A mother sits cross-legged inside of a dark wooden structure, looking at a pot on a fire. She is holding a young child, who is grasping her necklace and putting it in their mouth. The woman is wearing a dark blue and black knit cap, a long-sleeved gray shirt, and a red skirt patterned with large leaves. The child is wearing a lighter blue knit hat and a white garment. There are chalk drawings on the wooden walls behind them.
A mother and child sit at a kitchen fire in Okhika village, Pegunungan Bintang regency, West Papua. (Photographer anonymous by request.)

The Forgotten Women of West Papua

Their stories, in their own words—and why you should be paying attention.

Rode Wanimbo’s aunties welcomed her back to her ancestral village in the usual way—with a song of lament. This, in her Lani tribe’s language, is known as leendawi, somewhere between singing and crying. And whenever she visits for a vacation, or when a family member passes away, her aunties greet her with it. 

On this occasion as always, Rode followed her aunties into a traditional honai, a roundhouse built with natural materials, and sat to hear their stories, told through song. Her village has witnessed an unspeakable horror. In 1977, a year before Rode was born, the Indonesian military swept into West Papua in a hostile takeover, killing swathes of villagers. Rode’s family fled to the town of Wamena, her mother pregnant with Rode and already caring for an infant son. Others were forced to flee on foot, either seeking refuge in neighboring Papua New Guinea or becoming internally displaced people (IDPs) and clutching at survival in the forest. On her last trip home, Rode’s aunties sang tales of these atrocities. They spoke of how they were raped by the Indonesian army, of witnessing loved ones die, and how others crossed the border to live as refugees. 

As Rode recounts this, her voice begins to tremble, as it does for much of the interview. The first time she heard the leendawi, she was 11 years old.

“That’s the way they express what they have been going through. I think that in our culture, that’s the only way they try to pass a message to me, through that leendawi,” she says. Women are not allowed to speak in front of men, Rode adds, making it hard for them to express their feelings. Yet across West Papua, thousands of Indigenous women are dealing with trauma after trauma after being displaced from their homes, with no outlet to speak on it.

“We thought about how to create a safe space for women, so women can talk,” Rode says.

As part of her role as the coordinator of the women’s department for the Evangelical Church of Indonesia, she’s done just that. Alongside her team, Rode has created what she calls “storytelling circles,” where women can openly share their experiences and emotions with each other. Currently, Rode runs a handful of sessions a year, taking long journeys across tricky terrains to reach different communities.

At these sessions, around 20 women come together. They start with body mapping, where each woman lies on a large sheet of paper, as her body is outlined on the page by a partner. Using this silhouette as a guide, the pair asks each other which parts are sick or need attention. Sometimes the women, forced to walk for hours each day to collect food and water, share how it impacts their bodies. Other times, the women share what they’ve survived. 

In another session, the participants use time periods as a way into their stories, the steady concept of dates and seasons opening a door to the traumas they’ve never spoken aloud. The women share their experiences, first with a partner and then the group, revealing how the military and police burned down their villages. They talk about their homes and gardens being destroyed, yet how they still long to go back. How they want to be in a place where they belong, the place of their ancestors.

Alongside these safe spaces, Rode—who has also sent joint submissions to the UN on the issue of IDPs in West Papua—is collecting an oral record of these women’s testimonies. She shared some of their stories with The Conversationalist, originally spoken in local languages and written down from memory. The stories here have been collected by Rode, and the names have been changed. 

At this time, international journalists are not allowed into West Papua.

The women of Nduga

When Yohana and her family were forced from their home in Nduga, Yohana’s husband walked with her as far as the region’s border. He parted with sobering words.

“He said, ‘If you find a man who is able to make a garden and make sure you and our children have a meal every day at the shelter, I give you permission to marry him as if I was dead, for I will go back to join the National Liberation Army to protect our homeland,’” Yohana told the storytelling circle. She has been living in an IDP center in Wamena for around four years, and has survived by gardening on land borrowed from the local community.

Yohana was forced to flee her home after an incident that displaced hundreds of people in her community. It occurred in 2018, during a celebration of what many Indigenous Papuans consider their independence day: when their elders declared their freedom from Dutch Colonial rule on December 1, 1961, before Indonesia took over in 1969. According to Rode, as members of the West Papua National Liberation Army (a rebel civilian organization) celebrated this day in Nduga, some construction workers took a photograph. The liberation army believed the workers to be police informants, and violence broke out. Some of the workers—reportedly up to 31—were killed. According to those displaced, army and police raids followed in retaliation: They burned down houses, churches, and schools, and dropped explosives from helicopters.

A close-up photograph of hands holding recovered ammunition from an aerial attack in West Papua, including what appear to be large brass-colored shells and a larger canister. The only thing in focus are the hands and the weaponry, but you can see the person holding the shells is wearing a dark gray-green jacket.
An eyewitness to an aerial attack in West Papua shares recovered ordnance. (Photographer anonymous by request.)

Life before the conflict, according to some of Rode’s friends, was peaceful and centered around community, family, and gardening. Now, this particular community in Wamena is host to around 200 women and children displaced from Nduga. There are eight other such communities in the region. Most of the men have either gone to the jungle to join armed rebel groups or have stayed behind to look after their villages, leaving them behind. There is no clean water nearby, no electricity, no hospital access, and no school. When babies are born, it is often in the IDP centers themselves.

“Some [women] spend sleepless nights because they don’t know the situation of their children,” Rode says, many of whom were separated from their mothers during the military attacks. There is no internet connection to trace them. 

Displaced in Ilaga

At around 7 a.m. one morning, Irene and her husband were in front of a village office in Ilaga when she heard the fatal gunshot. She didn’t see who had fired it—only that it had come from the direction of the trees, and that it had killed her husband. She did not cry.

“My children are living with trauma as I did, but I pretend to be strong in front of them,” she told Rode. The violence has only continued: One night during her stay in Ilaga, Rode heard gunfire at the Indigenous settlement. She claims the source was the Indonesian security forces. She lay awake all night, thinking of her own two children.

The day-to-day life for these women is no easier. For many of the women in Ilaga, hours every day are spent walking to gardens and rivers, hours away, just to collect sweet potatoes and clean water. Along the way, soldiers stop them at regular army posts, where they have to report on the purpose of their travel. According to Rode, the reason for these checkpoints comes down to the army being suspicious of the IDPs—they believe they might be providing information and food to armed separatist groups. The women told Rode that they know it is dangerous to travel these distances, but that they have no choice. To stay still is to starve.

Beyond tensions around independence movements, there is another driver of conflict in the region. The island of New Guinea is home to the world’s third largest area of rainforest, and its natural resources are highly sought after. Indigenous communities, the guardians of this environment, have been further displaced from their homes as companies seek gold, minerals, or space for palm oil monocultures. Freeport’s Grasberg Mine—one of the world’s largest gold mines—has been the most famous example. But there have also been plans to build a mine in the gold-filled mountains of the Wabu Block, which have been met with huge concern from groups like Amnesty International. 

In Ilaga, one mother told Rode, with anger in her eyes, “If the Indonesians want to have our gold from our mountains, they could just take it. Why did they treat us like animals? They came into our homes without permission and uprooted us from our ancestral land.”

For Indigenous communities, Rode explains, this removal feels especially painful, because of their spiritual and cultural connection with the mountains, rivers, and land. To remove the people is to destroy their identity.

“We view mountains as our mother who nurtured the plants, which become food for the animals, and we get the milk from the animals,” she says. “When our mountains are being exploited, it’s like a rape to our mother. We have to protect our mother.”

An aerial shot of a forest in West Papua. There are trees of different heights and varieties, and no notable gaps in the canopy; it's lush and dark green.
A view of the Papuan highlands near Kiwi. (Photographer anonymous by request.)

The root of West Papua’s problems

West Papua’s problems go back to 1898, when it was colonized by The Netherlands, along with the other islands that now form Indonesia. When the country became independent in 1949, however, it was without West Papua, which stayed in the control of the Dutch. Instead, West Papua prepared for its own independence throughout the 1950s, and by 1961, that moment had arrived: A congress of people declared independence and raised their new Morning Star flag for the first time in what is now called Jayapura. The Indonesian government, however, was not happy with this arrangement, and soon invaded. In a bid to end the conflict between Indonesia, the Netherlands, and Indigenous Papuans, the US government encouraged the Dutch to hand control of West Papua to Indonesia. The New York Agreement gave control of West Papua to first the United Nations, and then, by 1963, to Indonesia, which became the temporary administrator of the country, with the stipulation that West Papuans would have the right to self determination.

But a promised independence referendum in 1969, as part of the transition after the end of Dutch rule, was not a democratic event. Instead, 1,000 people were given a vote by the Indonesian army, and told to make a very specific choice under threat of being shot. Yet this vote was still approved by the UN—cementing West Papua’s place under Indonesian rule.

“The Papuans were just outside the room, while the rest of the world decided their future,” says Naomi Sosa, founder of Papua Partners, an organization that supports training and global links in the country. “The root goes down to the political contestation. They were supposed to have a vote for self determination, but it was controlled by Indonesia.”

Eventually, in 2000, West Papua was given special autonomy, with their own government looking after their affairs, but without independence. In reality, Naomi says this special autonomy wasn’t implemented properly, with all the powers being taken back to Jakarta. Today, there is a movement demanding self determination, where West Papuans could determine their own future through a referendum. But in stark contrast to this desire, the Indonesian government is focusing on the decentralization of provinces. Under Indonesian president Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi, things have become more difficult for West Papuans, with UN experts saying that since violence escalated in 2018, there are now 100,000 displaced people and humanitarian aid is being blocked. Naomi says Indigenous communities, particularly those in the highlands, are under severe threat. Any form of protest is met with brutal force. Now, the government wants to make further divisions, which Naomi says makes it harder for the 250 tribes to unite and weakens the independence movement. 

More districts also means more military posts—which makes many IDPs uneasy. Rode says when displaced women in particular are encouraged to go back home, they feel they have no guarantees of their safety because of the increased military presence.

“Please tell them to leave our homeland so we can go back home,” they tell her.

Still, Rode has not given up hope, and neither have the thousands of people displaced throughout the country, whether they are part of independence movements or staying strong to keep their families alive in IDP camps. As the final call with her ends, Rode makes a plea: West Papuans need solidarity from the international community. They are experiencing settler colonialism, and it cannot be separated from global politics. Papuans do not want to be forgotten.

“We are powerless,” Rode says. “We really need help.”