My Christmas Reflections

It is now December 24, 2019, here in the East Coast, United States, and we continuing our decades-old struggle for freedom and independence from Indonesia. For West Papuans, this is a struggle that began on  May 1, 1963, when the Indonesian government first occupied our homeland, using military force. Fifty-six odd years later I find myself on the other side of the world, Washington, D.C, away from home, family and friends. Since I arrived in what Americans called the “Nation’s Capital,” I am  fortunate to have spent many hours with professors, students, government officials, non-government organizations, and friends and their families discussing the situation in West Papua. I found out that most Americans I interacted with know little about the political situation in West Papua: How our people been deprived or denied our basic human rights for over five decades, or the West Papua’s geographical location.

To feel disheartened about this lack of international awareness of my people’s plight would be the natural response, however, I choose to look at it as an important opportunity for our struggle, and I intend to tell them the truth about our people’s story and their brutal mistreatment at the hands of the Indonesian Government. Bearing witness is the key-reason for escaping my homeland and living in exile.

USA today

Waromi and I with Prof Pieter Drooglever author the book “An Act of free choice – Decolonisation and the right to self-determination in West Papua

West Papuans now have the opportunity – through the West Papua Human Rights Center and me to use our “voice” – to capture the attention of the Americans I come across and those who read our blog, and the staunch supporters of ending human rights violations throughout the world. There is a strong belief among the people I have spoken to here in America that non-violent resistance is the most effective way forward for our people to achieve our independence and that this strategy will open up significant opportunities to further bring our plight and struggle to the public’s attention and to the world.

I end this year with true West Papuan Christmas tales that will shed light onto what it is like to be an indigenous West Papuan under Indonesian rule…

Experiencing this coming Christmas in free and great country makes me reflect upon what Christmas means to some of us. Christmas is a time when people come together and experience joy and happiness. However, these joy and happiness have been overshadowed by sorrow and tears in our long struggle for independence.

On 25 December 1989 I celebrated Christmas behind the bars of the Indonesian military prison at Waena (RTM Waena), West Papua, under the ever watchful and intimidating gaze of six Indonesian prison guards. I was allowed to visit my uncle, Dr Thomas Wainggai.  And in spite of the circumstances and my uncle’s condition, I was grateful to spend that Christmas with him. In just seven years (1996), he died in a federal prison in Jakarta  (Cipinang prison). To this day, we believe the government of dictator Suharto ordered his termination, serving only eight years into his 20-year prison term for spreading his ‘nonviolent’ political beliefs. He believed firmly that West Papuans deserved their own government, a government free of foreign colonial rule.

In fact, political imprisonment, torture and extrajudicial killing are just part of the story of my people of West Papuan and their struggle – a harsh Christmas carol.

I myself celebrated a couple of Christmases in prison as a political prisoner – as a guest of the Indonesian Government for my beliefs in Melanesian self-determination, human rights and human dignity. It was like a waking nightmare lived out in a dark room for months on end. I was denied access to a toilet, the cement floor was my bed, and I had a single shirt and pair of shorts for the duration of my stay. My books and writing materials were confiscated and never returned to me. It was the most inhumane experience I have had to endure in my life and it was done so with two guards pointing their guns at me.

A more positive Christmas story in my personal fight for self-determination was the Christmas I spent at sea when we escaped to Australia. On 25 December 2005, I was with my comrades floating to freedom on a journey from Timika to Merauke and continued to Australia where I lived for three years before I come to America. That Christmas at sea was a stepping stone in my path to the United States, and the opportunity to speak for the people of West Papua at the United Nations – a chance to request for intervention in West Papua.

I look back on past Christmases with so much pain as well as joy – tears as well as joy beyond compare. Today, I truly enjoy the full blessings of freedom here in Virginia and in this great country. I miss West Papua and hope and pray that one day we will be blessed with freedom. Then I will go back and enjoy that freedom with all those left behind. I can’t wait for that day!

Herman Wainggai
West Papua Human Rights Center
Washington, D.C & Virginia