sacrifice of the young in fighting for justice – for the sake of our ancestors who died from the injustice.

I have encountered many good things in the work that I do and in my interactions with my extended family. It does not always come from good circumstances. Sometimes, it can also be from bad incidents that have taught me a good lesson. My decision to work in the human rights sector is solely because I want to contribute to a positive change in this land, and more specifically because of my respect for my mother and her family. They went through so many traumatic incidents that left lasting fear, but bravely chose not to pass down the memories to us, so that we do not have to bear the burden of hatred and revenge.

I have deep respect for my father and his family. Due to their different histories and experiences, they have a different perspective from my mother’s family. But they do not criticise my maternal family’s experiences and perspectives on the violence they have experienced and how that impacted their views on certain professions such as the military and police officers.

The interactions among my extended family, all of whom come from different backgrounds and have different views, brings with it both positives and negatives. On the political status of Papua within the Republic of Indonesia, the aspect of human rights is the trickiest part. Sometimes there are situations where I cannot show my true self in order to protect my family and protect my parent’s feelings.

The issue of Papua’s politics is a taboo topic for both my Papuan and non-Papuan family and relatives. My parents and family have a very simple mindset: we are free if we can all live in peace and without fear, suspicion or anger because we are ‘othered’ and looked down on.

In many instances I can speak openly on issues such as the violence and crimes against humanity that Papuans are subjected to (marginalisation and killings) and I have to be gracious and accept that my non-Papuan relatives have different opinions. In other instances, I have to hold my tongue. As a person who consciously identifies as a Papuan and works for the justice of Papuans, and was born to a non-Papuan father and a Papuan mother, it is very difficult to choose which side to be on when faced with the reality of a family coming from different backgrounds and experiences of oppression. As much as possible, I am trying to live as best as I can, to always have a big heart, to serve to the best of my ability and to not cause new scars for the next generation on this Land.



Yuliana Langowuyo is Director of JPIC-OFM Papua.

Inside Indonesia 144: Apr-Jun 2021

Latest Articles

Essay: Testing out my Bahasa Indonesia

Jul 09, 2024 - PATRICK J MAHONY

We need to learn more about each other. If we do, we will find that in many ways we have much in common

Asbestos danger

Jul 08, 2024 - GWYN ROBERTS

What can be done to prevent suffering in Indonesia?

Obituary: Stop telling, start listening

Jul 04, 2024 - DUNCAN GRAHAM

Owen Podger’s guide to aid-giving

Essay: What remains of the 1998 tragedy for the post-1998 generation


Hearing about my mother's experiences in May 1998 became a pivotal moment that has shaped my life. 

Obit: Bob Muntz, 1947-2024

Jun 24, 2024 - HELEN PAUSACKER

Subscribe to Inside Indonesia

Receive Inside Indonesia's latest articles and quarterly editions in your inbox.

Bacaan Bumi: Pemikiran Ekologis – sebuah suplemen Inside Indonesia

Lontar Modern Indonesia



A selection of stories from the Indonesian classics and modern writers, periodically published free for Inside Indonesia readers, courtesy of Lontar.