I learned a lot of words in Indonesia. A lot. But of all the vocabulary I picked up, none provoked quite as enthusiastic response as the words hehlum foi. Hehlum foi means “thank you,” not in Indonesian, but in the language of the Sentani people of Papua. Many, but certainly not all, of our new Jews in Papua are from the Sentani tribe. They comment on parallels they see between Jewish and Sentani traditions like offering eulogies at funerals. During our last evening in Timika, I was presented with an Sentani axe head as a gift. Clearly this connection to the past is very important.
So too is the connection to the land. As I noted, David, Shelley and I were whisked right off our plane to a ceremony of welcome in which we were symbolically connected with the land of Papua. We later learned that once we had been welcomed in this way, we were now officially under the protection of the family. Certainly, we never once felt in any way concerned for our safety while there.
The Australian government on its official travel website encourages people to “rethink their need to travel to Papua.” This is the second highest threat category, just below “do not travel.” According to the website, the category “reconsider your need to travel” says “This level means that there are serious and potentially life threatening threats that make the destination unsafe for tourism and unsuitable for most travellers.” Talk about rolling out the welcome wagon!
One primary reason for this level of caution is the presence of the Grasberg Mine about ten km from Timika. The Grasberg Mine is the richest gold mine in the world, and is also the third most productive copper mine. 90% of the mine is owned by Freeport-McMoran of the United States, and the other 10% or so belongs to the Indonesian government. It is important to note that the Papuans never asked to be part of Indonesia. According to an article by Marni Cordell that appeared in The Guardian in August 2013, the Indonesia government invited the Papuans to cast votes to decide whether they wanted to merge into Indonesia or not. “But when the ballot was held in 1969, it was far from free and fair: the Indonesian military handpicked 1,026 leaders to vote on behalf of the entire population, and threatened to kill them and their families if they voted the wrong way.” The Free Papua movement launched in 1971 and has been working by peacefully and occasionally militant methods ever since to gain independence. The Indonesian army has often been ruthless in suppressing dissent, and there are estimates that hundreds of thousands of Papuans have been killed in recent decades. Here's the link to the article: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/aug/29/west-papua-independence-history
Today the Grasberg Mine employs 19,500 people and is the largest source of tax revenue for the Indonesian government. I'm unclear whether that number of employees also includes the vast security apparatus that keeps the mine and the 413,000 acres it occupies relatively safe from threats. All visitors to the site are required to register with security offers and must travel in bullet proof vehicles. Which is how I ended up spending much of my free day in Timika sitting in the back of a bulletproof van. I know you were wondering when I would get back to that story!
The mine and especially the security company associated with it are major employers in Timika, although most employees come from elsewhere in Indonesia and also from overseas. Three members of the Jewish community there work either as police officers with partial responsibility for overseeing security for the Freeport company or in security. Others in the community have complex ties to the company. As with so many large operations, it is both a blessing and a curse. The mine notoriously disposes of 230,000 tons of tailings EVERY DAY, and as far as I can see, there's no environmental plan in place to assure that this poisonous by-product is disposed of safely. And of course there's the sense that this mine is raking in unimaginable profits, very few of which are benefiting the Papuans. They continue to live very simply while gaining little from the mine that is ravaging their environment.
We were picked up quite early in the morning by an official security car. It was definitely not stylish. It was a jeep-type vehicle with bench seats in the back and black bulletproof lining throughout the cab of the car. This meant that we could only see out the front window of the car and through the slits at the top of the windows where the bulletproofing didn't reach. It took at least an hour of steady climbing to reach Timika's odd Shangri-La: the town of Tembagapura which houses many of the mining employees and their families. The setting is beautiful: Tembugapura is at least 8 degrees Celsius cooler than steamy land below and is embedded in lush mountains wreathed with cloud. But the building there are utilitarian and utterly lacking in any aesthetic sensibility. It feels a bit like a Soviet army complex hidden in the mountains I stumbled across a blog entry by an engineer from Jakarta named Aris Febriantara raving about what a wonderful place it is to live with a few lovely photos. You can read the blog here: https://febriantara.wordpress.com/2011/02/19/tembagapura-a-beautiful-town-at-east-of-indonesia/
We were supposed to continue up to the peak of the mountain, but due to some miscommunication that never happened. Instead we had lunch in the company cafeteria—another odd experience, in which I felt like such an outsider. Ariela had joined us and seemed quite at home. I found out over the course of the day that before she made her move to become Jewish she had served as pastor of a church here for a period of time. There was a range of Asian and western food, including a tell-tale jar of Vegemite sitting by a loaf of bread for the Aussies who worked there. Then we got back in the truck for a nerve-wracking 90 minute drive through thick cloud back down the mountain.
During my six days in Papua, I tried to remain as objective and distant from the issue of Papuan independence as possible. I wanted to learn as much as I could before formulating an opinion. I feel like I'm still learning, but have emerged with a sense that the Papuans are definitely deserving of a greater share in the profits that are being harvested at their expense.
I can't tell you how many people heard I was going to Papua and assumed I would be travelling to Papua New Guinea. Most people have never heard of the province of Papua, much less made an effort to untangle its complexities. My time in Papua was truly extraordinary, blessed in so many ways by the people who welcomed me there. I wish them all those blessings in return and many as well!
Rabbi Shoshana Kaminsky
I've been the rabbi of Beit Shalom Progressive Synagogue in Adelaide since 2006. As part of the Council of Progressive Rabbis of Australia, New Zealand and Asia, I'm preparing for my second trip to Indonesia to meet with Jewish communities there.