When Bardina Degei cooks dinner, she doesn’t use a stove. She rarely even uses a pot. In her wooden home in Enarotali, the capital of Paniai regency in the restive Indonesian province of Papua, the housewife usually just places a sweet potato — known locally as “nota”— directly into the fireplace.
After half-an-hour, the charred tuber is retrieved and devoured with eager, unwashed hands. Degei sits on the mud floor — she has no furniture — which is where she also performs her daily chores, such as washing clothes with murky water from the nearby swamp. A bucket in a roofless room serves as a latrine. As the youngest of her husband’s four wives, she has been assigned no fields to tend. (Polygamy is common here.) Of course, working late can be dangerous: Most of the village men are unemployed and many drink heavily, plus there are the soldiers. “No one dares to walk around the village after 5 p.m.,” she says.
It’s a rare glimpse of daily life in the highlands of Papua, a former Dutch colony that was absorbed into Indonesia in 1969 following a controversial referendum, when just 1,026 elders were forced to vote though a public show of hands before occupying troops. An existing movement agitating for independence against Dutch rule swiftly turned its ire against the Jakarta government, which maintains tight control over the region, barring foreign journalists or rights monitors. In 2003, the province was officially split into Papua and West Papua, with independent Papua New Guinea occupying the eastern part of the island.
Enarotali is as remote as it is desolate; the journey here involves a 90-minute flight from the provincial capital Jayapura to Nabire, and then a stomach-churning five-hour drive by hire car. (There is no public transport.) The town of some 19,000 people consists of wooden houses ringed by bamboo fencing, corrugated iron roofs transformed by rust into varying tawny shades.
Very few Indonesians have made the journey here, let alone journalists, and practically no foreigners. Before Christian missionaries arrived, Mee Pago Papuans worshiped a God named Uga Tamee. There were other changes, too. “We were not used to wearing these clothes,” says Degei, indicating her vividly colored, hand-woven turban, dark shirt and a bright skirt. “Before, we only wore leaves on our bodies.”
Papua is Indonesia’s poorest province, where 28% of people live below the poverty line and with some of the worst infant mortality and literacy rates in Asia. But it is also Indonesia’s land of gold. The world’s largest and most profitable gold mine, Grasberg, owned by Phoenix-based Freeport McMoran, lies just 60 miles from Paniai, a highland province around the size of New Jersey and home to 153,000 people. In 2015 alone, Freeport mined some $3.1 billion worth of gold and copper here. In addition, Papua boasts timber resources worth an estimated $78 billion.
These riches are, however, a source of misery for Papuans, ensuring Indonesia’s powerful military maintains a suffocating presence. A 2005 investigation in The New York Times reported that Freeport paid local military personnel and units nearly $20 million between 1998 and 2004, including up to $150,000 to a single officer. Papuan calls for greater autonomy threaten this golden goose, and are dealt with mercilessly.
According to rights activists, more than 500,000 Papuans have been killed, and thousands more have been raped, tortured and imprisoned by the Indonesian military since 1969. Mass killings in Papua’s tribal highlands during the 1970s amounted to genocide, according to the Asia Human Rights Commission.
Indonesian police arrested more than 3,900 peaceful protesters in the region last year alone. We Will Lose Everything, a 2016 report by the Archdiocese of Brisbane, contains testimony of atrocities committed the previous year, such as extrajudicial executions, torture — rape and electrocution are especially popular, according to another report — and the brutal crushing of peaceful demonstrations. “It’s difficult to count the number of victims as incidents happen every week,” says Andreas Harsono, Indonesia researcher for Human Rights Watch.
The screws have tightened as Papua’s resources bring an influx of settlers from elsewhere in Indonesia. The province’s 3.5 million population is 83% Christian, but the demographic is changing as Muslim economic migrants arrive from Indonesia’s populous islands of Java, Borneo, Sumatra and Sulawesi. Javanese warung canteens sell fried chicken and gado-gado mixed-vegetables served with peanut sauce. Local people struggle to compete.
“The migrants started to sell chicken and vegetables in the traditional market cheaper than the local Papuans,” explains Abeth You, a 24-year-old Paniai native who moved to the provincial capital Jayapura for work. “It made the native Papuans — the mama-mama [the women] of Papua — lose their market.”
Indonesian President Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, vowed to address the inequalities and rights abuses in Papua during his election campaign in 2014. The former carpenter secured 27 of Papua’s total 29 districts — including Paniai — on the way to the Presidential Palace in Jakarta. But precious little has changed in Papua, and today local people feel betrayed.
“Our hearts have been broken because in 2014 we voted for Jokowi, with the expectation that he would fulfill our hopes for justice to be restored,” You says.
‘It Was Crowded, Many Shots Were Fired’
In fact, Paniai suffered a nadir just two months after Jokowi’s October inauguration. On Dec. 7, 2014 a group of 11 children were outside singing Christmas carols in front of a bonfire in Enarotali when two Indonesian soldiers on a motorbike broke through the gloom. The startled children told them that they should turn on their headlights.
One of the soldiers took umbrage at their tone and later returned with four soldiers, according to local Pastor Yavedt Tebai. The soldiers, who had been drinking, chased and beat the group with their rifle butts, said victims and witnesses. Then one of the soldiers fired into the group of children.
One child, 16-year-old Yulianus Yeimo, was beaten so badly he fell into a coma.
A couple of hours later, the nearby government Election Commission building was set ablaze, and things escalated the following day. About 1,000 young Papuan men, women and children gathered on a soccer field in front of the local police station and military command center to demand justice. They carried ceremonial hunting bows and performed the waita dance — running in circles and simulating birdsong — of Papua’s Mee Pago tribe. Some protesters started hurling stones at police and military posts.
As tempers grew more heated, an order was sent to the soldiers through internal radio: “If the masses offer resistance more than three times, shoot them dead,” it said, according to an official document seen by TIME that has not been released to the local media.
Yeremias Kayame, 56, the head of the Kego Koto neighborhood of Enarotali, saw the impending danger and appealed for calm, imploring the crowd to go back home. Nobody was in the mood to listen. “When I turned around I suddenly got shot in my left wrist,” he told TIME on the porch of his brightly painted wooden house.
Kayame still doesn’t know who fired but says the bullet came from the ranks of amassed soldiers. “It was crowded, many shots were fired,” he adds.
Local man Alfius Youw was hit three times, according to his cousin who witnessed the shootings. “I ran to him and examined his body to make sure it was him,” Yohanes, who like many Indonesians only goes by one name, told TIME somberly. “I saw he was dead … I kissed him.”
The Papua Police Chief Inspector General Yotje Mende told reporters that his officers were only “securing” their station because it was under attack.
“We have to defend ourselves when people threaten to kill us,” Papua Police spokesperson, Commissioner Pudjo Sulistiyo said in 2015. “It’s a matter of life and death.”
According to Human Rights Watch, five young protesters were killed and many more injured.
‘I’m Afraid of Being Arrested by the Military, Afraid to be Shot’
News of the killings only filtered through to Jakarta the following day. Three weeks later, Jokowi gave an impassioned speech in Jayapura, where he expressed sympathies with the victims’ families and vowed to address the historic abuses in Papua. “I want this case to be solved immediately so it won’t ever happen again in the future,” he said.
Security Minister Wiranto said in October 2016 that he was setting up a non-judicial mechanism to settle historic human-rights violations. But the excuses started almost immediately. “Most of the violations occurred a long time ago. Some were in the ’90s and in early 2000s. The point is we are committed to addressing these violations, but there are processes to go through,” he said.
Then Wiranto backtracked when speaking to TIME in Jakarta on June 5, saying he has no plans to establish a grievance mechanism in Papua. Instead, “All will be [settled] by law,” he said.
Wiranto, who the U.N. has indicted for “crimes against humanity” relating to more than 1,000 deaths during East Timor’s bloody 1999 independence vote, said that 11 cases of human-rights violations in Papua have already been settled, including the Paniai incident.
Families of the Paniai victims greeted such claims with grim incredulity. “I’ve been interviewed four times for the past three years, but there has been no progress at all,” Yohanes says. “I’m tired.”
He says that years later, he still lives in fear. “I’m afraid,” he says. “I’m afraid of being arrested by the military, afraid to be shot.”
His brother Yacobus echoed the view that people in Paniai are fearful of discussing the incident. He says he was beaten by the military after helping to bury four of the victims. “After burying the bodies, the military came looking for me,” he says.
‘A Tragic, Forgotten Place’
The shootings haven’t stopped. On Tuesday, Indonesian police shot at villagers in Paniai’s neighboring Deiyai regency. One person died and 17 others were wounded, including children, during a confrontation between villagers and the manager of a construction company who refused to help transport an unconscious man to hospital.
The man, 24-year-old Ravianus Douw who drowned while he was fishing in a nearby river, died on the way to hospital. Incensed villagers protested in front of the company’s site office. Police said the villagers threw rocks at officers, who responded by firing warning shots. But locals say the mobile brigade (Indonesian paramilitary police) began shooting at the crowd, killing one.
“We were so panicked, we are afraid there will be revenge,” 29-year-old Dominggu Badii, who lives near the hospital and witnessed the injured being hurried in, tells TIME. “I have been hiding in my house for two days.”
The Deiyai parliament has called for the officers involved to be held to account and the police mobile brigade to be withdrawn from the area.
Paniai has always been a troublespot for the Indonesian government. The lack of meaningful development feeds the discontent of the tribal Mee, Moni, Dani, and Damal peoples, who live sprawled across Papua’s verdant central highlands. Many joined the Free Papua Movement (OPM), the rebel army that claims to defend the rights of the Papuans by launching sporadic attacks and kidnapping raids on Indonesian soldiers. Some of the top OPM leaders hail from Paniai, including Tadius Yogi and Daniel Yudas Kogoya.
In response, thousands of people in Paniai have been arrested and arbitrarily detained by the military in recent years, under the guise of “safeguarding national sovereignty.” Some never reappear. Among the people of Papua, Paniai is known as “a tragic, forgotten place.”
Poverty feeds the discontent. The little rice on sale in Enarotali is too expensive for locals to buy. Bread is just as out of reach. People here grow everything they eat: mainly nota plus some fruit and leafy vegetables. Farming is the job of the women, who each can maintain four or five fields of the sweet potato. They usually keep most of the harvest for the family, with the rest sold in the local market. Ten pieces of nota cost only 10,000 Indonesian rupiah (75 cents).
Over time, economic inequalities have grown between the native Papuans and the new migrants, who have arrived in greater numbers since the opening of a new air routes to Nabire Airport. What few jobs exist typically go to the better-educated and wealthier migrants. Papuans rarely have the capital or the necessary skills to run their own businesses competitively.
“The young people are not interested to stay in the village … because there’s no jobs or money here,” says John Gobai, the chairman of the tribal council of Paniai.
‘They Don’t Need Money, They Just Want Justice’
Isolation keeps the world’s eyes off Papua. In addition, reporting restrictions for international media remain tight. Earlier this year, French journalists Franck Escudie and Basille Longchamp were deported from Papua for a “lack of coordination with related institutions” despite having been granted rare permission to film.
According to Phelim Kine, Deputy Asia Director of Human Rights Watch, Jokowi’s election campaign pledges to lift reporting restrictions to boost transparency and development have not been realized. “There are new hazards for foreign journalists attempting to report from Indonesia’s restive easternmost provinces of Papua and West Papua: visa denial and blacklisting,” he said in a statement.
The lack of press scrutiny means international pressure on the Indonesian government has been largely limited to Papua’s immediate neighbors. In March, six Pacific nations — Tonga, Nauru, Palau, Tuvalu, the Marshall Islands, and the Solomon Islands — urged the U.N. Human Rights Council to investigate the “various and widespread violations” in Papua, including the Paniai shooting. These same countries have historically backed the OPM.
Indonesian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Arrmanatha Nasir shrugged off the group’s allegations, telling journalists in Jakarta, “In Indonesia, a democratic system still applies and there’s free media so it’s hard for the evidence of human rights cases to be covered up.”
Local people want more foreign governments to take note. When an official delegation from the Netherlands, headed by the nation’s human rights ambassador Kees Van Baar, visited Jayapura on May 4, local people broke their silence, beseeching, “We want freedom,” according to a source who also attended the meeting but who asked to stay anonymous.
Indonesia has another presidential election in 2019, but Papuans say they are unlikely to vote again for Jokowi. “Jokowi is a person who has good intentions, but he is surrounded by the people who are involved in the Paniai shooting,” says Gobai, the tribal council chairman.
He wants Jokowi to know that the Paniai people, aside from living under the looming threat of a rapacious military, wallow in destitution, with paltry education and health services.
Gobai says the Paniai people, like other Papuans, consider their vote to Jokowi as a “debt” he must repay. “They don’t need money, they just want justice,” he says.
Despite the threats and intimidation, families of the Paniai shooting victims carried out one last symbolic act of defiance: burying one victim’s body on land just opposite the police and military station. Knowing that justice may never be served, at least they won’t let those responsible forget their crimes. “A member of our family has been killed,” says Yacobus, head bowed. “What else could we do?”