Benny Wenda has the scars; on his leg a massive gash moving from knee down the shin area, white lines all over his hands. He is a quiet and unassuming man at first, his heart trampled too many times by the brutality of the Indonesian occupation of West Papua. Yet he is also a beautiful man, I was taken aback by his aura, but you cannot hide such massive burdens and it was palpable just how much weight he carried in his heart as he spoke to the small audience.
At Sunrise festival in June I went to watch the music of the family band the ‘Lani Singers’ which was followed by a question and answer session for their ukulele player (and father of the family) Benny. The music consisted of songs written by Maria, the mother of the family, and played on the guitar with Benny playing ukulele accompaniment. They were songs of struggle and freedom. Two of the young children play a little percussion and sing along and the youngest of the three stands with mouth slightly agape, unsure why mum and dad keep forcing her to hold the West Papuan flag in front of so many strangers. It was perhaps the first ever gig I have seen in which the band consisted entirely of immediate family, maybe an illustration of the familial bonds present in West Papuan life. It was, also, great music.
After the tunes Benny answered some questions from the compare. It was, essentially, a half hour chat about his life. He is an independence leader (the only one to have escaped the country alive) who has been given political asylum here in the UK. He was imprisoned for 10 years for inciting peaceful protests and carrying the West Papuan flag in public. Having had a few attempts on his life while in prison he made a daring escape during a storm and managed to get across the border to Papua New Guinea and onto a flight to London. Just before he escaped from jail he made a sacred vow that he would return one day to his people, and he would return to them smiling. When he told us this you could tell this was not just an idle vow or half hearted promise, this was the kind of vow that carries the commitment of someone’s life.
The talking was heavy and beautiful, bringing me close to tears. Benny reminded me just how lucky we are living in the UK. We will not get thrown in jail for three years for demanding a referendum, or for carrying a flag, or chanting a slogan. But it was also a stark reminder of just how severe the situation in West Papua is. For 40 years it has been occupied by Indonesia who use bloody and indiscriminate killing as a policy in keeping the indigenous population under its thumb. Ask any Westerner who has been there what the people were like in West Papua and they will tell you that, given any opportunity, they want to talk to you about independence. The Grasberg mine (the biggest gold mine in the world and third largest copper mine) dominates one part of the country, offloading some 200,000 tons of tailings/run off into the Aikwa river every day. Native fish are all but extinct in the area, and the indigenous communities are suffering massively. The company that owns the mine is the biggest contributor to the West Papuan government bar none. Next time you use or buy a product with gold or copper in consider if the metal may have come from this site of exploitation. If the people of West Papua are ever going to be able to to move beyond this horrific chapter in their history they will need our help, to spread the word of the injustice and to devote our support to their capacity to be allowed the same basic human rights and freedom of self determination.
In order to start making a difference in West Papua the issue needs to be brought out from behind closed doors. A good step is to check out the Free West Papua website http://www.freewestpapua.org/index.php/home and take it from there. Get the Lani singers to come to you to do a gig and talk of the issues, support the campaign.
And here is a song from the Lani Singers: