Febriana Firdaus, Wamena, West Papua, Indonesia – Evidence is emerging that children are joining the long-running conflict in the restive Indonesian province of West Papua, six months after the military stepped up its crackdown on separatist rebels after the murder of 17 road construction workers in December.
A bleached-out photo shared by rebels shows a group of pro-independence fighters in the central highlands of the province and, among them, three who are clearly children; their faces smeared with camouflage paint and high-powered rifles in their hands.
Sebby Sambom, a spokesman for the West Papua Liberation Army (WPLA), the largest rebel group, said that while he was concerned that children were joining the cause, they had been left with "no choice" but to take up arms.
He said those in the photo, which was sent to Al Jazeera in June, were 15 years old.
"Imagine the military attacked the village, killed parents and elders," Sambom said, explaining that the photo had been taken in the district of Nduga where thousands have been displaced by the recent fighting.
"Some took [up] firearms to take revenge for their family's death. This is a political situation, and the world needs to acknowledge this."
Indigenous Papuan rebels have been fighting for independence for at least 50 years, but the evidence that teenagers are joining the fight has caused alarm among community leaders.
"This child's trauma can be a cycle of revenge," Father John Djonga, a prominent Catholic priest in the central highlands, told Al Jazeera. "It will be more terrible in the future," he said.
In February, Child Soldiers International (CSI), a London-based rights group, said the number of child soldiers recruited around the world, in contravention of international conventions, had risen dramatically in recent years.
The group verified more than 29,000 cases of children recruited as fighters between 2012 and 2017 in 17 countries around the world, but that does not include West Papua because the area remains off-limits to foreign journalists and international organisations, including diplomats, who need special permission to visit the region. Tourists can visit provided they apply for travel permits.
Shelly Whitman, the executive director of the Romeo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative, which works to stop the use of child soldiers around the world, said under-18s were often drawn into conflict to avenge the deaths of friends and family, but also because of poverty, and a lack of empowerment.
Not all will be on the front lines. They may supply food or water for the fighters or act as lookouts, but the longer they spend with the group the more likely it is that they will pick up a weapon, she said.
"This is an early warning indicator of far more deliberate and calculated potential for human rights violations," Whitman told Al Jazeera. "It should be heeded. The world should be paying attention."
Nduga, whose people were largely cut off from the outside world until missionaries arrived in 1962, is well-known for its cultural diversity and is part of the World Heritage-listed Lorentz National Park, but the highland area has also been at the heart of the conflict, which started after Indonesia took control of West Papua in the wake of a controversial referendum.
The people in the central highlands have "a horrible collective memory of state violence and tend to be anti-government" compared with other regions in West Papua, researcher Adriana Elisabeth, who works with the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, wrote in a 2008 report.
Father to son
Tribal rivalries have also played a role in the continuing unrest, according to Enos Rumansara, an anthropologist from Cenderawasih University in Jayapura, with two indigenous tribes – Kogoya and Wenda – dominating the district over successive generations.
Benny Wenda, who escaped prison in Indonesia in 2002 and now lives in exile in Britain, heads the Papua independence movement. His father – also a rebel leader – was killed by the military in 1997.
"The natural conditions shape their character, these rural friends, they know the culture of tribal warfare," Enos said, adding that the indigenous communities see Indonesia as an outsider. "Until today, tribal clashes still exist. The reason can be triggered by women or dispute over their land."
The current leader of the Free Papua Movement (part of the WPLA), 19-year-old Egianus Kogoya, is the youngest son of the group's former leader Silas Kogoya who was killed following the so-called Mapenduma Operation in 1996 when the military moved in to rescue a group of environmental researchers who had been kidnapped by the rebels.
At high school, Egianus refused to learn the Pancasila – the five principles that guide Indonesia – which he dismissed as a tool of an oppressive government. It was at that point that he decided to drop out of school, his elder sister Raga Kogoya told Al Jazeera.
"He felt no need to learn about the country that caused the death of his father," she said. "He felt offended."
Indonesia ratified the United Nations Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict in 2012, but the military has yet to acknowledge the presence of child soldiers in West Papua.
"We don't know about the information claimed by the West Papua Liberation Army," Brigadier-General Sisriadi, the spokesman for the Indonesian military, told Al Jazeera.
He added that as far as the armed forces knew, they were fighting only adults and declined to discuss the issue further.
'Break the cycle'
The Dallaire Initiative's Whitman said the armed forces needed to make an effort to understand what was driving the children into violence. Tribal and religious leaders also have a role to play in helping the children, and ending the violence. "Someone's got to break the cycle and find a different path," she said.
Six months since they fled their homes, Nduga's displaced children have yet to receive any counselling."Given the fact that these children have been suffering from trauma, [we] encourage these children to get psychological rehabilitation services," said Retno Listyarti, commissioner of the Indonesian Child Protection Commission. "If the local government is unable to fulfil it, then they can request to the central government," she told Al Jazeera.
The Minister of Women's Empowerment and Child Protection Yohana Yembise did not respond to Al Jazeera's questions on the children's plight.
The night before Easter, a group of the displaced youngsters gathered at a church in Wamena in the central highland.
Two volunteers asked them to write their hopes for the future on a piece of paper and hang it on a "wishing tree". One child said they wanted to be a nurse. Another, to make their parents happy.
But some had other ambitions. "He wants to be a [pro-independence] fighter," one of the boys laughed as he pointed at his friend.