They say that a picture speaks a thousand words. If that’s true, then a hostage video must speak at least a million. The only problem with this technology and indeed most technology is that most of these words tend to get garbled when they’re all being shouted at once. This deluge of information often results in a sort of narrative overdose that makes my head spin. That is the dilemma I face when watching the videos that have surfaced online of Philip Mehrtens, a 37-year-old bush pilot from New Zealand taken hostage deep in the jungles of the Indonesian-occupied region of West Papua this February. In the few clips of footage made available to the public to prove that this man is in fact still alive, Mr. Mehrtens appears wide-eyed and dislodged, like a tourist lost on a different planet. He stands as tall and as pale as a ghost, dressed in a denim jacket and a Boonie cap, surrounded by dark men with bushy beards and furious eyes.
One thing that is hard for anyone to deny about this footage is that those reems make it crystal clear that this captured Kiwi has stumbled smack dab in the middle of something which he too is struggling against reason to comprehend. However, I can’t seem to ignore the fact that his captors appear to be just as frightened and out of place as their own hostage. Armed with an odd assortment of assault rifles, bows and arrows and dressed to the nine in a clashing hodgepodge of tribal headdresses, war paint, and second-hand military fatigues, these men who the Western media has largely written off as quixotic savages somehow look strangely familiar to my own furious eyes.
The only words that my mind can collect to make sense of the fear and loathing that I somehow share with Philip Mehrtens’ kidnappers tells me that on the other side of the planet there are men who are also at war with the modern world. The same one that haunts my dreams with menacing footage of freeways and skyscrapers that scream a million words a second in my face, that looming metropolis that holds my soul hostage and stirs a terror deep inside me that smug doctors in white lab coats diagnose as a mental illness. Those dark men with their bushy beards and furious eyes clearly share my private war but unlike me they refuse to lose it in the privacy of a psychiatrist’s office, and they refuse to allow the terror we share to rob them of the dignity of not going down without a hostage. God bless them.
Those men are the soldiers of the West Papuan National Liberation Army, the armed wing of the Free Papua Movement and I am not ashamed to admit that I admire them. They are a poorly armed and loosely affiliated collection of hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers from ancient rival clans who have been united over the last half-century by a shared struggle for the liberation of their own tiny corner of nowhere which has long been cruelly occupied by the colossal juggernaut of the Indonesian Army and its colonialist backers in the United States, the E.U., Australia and New Zealand.
It is in fact the financial and military support of those Western hegemons that has led this mighty little army to kidnap Philip Mehrtens from his single-engine passenger plane in a desperate attempt to hold one of Babylon’s own for ransom. That ransom originally took the form of a bold demand for nothing less than full international recognition for West Papua’s independence but has since been reduced to simple access to UN peacekeepers. Indonesia’s counteroffer was delivered by heavily armed commandos sent to rescue Mehrtens Rambo-style, but the West Papuans sent these western trained killers back to Jakarta wrapped in body bags. In the only hostage video released since, Mehrtens appears alive and well to condemn Indonesia for resorting to dropping bombs on his position in the mountainous Nduga region in the wake of this failed raid.
The fact that most of the Western media has covered almost none of this story is nothing new so I will do my very damnedest to catch you up on the modern world’s long war against the stubborn people of West Papua. Indonesia is a vast archipelago of 38 provinces spread across thousands of Islands. West Papua is the easternmost territory in this expanse and the western half of the island of New Guinea which is the second largest island on earth after Greenland and home to the world’s second-largest rainforest after the Amazon. Like all too many third world inventions, Indonesia isn’t so much a singular cohesive nation state as it is a colonialist conglomeration cobbled together by the Dutch when they took its islands by force in the late 19th century.
After the fiery imperial implosion of the Second World War shattered the white man’s grip on Southeast Asia, a former Japanese collaborator named Sukarno attempted to unite the many tribes of Indonesia under one flag in opposition to Western imperialism. In doing so, this otherwise courageous leader secured his new nation’s independence in 1949 but also sowed the seeds for decades of civil war and genocide by trying to use the western contraption of the Westphalian nation state to overcome the reach of his former masters.
The Dutch managed to retain control over West Papua in one last stand but with America’s support, Sukarno invaded in 1961. The West Papuans attempted to declare independence the same year but quickly found themselves under attack by their supposed liberators for threatening the cohesion of the new Indonesian nation state. The UN officially took control of the region in 1962 and supervised what has been widely acknowledged by most international observers to be a totally fraudulent election on West Papua’s fate in 1969.
Only 1,026 representatives handpicked by the Indonesian military out of a population of 1 million were allowed to choose their nation’s fate at barrel of a gun in what the UN had the gall to declare an Act of Free Choice. Over 30,000 West Papuans had been slaughtered during the 8-year occupation that proceeded this vote. Considering that this slaughter was overseen by Suharto, the brigadier general chosen by the CIA to take Sukarno’s place in 1965, it can hardly be considered shocking that his electoral hostages voted overwhelmingly in favor of their own subjugation.
1969 was also the year that Suharto held a conference in Geneva for the multinational elites who bankrolled his bloody coup. During this bougie soiree Suharto’s fascist New Order junta essentially carved up Indonesia’s natural resources and handed them over to the highest bidder piece by piece. In West Papua’s case, that highest bidder would be the massive Anglo-American Freeport Mining Company whose board members included then National Security Advisor and future Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Freeport would open what would become the world’s largest goldmine in West Papua, reducing a sacred mountain to a bottomless pit and either murdering or displacing thousands in the process. This toxic hellhole would become Indonesia’s single greatest source of revenue, pulling a million dollars a day from the earth before handing $33 billion dollars of the loot over to the jackals back in Jakarta between 1992 and 2004 alone.
Of course, none of this wealth would find its way back to the people of West Papua, 38% of which continue to live in poverty to this day. But the West Papuan people were treated to all the splendor of the modern world in a 50-year military occupation that continues to rage quietly as we speak. While Freeport counts their gold, over 500,000 civilians have been slaughtered in a massive spree of genocides against any indigenous tribe too proud to bow to progress. That’s over 10% of the population. Women and children have been systematically raped, massive highways have been paved over mass graves, villages have been burnt to the ground during routine military sweeps, towers have been erected to house foreign investors and their mistresses, concentration camps have been carved out of the jungle and the Coca-Cola has flowed like wine and the sweet smoke of Menthol Marlboros has stained the air.
And of course, America the Beautiful has been there every step of the way with her billions of dollars in guns and lethal aid awarded to the most savage death squads that money can buy, often all in the name of fighting terrorism. But most of the victims of Indonesia’s final solution in West Papua don’t even carry guns. In 1998, the entire village of Biak was loaded onto ships by the Indonesian Military and thrown into the ocean. Some 200 people, most of them women and children, drowned. Their act of terrorism was raising a flag that declared their independence from a cruel world that has violently intervened on their way of life. A way of life built on traditional Melanesian social contracts among hundreds of clans and marked by an absence of Western style hierarchies or even Indonesian-style chiefs. A way of life governed only by the will of the village.
West Papua’s war isn’t just a war against subjugation and genocide. It is a war against the forced homogeny of Western civilization that those crimes serve. It is a war against a single world order with a single tribe of assimilated consumers. It is a war against the dislocation of humanity from the natural world and the dislocation of the natural world from the divine. It is a war against madness. I will concede that it is indeed a tragedy that innocent men like Philip Mehrtens have been caught up in this war, but I would also argue that it is far more tragic that the rest of us have not been considering that we too are the victims of this madness. Even with all the gold that we could steal from West Papua, the West is a desert of pathological loneliness, mass shootings and environmental devastation. We are literally choking on the fumes of the modern world that West Papua has decided they would rather die fighting than join. Maybe it is we who should join them.
Then again, maybe that’s just the mental illness talking again. The narrative of another burnt-out casualty of suburban decay during the heat of the Kali Yuga. But what else can I give when I find myself lost in the eyes of quixotic savages on the internet? My narrative is the only arrow that I have left in my quiver. This week that narrative belongs to West Papua for whatever little that’s worth.