For a month’s respite from new blogs I am posting a memoir dissected into four

A Memoir from Western New Guinea

(some names have been changed)

There was a message waiting in my office from an unidentified caller. Jacob was back in town. But why was someone urging me to hurry down to see him at St. Vincent’s?

I scurried for a yellow cab outside the hospital, waited in line as a wintry mix of sleet and rain fell between towers of the Upper East Side. My driver grumbled about the afternoon rush with the United Nations in session, so we took the FDR to the West Village. I sat uneasily, worrying if I would be too late, but for what?

We crawled across to Seventh and I jumped out at 12th Street to join a tide flowing along the sidewalk. Pausing to button my jacket against the icy blast from the East River, I gazed up at the windows of St. Vincent’s Hospital. Was Jake inside? Did he have an accident? That would be tragic after fleeing assassination. I pushed through revolving doors to the embrace of warm air and waited for a man at the desk to lower a wall of the New York Post.

“Is Jacob Korem a patient?”

He scanned a list.

“Eleven. Take the elevator to the Stroke Unit.”

Stroke! I never expected that. Surely, not a man of forty-four? Inside the cell, I pressed a button behind a doctor in green scrubs whispering to a nurse. Another man looked solemnly from under a black fedora at his wife. I too would soon be locked in a private drama.

The corridor on 11 was painted beige to calm emotions, but the urgent chirping of a distant monitor made me uneasy. I arrived at the nursing station at a bad moment when the staff was scrambling for an emergency. It was crass to disturb them but my first thought was for my friend. Was he in danger? After waiting for a Filipino nurse to finish on her keyboard I lost patience.

“Is Jacob Korem here?”

I was relieved when she pointed to a door cracked open behind because a gurney had rushed past it. When I peered inside there was a human form on the bed beside a vase of daffodils. I stepped inside. A blinking neon light and wriggling EKG caught my attention before I recognized Jake lying motionless. His brown arms protruded from a hospital gown like peninsulas of land in a surf of white bed-linen; his frizzy mop put me in mind of a tropical atoll with coconut palms waving in a Pacific breeze. Was this hobbled body of my tireless friend, the one they called ‘the Voice of his People’? I often wondered if he ever thought I was a naïve, if well-meaning, foreigner because, if only at first, I thought his stories of menace in his country were exaggerated, if not pure fiction. But it never spoiled our friendship, and now much wiser I imagined his enemies gloating.

New Guinea

I didn’t know we were not alone until a cough startled me from behind. A short black man stood up to offer his hand, the picture of a young Desmond Tutu.

“Hi, I’m Gilbert… call me Gil.” It was an unlikely name for another Melanesian. “I’m a journalist too.” Another refugee I thought.

“I’m his friend, Roger. What happened?”

“It’s a tragedy. Such a brave man.” It sounded grave. “How do you know Jacob?”

“It’s an unlikely story. You know how sometimes you start a journey with a destination and end up somewhere completely different and don’t regret it? He came from an alien world only inhabiting my imagination for a long time.”

Jacob was a journalist in the Indonesian province of West Papua (formerly Irian Jaya), the western half of the vast island of New Guinea. He became a leading human rights activist, and that’s when his troubles began.  He accused the Indonesian military to the FBI of complicity in murdering Americans outside the Grasberg gold mine. He also published a report about the murder of Chief Eulay, the champion of Papuan independence, which helped to prosecute members of the Special Forces ‘Kopassus.’ And he was already a marked man for documenting abuses of the Amungme and Kamoro people, which almost got him fired by the NGO he worked for. He never shrank from threats, but when he was labeled an enemy of the state his friends persuaded him to flee because discretion really is, if only sometimes, the better part of valor. Perhaps he believed, or at least hoped, he could serve people better in an overseas haven instead of martyrdom. His friends hoped a nomination for the Peace Prize would bring publicity to the cause, but it isn’t awarded posthumously. There never is any certainty for those campaigning for poor indigenous people in a land richly-endowed with natural resources under foreign military rule.

Gil waited for me to explain more.

“We met on the Internet when I needed an influential Papuan for advice about an emergency.” I hoped he wouldn’t ask me about something I felt disappointed about, even a little ashamed of.

“You visited him in Abepura?”

“Never at his office.  We met when he came to lobby at the UN and Congress, and was a fellow at Columbia. I never probed his politics.

I grasped a limp right hand, marveling at the long, dexterous fingers Jake drafted reports with and wondered if he was paralyzed he would also lose his speech and gift of writing. If he couldn’t be whole again I almost wished he wouldn’t recover rather than being bed-ridden with the knowledge that a decade of struggle was for nothing. But I couldn’t give him up, so I whispered in his ear he would get back to work and we would eat barbecued fish together on his beach, just as we planned, although I was talking to myself.

As Gil took a turn at the bedside, I remember looking out the window beyond the wintry towers to feel the equatorial heat again and see the emerald mountains crowned with cumuli. I fancied I smelt smoke from a Honi hut still clinging to my body, and that flashed back to sleepless nights on dirt floors, inquisitive brown eyes across the embers in the men’s hut, and a tribal family who helped a delirious traveler. Jake knew the Interior but never understood my fascination, and even joked I was a pale Dani.

Continued September 1


Whatever the etymology of Passchendaele, the little Flemish village sounds to me like “Valley of Passion” in English. In 1917, it was a valley of mud and cordite, steel and fire. The dirt was burned and scoured of life, except where poppies sprouted in early summer. They are ephemeral and irrepressible little plants, nodding with blood red heads where there is little competition on disturbed ground. Poppies came to symbolize the War, then the Wars.The poem was composed in 1915 by John McCrae, a Canadian army doctor who was badly gassed at Passchendaele and succumbed the following year. When I worked in Montreal and visited the library archives at McGill Medical Center I passed a glass cabinet containing the original copy he posted home to his mother. Without the poem as his memorial, I wonder if his name would stir any remembrance of him.

Last week, there were ceremonies to mark the battles that lasted from the end of July to November 1917 around Passchendaele. The centenary was commemorated by somber tributes near Ypres in the presence of Belgian and British royals. The Last Post (equivalent to Taps in America) was heard across the military cemetery, and has been every day for the past hundred years.

The congregation joined the stirring Ode to Remembrance by Laurence Binyon, but when it came to, “At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them,” I felt the words hollowed out because everyone who knew people who served in the Great War have all passed away too. Have the fine words become a hackneyed ritual, like a church Creed or national anthem, empty of feeling and soon forgotten until next year? Of course!

Who remembers the names of young men and, indeed, women like Miss Nellie Spindler who was nursing close to the Front? Without names to flesh them they are become ghosts.

I was musing how quickly family memories fade. I was never told a great uncle perished at Passchendaele until I found his name through ancestry research. I only know he was 26 years old and married, but not his rank, regiment or anything else. Since no one ever mentioned him, he never existed for me until recently, and now I am come late and the only one to celebrate his life.

His name was Leonard James Saunders. The name has a sad mirror the other side of the family. The other Leonard died the following year in France, aged 19. There is, however, some memory of him. He lied about his age to the recruiting officer so he could join up with his older brothers. He disappeared in the war, probably atomized, which may be a better fate than terminal trauma in the trenches. It took decades for us to find his name listed at Arras. His mother laid a place at the table for the ghost every day for the rest of her life, because closure is harder without a body or a memorial.

I’m no better than others at remembering, but I know it helps to have something to stir this consciousness, maybe a portrait or if there is none then fabricate a token.

Next Post: Gold and Guns in Paradise

%d bloggers like this: