A Memoir from Western New Guinea

While all these thoughts rolled through my head, Gil was sitting on the bed beside Jake. I resumed our conversation as if I was never absent in mind.

“It’s a bitter irony to be felled by a stroke here after surviving danger in Papua.”

“We are waiting for tests,” Gil said. “He might’ve been poisoned like another colleague.”

“Poisoned here?” I couldn’t believe an assassin was lurking in New York.

We left for a quick bite at a diner off Seventh where we sat in a quiet corner and ordered steaming bowls of lentil soup. The warmth helped to melt the wariness of strangers. I wanted to know more about Jake’s work and the struggle for independence. Gil leaned back in the booth to wipe his spectacles and collect his thoughts.

“We were in DC for an award the night before he fell ill. We thought human rights in our land would get attention at last. It’s a long story few people here know or care about.”

Market day in the mountains

I knew the threads of history: how Dutch New Guinea was preparing for independence when General Suharto annexed it, how at the height of the Cold War the West turned a blind eye because his regime was a bastion against communist insurgency. There was a multilateral agreement supposed to safeguard the rights of indigenous people by a plebiscite, but it was a sham and merely switched Papua from a Dutch to an Indonesian colony. Political dissidents fled or joined OPM bush fighters, no match for the army or the more-feared paramilitaries who made punitive raids on villages. No one knew for sure how many people died in those decades, and I didn’t ask for grisly stories.

“Indonesia is now a democracy and its army withdrew from East Timor. Why not Papua next?”

Gil sighed. “We are a long way from Jakarta. There’s a limit to what even a good prime minister can do, and the West won’t put pressure on a friendly and moderate Muslim nation.”

“I guess the mine is a big problem, the one that got Jake into trouble. No one should go hungry or homeless in a country that rich.” I found the gold mine on Google Earth, a dirty ochre stain in place of a green baize for tribal homelands. Apart from token support of local communities, the wealth was exported for American stockholders and government coffers in Jakarta. I was more than angry, I was heart-broken at losing Eden.

“Mmm. The mine too,” he said.

A few weeks later, Jake moved out of the hospital to a friend’s home a few blocks away. His physical recovery was painfully slow and the ‘Voice of his People’ was now aphasic despite dedicated effort by therapists.

After I moved away it was hard to contact him, but the following winter I called ahead to meet in the Village. I stood in a pool of light outside a diner on the sidewalk and examined every black man who passed. Finally, one emerged out of the shadows, his teeth gleaming in the light and hand attempting a wave. He sauntered into my embrace.

“How are you?” I asked. He felt strong again, but could he speak?

“Fine,” he rasped. That was his only word, but nods and smiles are fine communication between friends.

“How’s your medication?”


I heard his stroke was not from any act of malice, but a complication of an infection caught in Papua for which he needed retroviral drugs. I never forgot the poignancy.

The End


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

Inferno in Indonesia

Indonesian forests are burning. It happens annually, but this time the inferno is far worse. On some days, the fires evolve more carbon into the atmosphere than the whole of America (whose economy is 20 times larger), and the smog and haze have spread beyond neighboring countries to Thailand and the Philippines. Yet, as George Monbiot the environment correspondent for The Guardian newspaper points out, this catastrophe gets scant attention in the media, and is a long way below pronouncements by Donald Trump and European debates about standards for sausages.

As peat dries out in forest swamps drained in the Suharto era, it catches alight easily and smolders underground, even for years. That incendiary program, combined with clear-felling for logging, slash and burn farming, and palm oil plantations, is sending to extinction some of the richest habitats in the world where orangutans, gibbons, sun bears, pangolins, and other endangered species dwell.

When Alfred Russell Wallace visited in what was then Dutch New Guinea in 1862, he thought the astounding biodiversity was safe forever: Nature seems to have taken every precaution that these her choicest treasures may not lose value by being too easily obtained in the roughest terrain (The Malay Archipelago). A century later I remember hearing in our geography class that the jungles of Indonesia and Brazil are so tenacious that we can never degrade them. Those pages in my school notebook should be tossed in the fire.

The fires are especially aggressive this year because of the El Niño effect. As Pacific currents change periodically there is a see-saw impact on rainfall—less in normally humid Southeast Asia and more for parched California this winter.

The last strong El Niño in 1997 helped farmers in California to produce bumper crops. I was visiting Indonesia. From my seat in a Garuda flight from Java to Irian Jaya, I wrote in my journal before landing at Sentani:

When I woke at dawn we were flying through canyons of pink and grey clouds, and I will never forget the first thrilling sight of the coastline. This was a land from which travelers brought home tall tales of head-hunters, gigantic crocodiles and belligerent cassowaries. I pressed my forehead to the window to scan the terrain. The mountain summits were hidden under white bouffant hairdos from which long green saris of tropical forest trailed to the lowlands. As we descended, I could see brown rivers tumbling down steep gradients and over waterfalls before transforming into snakes weaving through coastal swamps to die in the Pacific Ocean. The largest was the Mamberamo River basin, which drains one of the last unexplored tracts of rainforest on earth, where new species of birds-of-paradise, frogs, butterflies and palms have been discovered…

The whole archipelago of Indonesia looked like a jewel from the air, and I anticipated a paradise on earth. The coastal plain was still lush, but when I reached the Highlands they were dry, the staple crop of sweet potato had failed, and people were dying of famine. Observing an ancient superstition in times of drought, they had lighted smoky fires to make clouds for bringing rain.

But they never sparked any great conflagration because they understood their environment, and the print of their bare feet on the earth had always been light.  It took the years of commercial and often illegal forest clearing to create conditions for infernos in Irian (now called West Papua), as in Borneo (Kalimantan) and Sumatra.

Irian Jaya, West Papua, Indonesia
Papuan friends in the Highlands. Hungry but not scorched in 1997

A change from authoritarian to democratic rule in the past two decades hasn’t stopped the burning or the burners, and responsible stewardship of a wonderful archipelago seems beyond the reach of a feeble government and the new president, who graduated in forestry science. A better prospect for rooting out corruption and prodding a cataleptic government is coming from outside, through boycotts of products from Indonesian forestland brought by neighboring countries, and hopefully India and China will add their influence. Iya nih!

Next Post: Human chimera

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