Ryan Dagur, Jakarta – In the midst of the ongoing conflict in Indonesia's Intan Jaya, the district experiencing the worst violence in Papua, dozens of children have been rescued by a priest and taken to a Catholic-run orphanage.
They are being cared for at the Hawai Daughter of Mercy Orphanage in Sentani on the outskirts of Jayapura, the provincial capital run by the Congregation of the Little Sisters of Saint Joseph.
Onike Belau, one of them, tried to hold back tears as she told Franciscan Bishop Leo Laba Ladjarof Jayapura how she and her friends had to leave their village early last month, leaving behind their displaced parents.
"In our village, the war continues, between Papuan [freedom fighters] and Indonesian [security forces]," the elementary school student told Bishop Ladjar, who met them at the orphanage during a Christmas event on Dec. 27 that was streamed online.
She said this situation, plus their schools being burned down, left them with no other choice but to leave their village. "I'm happy to finally be here," she said.
Yulistisina Belau, another child, also told how violence in her village had disrupted their lives. "My mother died when I was little, my father is old," she said, crying.
Haltingly, she said people in her village were afraid to live there, so many had taken refuge in the local church. The children managed to get out of the village thanks to Father Yeskiel Belau.
From Baitapa, their remote village in the highlands, they flew by small plane to the port in Nabire and then sailed across Cenderawasih Bay for 24 hours to reach Jayapura. It was the first time they had left their village.
On Dec. 3, they arrived at Jayapura Harbor, where they were greeted by Sister Alexia Eva, the orphanage's coordinator.
The orphanage, founded in 1992 by Dutch-born Franciscan priest Nico Syukur Dister and Belgian-born nun Sister Maricen, has become a foster home for at least 700 Papuan children who have been helped to have a formal education.
The latest intake are civilians who have become victims of a protracted armed conflict between Papuan separatists and Indonesian security forces.
Emanuel Gobay, director of the Papua Legal Aid Institute, said they were "part of a small group that was lucky to get help from the Church."
"Meanwhile, there are still many children who are neglected because of this conflict. Their lives are languishing, their education is also neglected," he said.
According to an activist group, the Papuan People's Solidarity Against State Violence, about 50,700 people have been displaced due to violence since 2018, mostly women and children. At least 307 have died during this time.
In Intan Jaya, it said, the conflict that has intensified over the last year has forced at least 5,850 people to flee, 32 people have died, and five people are listed missing. Victims included a two-year-old child who died and a six-year-old child who was seriously injured after being shot.
Gobay said this situation means Papua's next generation could have serious problems in the future.
"Watching their parents suffer, leaving their homes behind, of course, thoughts of revenge emerge," he said.
He also criticized the government, saying it has shown little commitment to helping civilians, especially the children.
"The children are being helped because of the goodness of the Church, but state institutions should be caring for them," he said.
Children in conflict areas receiving protection and assistance are guaranteed by the Convention on the Protection of Children and the Child Protection Law, he said. "In this context, the state is ignoring the rights of children in the Papua conflict," he said.
Sister Alexia said she feels the impact the experience of violence has had on the children. "When they sit down and hear a loud bang or noise, their reaction is to hide," she said.
She said the orphanage is trying to occupy their minds with other things and enhance self-development by keeping them busy by cleaning up after themselves, taking care of the garden and the local environment, as well as studying.
Discipline, said Sister Alexia, will be the foundation for their independence when they grow up.
During his recent visit to the children, Bishop Ladjar tried to offer them hope after hearing their stories. The bishop told them that he and other religious leaders were seeking peaceful solutions to the conflict affecting them.
"They [the protagonists] don't realize that the victims are all of you. Everyone is affected by it," he said.
"We are not talking nonsense that there are victims. You are among many victims, but you were able to escape from the violence, but there are still many other children who cannot eat and cannot go to school because of this conflict."