Benny Wenda is on a mission: Free West Papua.
Benny Wenda is on a mission: Free West Papua. John Gass

A life devoted to liberation

AS A toddler he watched soldiers violently rape his aunt.

In his teens, he was spat on because his skin was darker than others.

As an adult, he was falsely charged with criminal offences and thrown into an Indonesian prison.

Now, from his exiled home in Britain, Benny Wenda fights to free his country from occupation.

His relentless advocacy for West Papua's separation from Indonesia has not exhausted the father of six and has earned him the world's attention.

Mr Wenda visited the Gold Coast last month in collaboration with Southern Cross University as part of his first official world tour to raise awareness for his country's plight.

While the West Papuan independence leader also visited Papua New Guinea, he knows he will never be able to return to his homeland.

Growing up in the country's primitive central highlands, Mr Wenda climbed the tribal ranks to become the leader of elders in his village.

He said in his teens he realised his people and Indonesians were not held in the same esteem - a situation brought home for him in the classroom.

"Why I am involved in this campaign is my aunty was raped in front of my eyes when I was five," he recalled.

"I couldn't do anything at the time and I didn't know why these people were killing us and raping my aunty.

"When I grow up five years in the jungle, I was loyal to Indonesia and then I find out why they are doing this.

"Even in the school, an Indonesian girl spit in my face and then second time I washed my body, thinking maybe I smell and went back in class, and she spit in my face again.

"I wipe my face and I say, 'Look, I am a human being like you. I have five fingers like you'.

"Then I grow up and I look back at what is happening to my people."

Mr Wenda continued to reflect on the treatment of Papuan people as he studied politics at Stisipol University in Papua.

Soon, he began to make noise.

He led peaceful demonstrations in the street and questioned the Indonesian occupation.

He was loud enough to be thrown in jail in 2002 on accusations of inciting people against the Indonesian government and burning down a police station.

"Even though I was not there, and not involved because I am leader, they arrest me and put me in the prison," he said.

"Just simply because I was leading peacefully and rising the morning star flag."

He struggled in jail with the threats to his life and compiled a vision to escape.

"If I stay I would be killed. Better I escape and they kill me - that is my responsibility," he said.

Climbing through the jail's ventilation system, he catapulted over the high security facility's walls before making the two-week journey on foot to the Papua New Guinean border.

Mr Wenda's prison break took him through his native land's harsh jungle, hiding during the day and surviving only on food he pocketed from people's thatched roof homes along the way.

Once over the border, he stayed in a refugee camp and was reunited with his wife, Maria.

He finally made it to his new home in Britain, where he was granted political asylum with the help of a prominent human rights lawyer - Jennifer Robinson - who also represents Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.

Since then, Mr Wenda has set up the international lawyers and parliamentarians for West Papuan groups to draw diplomatic focus to his country's situation.

Despite being thousands of miles and cultures away from the cause he advocates for, he remains in tune with the atrocities that engross his country.

"West Papua. I always call it a military zone," he said

"Everyday life is intimidation, discrimination, harassment.

"In West Papua, maybe you may see some of the police and military holding the gun in a public place. So that is every day.

"In everyday life people are traumatised.

"That is why we are under illegal occupation.

"My mission is how to free my people. That is why in the day and night I am working very hard to tell the world."

The West Papua issue has slipped in and out of the spotlight since Indonesia annexed the land as its easternmost province in 1961. It was formerly called Irian Jaya.

Under a deal struck by the US, the United Nations took sovereign control of West Papua in 1962 while a vote - the Act of Free Choice - on independence was conducted.

It has been widely recorded the Indonesian military picked the 1000 elders to weigh in on the vote, which favoured Indonesian control.

Wenda said the atrocities that promoted the Papuans' hate of Indonesian control were still rife.

According to the Papua AIDS Prevention Commission, about 50% of Indonesians living with AIDS are from West Papua.

This is an epidemic many believe foreigners have played a part in.

Mr Wenda said it was not unusual to hear stories of West Papuans, who didn't know any better, being paid for their work by having sex with prostitutes who have HIV - with the blessing of their foreign employers.

It was just one in a string of stories to emerge from his home country, Wenda said, but he hoped this generation would step up and take notice.

And as his children, aged between two and 11, approach the age Wenda was when he recognised racism for the first time, he is confident his children will continue his fight.

"I am trying to explain we are here not because we are looking for better life, or for house or car. We are here on a mission because our people cry for freedom."

For more, go to bennywenda.org.

INTERPOL

Benny Wenda gained political asylum in the United Kingdom in 2003 but that did not stop the Indonesian Government's hunt for him.

Indonesian Authorities issued an Interpol red notice, an international arrest warrant, against Mr Wenda in 2010.

After Fair Trials International challenged the notice, an Interpol investigation found it was politically motivated in nature and an abuse of the system by the Indonesian Government.



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