Hipolitus Yolisandry Ringgi Wangge, Jakarta – Massive demonstrations and riots in Papua are not the only pressing issues in Papua. After nine months of armed conflict in Nduga regency, hundreds of school-age children are still in the dark about the future of their studies. Living in poor conditions in Wamena does not shed light on how they will manage to keep surviving, let alone continue studying.
The armed conflict, which has been going on since December, has merely resulted in the displacement of thousands of internally displaced persons (IDP) in neighboring Nduga regency. A local humanitarian group has reported the deaths of 184 displaced Nduga people, 41 among them being school-age children. What is the future for school children amid the current armed conflict, particularly in Wamena?
The local voluntary group, which I joined during fieldwork, and local teachers who were also affected by the conflict in Nduga, have built an "emergency school". There are two objectives of this school. First, it is a symbol of the existence of IDPs, particularly women and children. The absence of a plan to relocate IDPs, particular from Wamena, has resulted in the denial of local governments and local security personnel regarding the existence of displaced Nduga people. Having the school established in Wamena exhibits a strong presence of those affected by armed conflict without government recognition or assistance.
Second, the emergency school paves the way for conflict-affected children with their trauma to be treated differently from their friends. In contrast to the government's initial plan to place the children from Nduga in regular schools in Wamena, those children have been living in traumatic conditions that affected their studies. Accordingly, the children would first need formal trauma-healing treatment before being placed in regular schools. Not to mention, their learning abilities are relatively behind their peers who studied in normal educational environments.
The barefooted children used to come earlier to class before teaching started at 8 a.m. because they had to walk a long distance to reach the emergency school. Now they struggle to continue studies with only two available teachers and a few volunteers, chiefly due to the refusal of Nduga's local authority to acknowledge the school in Wamena; not to mention the school's poor condition which lacks funds for necessary renovation.
The Nduga regency has the lowest human development index (HDI) in the country at 27.87 percent, which is below the 2017 provincial average of 59.09 and the national average of 70.81. Both Papua and West Papua have low HDIs.
Providing children with good access to education and health care is a critical component of improving the HDI. However, children in Nduga have been struggling to have such access. The continuing cycle of violence in Nduga, which has caused suffering and trauma since the 1990s, leaves children without a good education.
A report from a solidarity team for Nduga in August 2019 shows that none of the conflict-affected high school graduates from Nduga have registered at universities. This is an obvious effect of the conflict that is supposedly the responsibility of the national and local governments.
Two recommendations can be made to help the displaced children in Wamena. First, understand the local wisdom of Nduga to relieve the children of their trauma, which inhibits their learning abilities. It is urgent to have joint coordination, not only to distribute basic supplies and stationery but also professional trauma healing services for these children. By law the national chapter of the International Committee of the Red Cross can provide such formal treatment with the help of local volunteers in Wamena.
I met teachers who experienced difficulties teaching elementary and junior high school-aged children because they themselves could not speak Indonesian properly. They do not have specific methods for dealing with traumatized children at the emergency school. As a result, the children lacked the courage to be active in class.
Second, relevant authorities at the local and national levels, particularly the Education and Culture Ministry, must work with the local civil society groups. Local groups, such as voluntary teams and churches in Wamena, have been actively assisting IDPs, particularly the children.
The IDPs turned down aid from the Social Affairs Ministry and Women's Empowerment and Child Protection Ministry two months ago as they involved the military in the distribution process.
Since then, there has been no strong initiative from the government to meet stakeholders in Wamena, and no more aid from the government since authorities visited Wamena last July. The key to building trust among IDPs is engaging local voluntary groups and churches that have been assisting the IDPs for the last nine months.
Given their history, the Nduga people have more trust in informal leaders, such as tribe and church leaders, than in formal leaders. Having the former help in speeding up aid distribution will be beneficial for the government to address humanitarian problems in Nduga and its surrounding regencies.
The future of conflict-affected children has been at stake since December 2018. As a joint operation is still under way and security personnel still occupy public places in Nduga, such as schools and health facilities in 11 conflict-affected districts, it would be challenging to ask the children to return to Nduga and continue their studies there.
It is urgent to create a friendly and supportive learning environment for displaced children by assisting local volunteers and teachers. After all, one priority of President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo is to boost the quality of education in his second term in office.
[Hipolitus Yolisandry Ringgi Wangge is a researcher at Marthinus Academy, Jakarta, who conducted fieldwork in Jayapura and Wamena, Papua, from December 2018 to August 2019.]