Famine kills thousands, military make things worse

Down to Earth No. 37 May 1998

The famine in the central mountains of West Papua has claimed thousands of lives this year. Recent information from the area tells how the Indonesian military are making matters worse, while Jakarta ignores the tragedy.

Villagers in the remote, rugged terrain of the central highlands of West Papua are continuing to starve. The prolonged drought decimated their staple crop of sweet potatoes, killing livestock and game. Malaria, dysentery and upper respiratory tract infections are rife. Although the drought has now ended, villagers are so weakened by malnutrition and disease that they have no energy to plant crops. No harvest of the staple crop can be expected before June in any case, since the growing season is from six to nine months. In the meantime, villagers must rely on food handouts from relief agencies (where these are accessible) and little else.

Reports quoting aid workers returning from the afflicted area indicate the scale of the disaster, news of which has been all but shut off from the outside world. "It's much worse than people have been led to believe", said one Western aid worker quoted in the Times. "At least six thousand people have died and more are dying every day." The aid worker who spent two months assessing the disaster said that provincial agencies attempting to alleviate the suffering were hampered by a lack of funds, scarcity of resources and almost no political will from the central government in Jakarta. (Times 27/3/98) Ferenc Mayer of the International Red Cross (ICRC) said "The total number of dead will never be known," as there was no way to check all the remote villagers of the highlands. (AFX-Asia 25/3/98) The official death toll is 650, but this covers those who died only in major population centres.


Military blamed

From several reports it is clear that the Indonesian armed forces have not only failed to alleviate the famine, but have actively made matters worse.

Villagers were terrified of soldiers because of years of intimidation and harassment and have been forced by the authorities to leave their traditional highland homes for malarial lowlands, said aid workers. (See DTE 36 for more on the resettlement of highland villages.)

"The military wants the gold, timber and other natural resources up there so they move the villagers to low-lying areas," said one foreign aid worker quoted by AFP. "Moving them from these areas also makes it easier to secure the area and to find the OPM" [Free Papua Movement], he said. Other aid officials said starving villagers were also too scared to venture into the forests to search for food. "They think the soldiers will mistake them for OPM and shoot them."(26/3/98)

In the Mapnduma area, east of the Freeport/Rio Tinto mine, the military are continuing with an operation aimed at capturing leaders of the outlawed OPM involved in kidnapping foreign scientists in 1996. Reports say that villagers have been massacred and settlements burned down wholesale since then. Not surprisingly many villagers fled their homes to escape the attacks. The area is off limits to the Indonesian churches: only the Red Cross is being permitted to carry out relief work there. The Red Cross itself reports that those "hardest hit by malnutrition and malaria are the people who fled the conflict areas last year for the lower-lying forests and valleys." Team members found that in two of the villages they visited 20% of the population had died since October last year. Their report, issued in February, says that the relief target area is still under strict surveillance by the army which is "the only government structure in the area."

Relief efforts undertaken by the agency include the dropping of supplies of food, containers for water collection and medical supplies. (Report of the PMI-ICRC joint operations in Irian Jaya, 13/2/98) One aid worker, recently returned from West Papua says that the Seng and Solo areas ( accessible only by helicopter ) are among the worst affected by the famine. "I cannot overstate the situation in the Seng/Solo areas. Entire villages will be just decimated," he said, adding that initially one ABRI helicopter was "busy engaged in the important work of moving [sandalwood] out of the lowlands," instead of helping with the relief efforts. (Email posting on apc.reg.westpapua 15/3/98). The same person said that in one village soldiers who were meant to distribute the rice were trying to sell it rather than give it away. "The people got very angry and mobbed the soldiers. The Tentara [troops] called in their helicopter to airlift them out. When the helicopter landed it was mobbed and the soldiers opened fire on the people. Amazingly only one person was hurt and all it was was a bullet graze."(For more background please refer to DTE 36, also Tapol Bulletin No.146.)