Refugee crisis looming in Papua, says rights group
Fabio Scarpello in Denpasar
Insurgency 'forces families to hide in forest and live on leaves'
A leading non-governmental organisation has warned of an imminent humanitarian crisis in the remote Puncak Jaya region, in Indonesia's easternmost province of Papua, where a low-level insurgency group has been fighting for independence since Jakarta officially annexed it in 1969.
Diaz Gwijangge, 31, a representative of the Papua-based Institute for Human Rights Study and Advocacy (Elsham), said that about 5,600 people were surviving by eating leaves and what little was offered by the local churches, while hiding in the forest having fleeing their homes in early December.
'They fled after the military and the police attacked the area after a flag of the Free Papua Movement was hoisted. Now they are too scared to return,' Mr Gwijangge said, mentioning the local rebel group, better known by its Indonesian acronym OPM, or Organisasi Papua Merdeka.
Elsham said the refugees had built shelters using foliage and wood, somewhere near the Yomu river, an area two days' walk from the nearest town, difficult to reach, and infested with mosquitoes carrying malaria and dengue fever. To make matters worse, the refugees - fearing a military reprisal - have reportedly cut most of the rope bridges that link the area to the outside world.
'At least four people have already died of hunger and disease, and the toll is bound to rise fast, unless help is delivered soon,' the activist said.
The plight of the refugees was confirmed by local religious leaders, but denied by the security forces, who called it 'a trumped-up story'.
Quoted in the national media, Lieutenant Colonel Imam Santoso, spokesman for the local military command, asked: 'Are there any photos?' and 'Has anyone seen the refugees?' His scepticism was mirrored by a spokesman for the local police, Commissioner Kartono, who told ABC Radio Australia that human rights activists and religious leaders were lying, and that security forces were in the area to protect the people.
'The story about the refugees is actually a hoax. They don't exist. Why should they be afraid? That's a lie; there are no refugees here. Also, you said that they are afraid of the police. We police officers are people-protectors,' said Mr Kartono.
'That's a lie, okay? That's a lie. They make it up to stir the water,' he added. No international journalists have been able to verify the refugees' plight, as Jakarta maintains a virtual ban on foreign media travelling to the troubled region.
Home to one of the world's largest copper and gold mining operations, Papua is Indonesia's least developed region and one of the primary locations for the government's programme of transmigration, the voluntary relocation of Indonesians from overcrowded cities to peripheral regions of the archipelago.
Under Dutch colonial rule until 1962, Papua was briefly governed by the UN before being invaded by Indonesia in 1963. The annexation was sanctioned in 1969, with a referendum that recent studies have confirmed as a 'sham'.
Despite the presence of OPM, most Papuans have chosen peaceful means to further their aspiration for independence.
Some human rights groups claim Papua has suffered through grave human rights abuses at the hands of the military and that more than 100,000 people have been killed since the province was annexed.