Victor Mambor, Gisela Swaragita and Ardila Syakriah, Jayapura and Jakarta – Despite government efforts to distribute aid for civilians who escaped armed conflict in Nduga regency, Papua, some evacuees have refused assistance and are instead demanding the withdrawal of security troops from the conflict-ridden regency so that they can return home.
As the security crackdown against armed rebels linked to the Free Papua Movement (OPM) continues in the region, thousands of civilians have fled their homes to seek refuge in shelters in Jayawijaya and Lanny Jaya regencies, living in uncertainty amid reportedly poor living conditions.
Displaced people living in shelters in Weneroma, Jayawijaya, refused to accept aid provided by the Social Affairs Ministry after they reportedly learned that military and police personnel were involved in the distribution of basic needs and medical assistance.
Local figures said the refusal was linked to the civilians' distrust in security personnel due to their trauma over past military operations that resulted in violence in the region.
Rev. Desmon Walilo, the coordinator of Sinode Kingmi in Jayawijaya, said local residents of Nduga still held the belief that if they accepted aid or food from the people they considered the "enemy", their bodies would become weak and they would eventually die.
"The evacuees flee their homeland because of the joint security operation [against armed rebels] by the military and the police, so they will refuse any [distribution] of aid involving military and police personnel," Walilo said.
He said that the decision to refuse help was made at the end of a meeting involving local figures and church leaders on Monday, after the evacuees learned that the coordination meeting to distribute the aid was conducted at the Jayawijaya Military Command headquarters.
Rev. Kone Kogoya, the head of the Mugi presbytery in Nduga, handed over a letter stating the evacuees refused to accept any assistance to Harry Hikmat, the Social Affairs Ministry's director general of protection and social security, when his team arrived to distribute the aid.
In the letter, the evacuees demanded that President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo withdraw military troops from Nduga and asked the government to pay more attention to the wellbeing of civilians who lived in shelters as result of the armed conflict.
Harry acknowledged that the involvement of security personnel in distributing aid was met with resistance from the evacuees. However, he said that military and police personnel were involved because they had experience in the region.
"We will still try to channel the aid while having discussions with local figures on the best way to ensure that supplies are distributed," Harry said. "We need to understand each other so that the humanitarian mission can be optimally carried out."
The ministry had channeled aid worth nearly Rp 3.7 billion (US$262,518) since January to the evacuees living in shelters in the form of staple food, cooking utensils, school supplies and toys for toddlers, among other things.
Data collected by volunteers grouped under the Nduga Solidarity Civil Society Coalition revealed that tens of thousands of civilians had taken refuge in at least 40 shelters outside of Nduga amid the ongoing security operations against the OPM-linked armed rebels, following the rebels' alleged killing of dozens of construction workers in December.
In a statement released Thursday, the coalition reported that 182 civilians living in shelters in a number of regencies, including in Wamena, Jayawijaya regency, died between December and July – allegedly from famine and poor living conditions – an increase from the previous reported number of 139 deaths.
Cendrawasih Military Command spokesman Lt. Col. Eko Daryanto said the military had yet to receive any updates regarding the death toll as reported by the coalition, saying that "there also might be differences in the perception or data regarding the cause of deaths" between different parties.
Eko went on to rebuff concerns that the local people still felt trauma because of the military, saying that he believed the people felt safer with military personnel there to protect them against the threat of armed rebels.
"As of now, there have been no orders for the military to withdraw troops from Nduga," Eko told The Jakarta Post.
Harry also raised doubts over the accuracy of the data from the coalition, saying that it was not true that more than 130 civilians had died while living in the shelters.
Hipolitus Wangge, a researcher at Marthinus Academy who has been conducting fieldwork in Papua and member of the coalition, said that instead of simply denying the data, the ministry should be more active in the field to collect data on the displaced.
"If [officials] say the number [of deaths] we reported was baseless, then where is their data? Did they do their own data collecting?" he said.
In response to the issue, Papua Governor Lukas Enembe called for the Papua Social Affairs Agency to thoroughly collect data on displaced persons, saying that such data was key to comprehensively handle the evacuees. (afr)