The Prisoners of the Border

Islands of Home is the second series in Centre for Stories’ collection, The Indian Ocean. Written by Agustinus Wibowo, they bring to life intimate and telling moments of contemporary Indonesian society in five parts. In them, we reflect on history, ritual, politics, fashion and culture, all told in a perceptive and approachable voice. This is story three, The Prisoners of the Border.

When Wilem Bab, the West Papuan man, received an Indonesian flag from a group of fifty Indonesian border soldiers patrolling his village, he was confused. The soldiers told him to hoist the flag in his kampong, because, they said, this land belongs to Indonesia.

Wilem is the oldest man in the village of Digo. The village is located in the middle of jungle, on the border between Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. The news that Wilem received the Indonesian flag immediately spread to the surrounding Papua New Guinean villages. They were terrified: Indonesia will invade us. Angrily, they urged Wilem to immediately return the flag to Indonesia.

The journey towards the Indonesian army post in the closest Indonesian village was not easy. Wilem walked for two days, stayed overnight in the jungle, crossed four small rivers plus three big rivers with powerful currents as deep as his head. In the jungle, there are snakes; in the rivers, crocodiles. When he arrived there, he saw a completely different world: the Indonesian village was illuminated with electricity with conveniences he had never dreamed of. But, alas, he failed in his task. The Indonesian soldiers insisted that he should keep the flag. They said, “We know that you are Papua New Guineans, but you live in the territory of Indonesia. Therefore, keep the flag, for your safety.”

Wilem never felt that he was living in Indonesia. From Digo, Papua New Guinea is closer and much easier to access. The nearby Papua New Guinean village is just one-day walk through the jungle, across three small rivers, ten creeks, one sago swamp, three steep hills. Certainly, this is not an easy journey either but it is closer to home.

The easternmost border of Indonesia is a 740-kilometer north-to-south straight line, drawn by the Western colonizers, that divides the island of New Guinea into two. To the west of the line, the Indonesian-administered West Papua; to the east, Papua New Guinea. In the real world, the line is simply unmarked jungles. It’s very difficult to be certain what side of the border, what country, one is in.

Digo is located 5 kilometers west of the line, on the Indonesian side, but I reached it from Papua New Guinea without any border formalities. The village of 300 inhabitants was desperate. Huts scattered on red soil, made of rough wood and sago leaves. Naked kids were running around; they were skinny with big bellies; their skin was cover with scabies from head to toe. The kampong inhabitants eat green bananas, sago, taro, yam. They never eat fish, as the river is polluted from the nearby gold mining. They cannot afford to buy sugar, salt, tea, or coffee. They never bathed with soap. Children die of being bitten by snakes or rammed by boars. Many pregnant women die as there’s no clinics nor medicines. Here, thirty years of age is considered old.

In fact, the people of Digo indeed came from West Papua, the Indonesian side of the border. The old people still speak Malay—the national language of Indonesia. How they ended up here is related to the activity of the Free Papua Movement, which demands the independence of West Papua from Indonesia.

After a controversial referendum in 1969, West Papua became part of Indonesia later than other territories. Since then, active independent movements inside West Papua had been repressed by the Indonesian military. In 1984, some West Papuan freedom activists plotted a coup, but their secret plan was intercepted by Indonesian intelligence before it happened. The Indonesian authorities arrested and killed some activists. Many activists then escaped to Papua New Guinea, but they also mobilized a mass exodus of villagers along the border; over 11,000 West Papuans crossed the line into Papua New Guinea. The aim was to show to the world, that something terribly wrong is happening inside West Papua. Thirty years have passed since the mass exodus, today thousands of West Papuan refugees still stay inside Papua New Guinea, in camps scattered around the border. They believe, if they keep staying in the border, keep “guarding the border”, their dream of a free West Papua will come true. It’s how they were instructed by the Movement leaders, mostly residing in Western countries.

The people of Digo was originally welcomed with comradeship hospitality by the Papua New Guineans, who share the same Melanesian race. But in the first three years after their arrival, quarrels escalated with the locals on land and food. At the end, they had no choice but to retreat westward, into this jungle, without realizing they have returned back to the territory of Indonesia.

The majority of people in Digo were born after the 1984 exodus. They no longer knew why they live in this destitute jungle. They can only ask, why there’s no school here, no hospital, no roads. The Digo people had to build their own shabby school hut. They only had one teacher, who every morning led her class to sing the Papua New Guinean national anthem. O arise all you sons of this land …

Some months ago, Indonesian soldiers came on a regular border patrol. Taking an unfamiliar route in the thick jungle, they were shocked to discover Digo for the first time. They were more surprised to see a Papua New Guinean school founded inside Indonesia. And so, they gave the Indonesian red-and-white flag to Wilem. The soldiers were totally unaware that Wilem and all other Digo villagers were associated with the Free Papuan Movement—their worst enemy.

But Wilem didn’t consider the Indonesian army as his enemy, either. He kept the flag because he had a big dream. A few weeks ago, Wilem went secretly to the nearest Indonesian village. Wilem asked the head of the Indonesian village, so that the road built on the Indonesian side can be extended to Digo. The Indonesian nodded. Wilem was overjoyed, imagining modern building material, electricity, highway, church would soon come to his kampong.

But once Wilem returned to Digo, the kampong inhabitants were furious. They worried that Wilem’s deed may incite the anger of the Papua New Guinean villagers, and they wouldn’t allow Digo people to access the schools and churches in Papua New Guinea again. They also said, Wilem should wait first for West Papua to gain independence from Indonesia.

“They hate me because I make friends with the Indonesians,” said Wilem, “But who are we, actually? If Indonesia builds road here, we join Indonesia; if Papua New Guinea does it first, we join Papua New Guinea. Just leave out the politics, we are simply small people here, we just wait for the orders from the above”—he meant the Free Papua Movement leaders abroad. “We are humans, not the offspring of dogs and pigs. But you see, our life here is not for humans.”

I asked him where the flag is.

Sluggishly, Wilem picked up a wooden box, in the corner of his empty hut.

The flag was still in the same plastic bag, tucked in the box. Never once did the flag fly in the sky of Digo.

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