Deep in the jungle, Papuan fighters prepare for independence struggle

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The Independent Online



In secret jungle camps throughout the mountainous, easternmost Indonesian pro-vince of Irian Jaya - called West Papua by the indigenous population - youthful recruits train for a "guerrilla struggle" against Indonesian rule. The old men are veterans of unnamed battles fought decades ago. The veterans married and fathered sons, who they now train alongside thousands of others in camps such as this on the Papua New Guinea border.

"I have fought for my land, and I am happy that my son will be fighting," said Lagonen Ngombo, a commander in his fifties who stood with his oldest boy, Francis, 16, at the edge of the forest. "We will see independence together."

Perhaps. For even two generations of guerrillas together might fail to gain independence after 37 years without the three things whose absence has always defeated them: unified leadership, international recognition and guns.

This time the guerrillas believe the leadership and the recognition will come. The guns, too, though from where and with what money, they do not know. And with the guns, independence, despite a growing number of Indonesian troops in this resource-rich province.

Malkaya Brower, 60, who has trained fighters for 23 years, claimed: "In the forest we can fight and win with bows and arrows and a few old rifles."

His son, John, 33, is the oldest barefooted recruit, hurdling bamboo fences, crawling under barbed rattan and scampering across swinging logs. John said: "Give us a hundred guns and we could take Jayapura [the capital]."

Though once well-armed and capable of large-scale offensives, the guerrillas, known as the OPM, have fought only a handful of skirmishes since the 1970s. Still, the OPM remains the chief symbol of resistance. Wakerkwa, the leader of a province-wide student group, said: "We are all OPM in our hearts. They were the first to fight."

Since the training began here in January, 3000 young men have completed a one-month course. According to commanders, tens of thousands more men have trained in other camps. But the guerrillas say they possess only two dozen modern weapons.

At least 100,000 West Papuans, mostly civilians, have been killed by Indonesian troops since 1963, say international human rights groups.

Mounting calls for independence in the past year have been accompanied by the raising of the separatist Morning Star flag in public, triggering a swift, brutal crackdown by Indonesian troops. And in June, a historic West Papuan independence congress brought OPM its most international attention to date.

Many West Papuans recognise that Indonesia, already facingsecessionist demands in Aceh province and fearing an unravelling of its 3,000-island nation, will not allow the loss of another province after East Timor.

A former student leader, Jonah Wenda, 30, who fled to Papua New Guinea in 1996 after six years in prison, said: "We doubt Indonesia will let us have our freedom so easily."

The international community shows no inclination to back the separatists. The Australian Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, said last week that independence for West Papua would be disastrous, warning that Indonesia would disintegrate into "a bloodbath" if the province seceded.

So against 20,000 troops and a country determined to hold on to Irian Jaya, the guerrillas are on their own in the jungle.