The body of 17-year-old Wity Unue was brought back by the Indonesian military in a box, witnesses say. When soldiers couldn’t find his family, they burned the cardboard coffin, with his body inside, in a clearing at the end of a road in the remote highlands of West Papua.
The high school student, a promising musician and songwriter, had been tortured and burned to death.
His parents – who had recently fled a military crackdown in fear for their lives – were shocked and devastated when they found out, says Raga Kogeya, a West Papuan human rights activist.
Kogeya says that days earlier, on 7 April this year, Wity had been interrogated and detained along with three other boys and two young men under suspicion of being part of the troubled region’s rebel army. They were taken by special forces soldiers, who rampaged through the West Papuan village of Kuyawage – burning down houses and a church and terrorising locals.
Transported by helicopter to the regional military headquarters 100km away, the group were beaten and burnt so badly by their captors that they no longer looked human.
Kogeya says Wity died a painful death in custody. The other five were only released after human rights advocates tipped off the local media.
“The kids had all been tortured and they’d been tied up and then burned,” says Kogeya, who saw the surviving boys’ injuries first-hand on the day of their release.
“[The military] had heated up machetes and knives and pressed it against their skin … They didn’t even look like humans. They were burnt from head to toe. They were in a really bad way.”
Human rights advocates say the incident is one of many in recent years that go beyond a historical crossfire between the Indonesian military and West Papua’s rebel army, which regularly attacks and kills members of the Indonesian military and police.
Last year UN human rights experts called for urgent and unrestricted humanitarian access to the region over serious concerns about “shocking abuses against Indigenous Papuans, including child killings, disappearances, torture and mass displacement of people.”
Locals say civilians have increasingly become the target.
‘These are just kids’
When the military detains boys and young men in West Papua, they claim it’s because they are members of the West Papuan Liberation Army, or TPNPB, says Yones Douw, the head of the Peace and Justice Department for the Kingmi church of Papua.
“They say ‘oh we thought they were guerrillas’. But there’s no way that the guerrillas are walking around looking like schoolkids – that doesn’t happen,” he says. “The guerrillas are not walking around in the streets.”
“This is happening to ordinary people – we’re being arrested and beaten. And these are just kids often; they’re not even out of high school yet. It’s really dangerous.”
The day before the boys’ detention, in the same region of Nduga, soldiers opened fire on a group of women and children returning with string bags filled with food from shopping in a neighbouring village, locals say.
Those at the front of the group dropped to the ground in time but a teenage girl at the rear was shot. In a photo seen by Guardian Australia, the girl, whose name is Parina, lies on her side on a mat on the floor. She has a gaping wound in her lower back. Locals say she fled to a remote refugee camp with no electricity or healthcare services soon after – with the bullet still lodged inside her abdomen.
Nopinanus Kogoya, an uncle of one of the tortured boys, says the attacks are proof that ordinary West Papuans are being deliberately targeted by the Indonesian military – not just caught in crossfire as soldiers wage war against the militants.
“The military could tell that [the group of women and children] were not combatants,” Kogoya says. “And they still shot them.”
“They know we’re carrying vegetables not guns – so why are they shooting at us and why are they arresting us?
“They’re hunting us in this inhumane way.”
What is going on in West Papua?
The former Dutch colony is just 250km from mainland Australia. It’s a short boat ride from the northern islands of the Torres Strait. But most Australians know little about the war that is raging there.
The lack of knowledge is partly by design: very little about West Papua reaches the outside world because Indonesia tightly controls access for foreign journalists and human rights monitors.
The region makes up the western half of the island of New Guinea to Australia’s north – the eastern half is the independent nation of Papua New Guinea.
When the Netherlands began preparing for withdrawal in the 1950s, West Papuans pushed strongly for independence. As Melanesians, they see themselves as part of the Pacific, not south-east Asia. But their powerful neighbour had other ideas.
Indonesia put pressure on the Netherlands to hand over the resource-rich region. When that didn’t work, it began to prepare for a full scale invasion.
A ceasefire was brokered by the United Nations, and a UN-backed ballot was held in 1969, ostensibly to allow West Papuans to have their say on integration with Indonesia.
We feel, as Papuans, if we stay within the nation of Indonesia, we will be finished
But advocates say the “Act of Free Choice” was rigged from the start. Just 1,022 West Papuan leaders were handpicked by Indonesian officials to represent the entire population, and they were coerced and threatened at gunpoint to reject independence.
In this environment, support for integration was unanimous. The result was rubber-stamped by the UN.
Indigenous West Papuans continue to demand a real vote on self-determination, mostly through acts of civil disobedience such as raising the banned ‘Morning Star’ flag. They pay a heavy price in police and military brutality, as well as long jail sentences, for their activism.
“There are two students [currently] on trial for holding a flag,” says Douw, who also works with the investigations division of human rights organisation Elsham. “We have witnesses [in legal cases] being hunted. We have journalists being hunted.”
But the region is also home to the TPNPB, who regularly launch attacks and engage in skirmishes with the Indonesian security forces.
Under ‘complete military occupation’
In a photo that appears to have been taken by the military after Wity’s death, seen by Guardian Australia, his young face looks beaten and bruised. In another, a small group of friends stands in heavy rain at his gravesite.
The youngest of five siblings, he loved playing traditional guitar, composing songs, and was “always entertaining other people”, Kogeya says. He was “a lovely person [who was] always helping others”.
Before he died, he helped evacuate a group of refugees on foot from an area that was under constant military attack. Kogeya is adamant he was not a member of the TPNPB.
The regency of Nduga (pronounced: en-doo-ga), where Wity and his friends were from in the West Papuan highlands, is a stronghold of the TPNPB and a hotspot in the conflict. The area is under what locals describe as “complete [Indonesian] military occupation”.
“We can’t do anything here,” says Nopinanus Kogoya. “People are even dying of hunger in the street because they can’t farm, they can’t go anywhere. We’re just completely, completely under the control of this fierce military occupation.”
He says the military’s actions go far beyond what is required to contain the security situation and are often not just violent, but cruel. “They’ll kill livestock just for the hell of it – they just go and kill people’s pigs and cows. They’ve also raped women.”
Human rights groups say the military buildup began in 2018, after the TPNPB killed 17 construction workers building a bridge in Nduga. The militants claimed the dead were military personnel disguised as civilians, but Human Rights Watch disputes this and says at least some of them were in fact ordinary Indonesian workers.
Locals say the brutality escalated in February this year, when Phillip Mehrtens, a New Zealand pilot working for Indonesian airline Susi Air, was taken hostage and his plane burned by the rebel army at Nduga airport.
The 37-year-old father and husband is still being held after negotiations broke down between his captors and the New Zealand government and Indonesian rescue missions failed. It’s understood he hasn’t been harmed by the militants but he’s in a very remote area with no access to health services.
In a proof-of-life video released by the militants in April, Mehrtens pleaded with the military to stop dropping bombs on the jungle camp where he’s being held. “Please, there is no need, it is dangerous for me and everybody here,” he said. “Thank you for your support.”
Dozens of Indonesian soldiers have so far been killed by the TPNPB during the failed operations to rescue Mehrtens – and this in turn has led to more civilian deaths.
“The military operation to free him included Kopassus, and Kopassus are elite combat troops,” says Douw. “They shoot to kill – and they have killed [ordinary] people in this operation.
“People are really afraid.”
Australia seeks closer ties
In August, Indonesian para raiders dropped from the sky above Shoalwater Bay in Queensland as part of Operation Talisman Sabre, a multi-country war games event.
It was the first time that Indonesia had fully participated in the biennial exercise, and was a jarring sight for anyone who has followed the chequered history of military ties between the two countries.
A spokesperson for the defence department told Guardian Australia that “Indonesia is one of Australia’s closest and most important defence partners”, but it hasn’t always been that way, according to Donald Rothwell, a professor of international law at ANU.
The two countries spectacularly fell out over Australia’s involvement in the intervention in Timor-Leste in 1999, and military cooperation was temporarily suspended. The relationship has been tested numerous times since.
Now, Australia is seeking to forge closer military ties in negotiations on a “defence cooperation agreement” – a “treaty-level instrument” that will be legally enforceable before an international court, says Rothwell.
Defence minister Richard Marles has said the agreement will be “ambitious”, with “a high level of cooperation, befitting what should be the security relationship between two friendly countries who are neighbours with each other”.
“We want to see greater opportunities for our defence forces to work together, to exercise together, to use each other’s facilities,” he said.
Australia also provides weapons and other tools of war to Indonesia, including a recent shipment of 15 Bushmaster armoured vehicles, intended for use by Indonesian special forces during peacekeeping missions.
The defence minister and alleged war crimes
In February, there was another first: a photo of the Indonesian defence minister, Prabowo Subianto, in Canberra’s parliament house, standing alongside Australian foreign minister Penny Wong and Marles.
The former commander of the special forces has not always been a welcome guest in Australia because of his alleged involvement in some of the most deadly military-sponsored crimes in Indonesian history.
In the 1980s and 90s, Prabowo was allegedly involved in the planning and execution of numerous targeted killings of East Timorese civilians, including a 1983 massacre that killed hundreds, mostly men, in Kraras – since known as “the village of widows”.
Prabowo did not respond to questions from Guardian Australia but has previously called claims about his involvement in Kraras “unproven allegations, innuendoes and third-hand reports”.
In 1998, he was allegedly involved in the kidnapping and disappearance of more than 20 Indonesian student activists, many of whom remain missing. Soon after he was discharged from the army for his alleged involvement in the abductions. He has never been prosecuted. In January, president Joko Widodo made a rare public apology for a number of historical “gross human rights violations” in Indonesia, including this one.
For many years Prabowo was reportedly on an unofficial visa blacklist in Australia, and was banned from entering the US. But his first run for president in 2014 – and his subsequent appointment to the ministry by Widodo – changed that. He is now making another tilt for president for when Widodo’s term ends in 2024.
Andreas Harsono, who is Indonesia researcher for Human Rights Watch, acknowledges foreign governments face a difficult task when engaging with the alleged war criminal.
“It’s unavoidable because he’s the defence minister but there are many things that governments can do to send a message that they do not approve of his track record,” he says.
“For instance, they can meet him somewhere other than their headquarters, or decline photo opportunities with him.
“Whether the Australian government meets with him or not, they should be acknowledging the serious human rights abuses he has been involved in.”
At a June press conference in Jakarta, Marles waxed lyrical about a recent visit with his counterpart to the Royal Military College, Duntroon, where Prabowo trained as a cadet in 1974. It was a “poignant moment” for Australian officers to “see what happens to officer cadets who do their training at Duntroon”, he said.
A defence department spokesperson said Marles engages with Prabowo “as a senior member of a democratically elected government”.
“The Australian government has regular and open discussions with Indonesia on a range of issues including the Papua provinces and human rights,” they said. “Our bilateral defence activities incorporate training on professionalism and the laws of armed conflict.”
A message for Australia
The year after Prabowo trained as a young cadet in Australia, Father Dorman Wandikbo, the president of the evangelical church of Indonesia and a veteran of the West Papuan independence struggle, fled military violence in his home town of Wamena.
He says he spent five years as a refugee in the jungle before joining the priesthood, and later, nine months in jail for a speech in which he urged West Papuans to rise up against injustice.
In West Papua, Prabowo is “greatly feared and shunned”, Wandikbo tells Guardian Australia from Port Vila, Vanuatu, where he is taking part in a meeting of civil society delegates working on a roadmap for West Papuan independence.
He has a stark message for the Australian government: “Stop the military aid, stop selling [military] equipment to Indonesia and stop training the special forces and the police from Indonesia.”
“Australia wants this close relationship [with the Indonesian military] because they think they’re protecting Australia’s security from terrorism,” he says.
“But those weapons are not being used to protect Australia from terrorism. Those weapons are not supporting Australia’s security. Those bullets, those guns, those military vehicles are ending up in Papua and harming Papuans.”
Wandikbo says there are two things he asks Australians to do when he talks to them about the conflict. “One: ask that [Indonesia] let foreign journalists into Papua; and two: ask that they allow the UN Human Rights Commission to enter West Papua. Those are the two things we want the solidarity movement to press for.”
Parina’s condition unknown
Without access to doctors or medicine, injured teenager Parina is likely to be in a dire condition. No one Guardian Australia spoke to knows whether her bullet wound festered or healed; whether she lived or died.
Locals say the remote refugee camp she fled to is completely inaccessible because of military checkpoints and snipers.
Eneko Bahabol, who does advocacy work with refugees in the highlands, says in his visits to similar camps he’s seen children, women and the elderly dying, as well as more than a dozen untreated serious diseases – pneumonia, rheumatic fever and amoebic dysentery among them.
Between 60,000 and 100,000 people from the West Papuan highlands are displaced, according to the UN. Bahabol says many live in poverty in nearby towns, with no money or access to land to grow food, while others have fled to camps in the jungle.
“We’re pretty worried about these refugees because as time goes on, their condition is worsening and the longer they are in refugee camps, the worse the outcomes [will be] for them,” he tells Guardian Australia. “Their physical condition is pretty bad.”
“All of the refugees in camps are saying the same two things: we want to go home, and we want the military out,” he says. “They also [say] the TPNPB and the Indonesian army have to come to some kind of agreement about ending the conflict.
“They’re not going to feel OK to go home unless there is an agreement about [that].”
In recent weeks, the Indonesian military has launched a new offensive against the militants in the neighbouring regency of Yahukimo. Locals say at least five civilians have been killed.
The military did not respond to questions from Guardian Australia.
In Port Vila, Wandikbo says what’s happening in West Papua is a slow-motion genocide. “We feel, as Papuans, if we stay within the nation of Indonesia, we will be finished,” he says.
“We will be wiped out.”
Translation by Zelda Grimshaw
Research for this article was supported by a grant from the Melbourne Press Club’s Michael Gordon Fellowships program.