The hollow eyes of hunger in Indonesia’s Papua
A measles outbreak and malnutrition is killing scores of children in the Indonesia’s remote region.
Papua, Indonesia – In their little bodies with bones nearly piercing through their skin, the eyes of these Papuan toddlers tell their story.
We travelled for nearly 24 hours to get to the story of these children who are dying from malnutrition and a measles outbreak.
It was my first visit back to Papua after foreign media had been restricted for years. We hoped authorities would allow us to tell this story.
Thousands of children suffering from hunger and disease was important enough for us to take the risk.
We reported to police headquarters in Jakarta and obtained a travel permit.
Papua, in the country’s far east, has been a sensitive region since it became part of Indonesia in the 1960s following what was seen as a flawed referendum.
After a selected group of Papuans chose to become part of the republic, many started fighting for independence. The movement is still active today despite the government’s move to give Papua wide-ranging autonomy in 2001.
But this story wasn’t about the independence movement.
This story was about a neglected part of the country that many in government barely realise is part of Indonesia.
Ignored or sent away
The estimated hundreds of children who have died from malnutrition and measles outbreak are painful evidence of this neglect.
Ignored by health workers and government officials, many of the children were never immunised or given basic healthcare.
And this is happening near the world’s largest gold mine operated by the American company Freeport, Indonesia’s largest taxpayer.
The Asmat tribe was hardest hit. The tribe’s settlements in the south of Papua are far away from the nearest town and many Asmat people were forced to bury their children without seeing a doctor.
Those who had canoes rowed to the nearest health post, but were sent away by health workers who seemed to lack commitment and the skills to help.
We travelled to Asatat, a settlement around three hours by speedboat from the nearest town Agats. Over the last four months, at least 29 children have died there.
Aloysius Beorme lost his one-year-old son because he had no money to rent a boat.
When he finally managed to row a canoe for hours to a clinic, his son died soon after arrival.
“We want doctors to come here and we want the government in Jakarta to send them because the provincial government has never visited us,” Beorme told us.
Since Papua has been given wide-ranging autonomy, the area has been flooded with money, but much of it has allegedly disappeared into the pockets of local leaders and government officials.
Efforts to bring economic progress to the region mainly benefited newcomers from other parts of Indonesia who started their small businesses, selling instant food that is now killing Papuan children.
The Asmat traditionally live from sago palms. Before instant food had entered their villages the seminomadic tribe would spend months in the forest to make sago and find enough food to live.
But instant noodles and energy drinks have become a much less time-consuming alternative for the Asmat who do not know much about nutrition. In Asatat, we saw children eating uncooked noodles and a baby drinking instant coffee.
The Asmat tribe is facing a serious identity crisis that it is so far left to solve on its own.
A proposal by Indonesia President Joko Widodo to relocate the 100,000 Asmat people living in the area to a town near medical services was immediately rejected.
Many believe this could be the end of the Asmat, who won’t be able to survive living away from the forest and facing competition from newcomers.
What the Asmat do need is to be able to strengthen their traditions that have benefited them for centuries and get real government care to prevent this tragedy from happening again.
It is a good opportunity for Widodo’s government to prove to the Papuans that they belong to Indonesia.