Kiwirok: When the Sky Rained Metallic Death

Screen Shot from the documentary Paradise Bombed

A West Papuan friend has just sent me a new documentary (please watch it, reader). It`s called Paradise Bombed and it’s about what happened when burning metal death rained down on Kiwirok, one of the most remote places on earth in October 2021. First contact was made with some villages here in 2000 but modernity in the form of Chinese drones, Serbian mortars, French rockets came just twenty-one years later to annihilate them. The Indonesian military attacks on Kiwirok, some twelve kilometres from occupied West Papua’s border with independent Papua New Guinea (PNG), in dense rainforest and high mountains, are terrible enough to make anyone who doesn’t have a heart of stone cry when watching this film. But, even worse is knowing that they’re just a small piece in a pattern of atrocities carried out by Indonesia with total impunity because they’re covered up and assisted by its allies in respectable democracies.

There’s plenty of information available but the atrocities are still happening. If you ask the essential questions of what? (bombing, mortar, rocket, M16 and sniper attacks), where? (Kiwirok), when? (October 2021), how? (modern weapons supplied by Indonesia’s western allies), why? (land-grabbing for mines, oil palms etcetera), and who?, the last one—who?—is the hardest and really upsetting one. In crimes like these, who? usually refers to the victims, but rarely to the responsible who? because they have all sorts of ways of covering up. The German philosophers Christoph Demmerling and Hilge Landweer (cited by Carolin Emcke in Against Hate) write that, “Collective dispositions of hatred and contempt […] cannot subsist without the corresponding ideologies which represent the socially despised or hated persons as a social harm, a danger or a threat”. Indonesia blatantly represents the hated persons of West Papua as a “social harm”, standing in the way of “development”, terrorists armed with bows and arrows who are threatening progress (the progress of who?). In 1981 the Indonesian army’s Operation Clean Sweep against West Papuan resistance to its UN-blessed military occupation used a slogan that clearly expressed its genocidal intent: “Let the rats run into the jungle so that the chickens can breed in the coop.” The “rats” were West Papuans and the “chickens” Indonesian transmigrants who are used to create buffer zones and occupy the land in a way that is friendly to Indonesian intentions.

I don’t know where to find the appropriate language to write about this. It’s too sickening and enraging for the words I know, even swearwords. But I can detail some of the collective “dispositions of hatred and contempt” of the responsible who in this story, by which I mean what western governments and transnational companies have been aiding, abetting, and tolerating for decades, and what the “corresponding ideologies” of neoliberalism, the widespread ignorance, indifference, and impotence are allowing.

The first account is the personal experience of Benny Wenda, Interim President of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP). In 1977-1978, attacks on the Baliem Valley of the Central Highlands, 4,146 people were murdered in aerial bombings and strafing of villages using American-supplied Bronco OV-10 planes, as well as in wholesale shooting. In 1977,

Indonesian military aircraft bombed many Lani villages in the highlands, including Benny’s village. Benny remembers an attack where their huts and crops were burned and many of his family were killed or injured … Between 1977 and 1983 Benny and his family, along with thousands of other highlanders, lived in hiding in the jungle … Violence from the military remained a constant threat. In one particularly harrowing incident, soldiers happened across Benny’s family in the jungle. The soldiers ripped Benny’s two year old cousin from his aunty’s arms and threw her to the ground with so much force that the child’s back was broken. They then raped his aunty, forcing Benny to watch. His small cousin died two weeks after the attack; his aunty sometime later from her own injuries.

In West Papua, sexual violence and torture are favoured forms of dehumanisation. The Asian Human Rights Commission reports that, in the same period, people were “tortured with hot bayonets …Village leaders in Tiom were sliced with razors, civilians were beaten with axes and some others were buried alive …[A] tribal leader named Nalogian Kibak was slaughtered and his blood was kept in a bucket. Lieutenant Colonel Soekemi who was the Military Commander for Nabire, later forced the other tribal leaders, teachers and priests to drink the blood at gunpoint … [Some] of the arrested individuals were forced to get into big barrels filled with water and locked there until they drowned. Some of those arrested were thrown into wells while still alive, and the wells were later covered with soil.” These reports have been available for years. But no action against the perpetrators has been taken, no action against the Indonesian military’s enablers, who just keep on enabling because no one seems to care enough to stop them.

Kiwirok, in the Pegunungan Bintang (Star Mountains) regency, neatly presented with this official link as a normal place, just another district in “Papua Province” (and not, of course, in what is really occupied West Papua), of 476.4 km2 had a population of 1942 people in the 2010 census. If not yet dead, they’re all hiding in the mountains now. So, who are the victims? They’re the Nek-speaking customary owners of the land, the Ngalum Kupel people, who have a nature-revering subsistence economy of carefully rotational slash and burn agriculture, food gardens, pigs, chickens, hunting, and gathering of wild foods and medicines. Linguistically, they’re closely affiliated with the Min peoples near Tumolbil in Papua New Guinea, but colonialism separated them with its cruel border that respects nothing of people and natural setting. Their cosmology is ethical, attuned to sustaining the balance of nature in a universe with the god Atangki as the utmost creator. For the Ngalum Kupel, their traditional customs and beliefs are essential to every aspect of their lives, things like building a house, marrying, or repairing a construction, all of which follow time-honoured rituals. This resect for and attachment to their land and their culture makes them enemies of military men who want to dig up everything and poison it for gold, or devastate it with oil palm plantations. In protecting this biodiverse land and, by extension, the whole planet, Ngalum Kupel become terrorists that must be exterminated.

In September 2021 there were reports in the Indonesian media that members of the so-called KKB kelompok kriminal bersenjata (Armed Criminal Group, in reality, the Free Papua Movement (OPM)) attacked a Kiwirok health facility, upon which a nurse ran away and fell into a ravine. According to officials cited by the Indonesian news agency Antara, the health worker “died after being tortured by the terrorists”. Unsurprisingly, the terrorist-ridden claims of this story are respectfully echoed abroad in, for example, the New China News Agency, Xinhuanet which affirms that, “armed criminals burned a health clinic … In late April, the Indonesian government declared armed criminal groups in Papua and West Papua provinces as terrorists for inciting violence and being separatists to the country’s sovereignty.” Not to be outdone in buddy-buddying Indonesia, The West Australian reports, “Kiwirok was the scene of arson attacks by rebels … The West Papua National Liberation Army claimed responsibility for the attack on the public facilities … The Indonesian government designated separatist insurgents as terrorists in April.”

Fake news concocted by Indonesian military men and their allies is part of the same old … same old … same old story. An investigation by the Papuan People’s Assembly tells it differently and, given the familiar pattern, I would say accurately. One witness suggests that the first (provocation from the side of the perps) and second (retaliation against their own crime) attacks in Kiwirok aimed to drive the traditional owners from their land, which is being eyed for gold and copper mining as a kind of extension to the Ok Tedi mine just across the border in Papua New Guinea. Indonesian human rights defenders describe links between such actions of Indonesian military forces, retired police, and military men (now government ministers) who are trying to expand mining operations.

The September attack on the health centre in Kiwirok involved a group associated with the former regent, Costan Otemka who, during his tenure from 2016 to 2021, encouraged mining exploration by Indonesian government companies PT Aneka Tambang (“synergy” with the army on “improving security”) and MIND ID (“there are names of retired and incumbent security force members, such as Mr Doni Monardo (President Commissioner) and Mr Muhammad Munir (Independent Commissioner), who is still holding the position as the Head of Strategic Analysis Board of Indonesian State Intelligence Agency”). One mineral exploration site presently being eyed is Gunung Antaros located between Kiwirok and the PNG border in the Sepik River catchment. This corroborates the findings of Benny Wenda, and what any long-term Indonesia watcher has seen before, which is that “The Indonesian government is creating violence and chaos to feed these troops. As the head of the Indonesian Parliament, Bambang Soesatyo, ordered, ‘destroy them first. We will discuss human rights matters later’.”

The documentary begins with goosestepping Indonesian soldiers (a first display of how uncertain the government’s legitimacy is, when goosestepping signals more about domestic repression than protecting citizens from foreign attacks). It then describes the attacks, almost a month after the health centre incident. There are images of unexploded bombs. Witnesses counted 152 drones. The people were busy with everyday tasks. They heard the helicopters and ran to hide in the mountains. Rockets were shot from four to five helicopters, mortars fired from drones, and there were soldiers with M16 and sniper rifles. They attacked houses, food gardens, pigs, and chickens with bombs and rockets. Helicopters were shooting rockets at civilians. Those who couldn’t run into mountains to hide were killed by rockets and mortars, some thirteen people, mainly children and the elderly. One woman had two small children. “She got two kids so the kids were grabbed and killed. She was shot by M16.” Those who survived the attack are now trying to stay alive in the extreme conditions of the Star Mountains, one of rainiest places on earth. At least two hundred are known to have died from starvation but the displaced people are scattered in remote places, so many more than that would have died. They can’t return to their villages because they’ve been guarded by Indonesian snipers since the attack, and the tracks are booby-trapped. People trying to return have been murdered. Torture. Murder. Starvation. Sickness. Sniper. M16. Mortar. Rocket. Booby trap. Foreign interests have brought grief, displacement, suffering and death to Kiwirok.

The drones were Blowfish A3 UAV, a Chinese model with an “intelligent swarm” function. Ten AI-controlled drones swarm a target in unison. Fragments that have been found reveal that the mortars were made by the state-owned Serbian company Kruŝik in 2020 and are specially designed to be dropped from aircraft rather than fired from a mortar barrel, and to affect a much larger surface, as well as being modified to explode when they “hit a much softer target than usual”, for example a house with a sago leaf roof or a human. The Thales FZ 68 rockets have a warhead designed to explode into 8,000 “effective splinters”, covering a circle of 132 square meters, and killing everything within it.

The documentary shows an interview with the deputy chair of Thales Australia, Stephen Loosley who, shown the fragments of the Thales rockets, purses his lips in annoyance and claims, “I’m not familiar with this, so it’s clearly not for me to comment”. In fact, Loosley, a former Labour senator, is very familiar with many secrets of the Australian weapons establishment as, for example, inaugural chairman of the Woomera Prohibited Area, the world’s largest land-based weapons testing range where, surprise, surprise, Thales Bushmaster and Hawkei armoured vehicles were tested. Watching Loosley, the human embodiment of the trade he represents, made me want to throw up. I don’t have publishable words of my own to describe this loathsomeness, so I’ll borrow from Shakespeare, Henry IV. He’s an “obscene greasy tallow-catch” who can sit in his antiseptic office, smirking as he claims that these vehicles that mow down demonstrators in West Papua are designed for “protecting people” for “carrying people”. In his trade there are plenty as bad or even worse, people willing to kill the Ngalum Kupel, or test their nuclear weapons, with all the consequences, on sacred Aboriginal land at Woomera, but who feel offended in their respectability when a journalist like filmmaker Kristo Langker bears evidence.

In its presentation, Thales is “greener”, and it’s “building a future we can all trust”. The “future” Thales is “building” is actually the one presently being destroyed, as shown to us by the climate catastrophe, which is largely caused by devastation of habitats like the rainforest of Kiwirok. The shameless lie hidden in Thales’ “greener” claim is a measure of the absence of moral standards in the western culture it represents, among the trusting “we”, the “all” which excludes people like the ethically oriented Ngalum Kupel. Perhaps the biggest—and at least the most perverse—lie is in what this company calls itself. It’s named after one of the seven sages, Thales, a founding figure of Ancient Greece credited with the formulating the advice “Know thyself”, which is inscribed on the Temple at Delphi, dedicated to Apollo by the Phigaleians who believed that this god of sun and healing protected them from plague and invasion. “Know thyself”, according to the weapons manufacturer, is embodied by a turd of a sneering man who knows “nothing” about the death-dealing products he deals in, with all the know-nothing respectability of a pale blue shirt, spotted tie (which he carefully straightens before being shown photos of the bombing raids, an “assertion” he says), and seated at a pristine table in a business office of a moribund society.

Which “we” are we with? In 1941, Hannah Arendt wrote, “You can only defend yourself as the person you’re attacked as”. She was referring to the question of a Jewish army, but there’s a lot more substance here than the apparently limited concern of this statement. Who are the West Papuans being attacked as? In their experience, they’re defending themselves as West Papuans, as the defenders of their identity, their cosmology, their ways of life, their rainforests, mountains, and rivers. But the attack-responsible who that calls them “rats”, “monkeys”, nobodies, are the soldiers wielding weapons, the Loosleys in suits, and everyone, the supposed “we” from whom Thales is claiming trust behind “collective dispositions of hatred and contempt” that allow West Papuans to be treated like vermin, the definition that one who has imposed on another who. And to go back to Shakespeare (now to The Merry Wives of Windsor) what the who of western democracies are aiding and abetting in West Papua is, “The rankest compound of villainous smell that ever offended nostril”. Yet, at least in words, if the appeal is to people who hate this stench, who don’t want to pretend that it smells like roses of civilisation, the remedy is simple. An anonymous eyewitness-victim of the attacks says, “The manufacturer of this bomb, I suggest please you put a stop to them …Stop making the bomb.”

But first we need to heed the original Thales, and what Aristotle called the beginning of all wisdom: “Know thyself” and know who we are as an expression of what we are tolerating, close-up or at a distance.