Over 1000 children who escaped civil war in Papua are taking shelter in bamboo thatch houses.
For the past six months, most children have been living in a church-run shelter after escaping the chaos that enveloped her village in Nduga, a remote highland region in the western part of the island of Papua.
“I was just sitting in my house and a ‘bomb’ dropped from the sky,” she said, recalling the bang of what could have been a grenade. “I fled with my family,” the young girl continued. “I saw houses were burning. We walked and slept like nomads in the jungle for three weeks.”
She is one of an estimated 35,000 civilians, many of them children, forced from their homes in the remote territory’s central highlands as the military attempted to root out Papuan independence fighters who attacked a road construction project in December last year, killing at least 17 people.
Major General Sisriadi, a spokesman for Indonesia’s armed forces, said over 600 troops had been sent to the area in what he described as a law enforcement operation to support the police.
“As mentioned in our constitution, we must defend our country’s land,” Sisriadi said. “We have to do anything to defend it.”
Indonesia took control of the vast and remote territory bordering Papua New Guinea in 1969 after a controversial referendum in which only 1,026 people were allowed to participate. The vote gave new momentum to the separatist West Papua National Liberation Army, which has continued the struggle for independence ever since.
The region is Indonesia’s poorest, despite its wealth of natural resources. Access to the area for foreign journalists remains restricted and even those who get permission to visit can run into trouble with the authorities.
Nduga, a mountainous area that is one of the world’s last pristine tropical forests, has been at the center of much of the instability.
The local communities are indigenous Melanesian people, who are mostly Christian and speak their own languages rather than Bahasa Indonesia. Subsistence farmers, they live on their ancestral lands, growing crops and raising pigs, and supplementing their diet with leaves gathered from the forest and the wild boar that forage among the trees.
An investigation by the local administration into the military’s operations in Nduga in December alleged the armed forces had destroyed homes and churches in their bid to flush out the rebels.
Sisriadi accused the independence movement of using local villagers as cover, but none of the displaced people said they had been threatened by the rebels.
Theo Hesegem, a human rights activist who helped research the local administration’s report, told Al Jazeera that eyewitnesses who preferred not to be named had also told him that bombs had been dropped from helicopters on both December 4 and December 5. The military denies the allegations.