Torn between PNG and West Papua

A West Papuan leader who is now and academic under the current Indonesian government, recalls life as an OPM rebel fighting a former regime and his refugee days in PNG, and says terima kasih – thank you.

FORMER Operassi Papua Merdeka (OPM) rebel Paul Williams Kanimu still has fond memories of his time in Papua New Guinea.
And he thanked Papua New Guineans in West Sepik, Port Moresby and Western for supporting him from 1981 to 2005.
“I’m sorry that I did not have time to say thank you and goodbye to you all before returning to Merauke. But I want to let you know that I’m still alive and I still keep all of you alive in my heart. Yes, some of my dear friends have passed on and I’m sad,” Kanimu told me in a recent interview in Merauke, Indonesia.
Kanimu, who is now 64 years old, first came across the PNG-Indonesian border in July 1981 when he was only 26 years old to receive medical treatment at the Vanimo General Hospital in West Sepik. He was seriously injured in his stomach during a shootout between OPM rebels and Indonesian soldiers in the mountain bordering West Sepik. During the confrontation 39 Indonesian soldiers were killed.
“I came across and Wutung villagers took me to the hospital. I underwent surgery and recovered after three months.
“After recovering, then Vanimo Catholic Bishop, the late John Etheridge told me not to return to the bush and get involved in OPM activities.
“And so he told me to make arrangements with other West Papuans living in Port Moresby so he would buy a plane ticket for me to go and stay with them. Bishop John then bought me a ticket after I told him that the Port Moresby-based West Papuans were ready to receive me.

Paul Kanimu along the Merauke-Sota road near the Taman National Park.
Left: Former West Papuan refugee Benedict Dicken (middle) recalling his time growing up in Western with Western deputy provincial administrator Wilfred Gaso and West Sepik provincial border liaison officer Ashley Wayne in Merauke. Dicken was among 500 West Papuans who were repatriated back to Merauke in 2005.

“And so I came to Port Moresby and hanged around with other West Papuans getting involved in political campaigns for a free West Papua.
“But then life was hard in Port Moresby for someone with no work, no land to do business or garden and no families to help me and no education qualifications to get a job. I was a refugee. So I was more like moving from house to house eating from whatever was provided to me and sleeping anywhere where there was a roof over my head. Sometimes I went hungry for days and survived on biscuits donated by kind friends that I met and drank only water. Life was very hard for me in Port Moresby.
“After all it’s an expensive place and everyone has to fend for himself and there is little time to consider a vagrant like me.
“One time I slept at the Hohola mountain near where the Hilton Hotel is today and woke up so hungry that I walked to the Regal bakery at Hohola (now RH supermarket) and met late Tuki Evoko from Gulf who was working there. And I begged him for some old bread and I was forced to reveal my identity and how I came to Port Moresby. He was so sorry for me that he gave me fresh hot bread, cream buns and Coke for me to eat and drink.
“After finishing work he took me to his flat at Tokarara and I was adopted by his family. Tuki then introduced me to his neighbours, and since then, many people helped me with money, food, clothes. They made me feel at home in Port Moresby. Although I enjoyed freedom, my heart still ached for my people back in West Papua and always thought of returning. Which was hard because of my past involvement with OPM and I couldn’t just return like that.
“But my opportunity to return came when PNG and Indonesian governments organised for voluntarily repatriation of PNG-based West Papuans to their homes and I came with 500 other West Papuans to Merauke in 2005. I was also an organiser of this exercise.
“My plan was to bring the West Papuans here, make them feel at home again and then return to PNG. However, upon arrival in Merauke, the Indonesian military apprehended me and told me not to return to PNG because of my past involvement in OPM. And that was how I lost contact and didn’t say good bye to my families in PNG.
“But on the other hand my family and friends in Merauke were so happy to see me again as I was absent for 24 years (1981-2005) without them knowing what had happened to me. They killed pigs and made a big welcoming feast for me and all my friends and families that I had left behind attended that feast. After all they thought that I must have been killed or missing in the bush during my involvement with OPM. I also learnt that my parents died while I was in PNG.
“So yes, I was really caught in between my families in Merauke and families in PNG. I lost contact with my family in Merauke when I was in PNG. And when they found me, I lost contact with my families in PNG.
“So to my families in PNG, I want to use this opportunity to say thank you to you and I hope that one day I will return and meet you all.”
Kanimu said that when he returned to Merauke, there was a big change as the place had expanded.
“Many things have changed upon my arrival in Merauke. Now there are many infrastructure developments throughout West Papua. And West Papua is really developing, thanks to the Indonesian government.
“The Indonesian government has also helped me settle back in Merauke and I’m now engaged as a part-time English tutor at the local university center in Merauke. I’m also free to move around now. In July this year I went to West Sepik to attend the late John Tekwie’s funeral at Lido and returned to Merauke.
“So yes, many things have changed for West Papuans over here.”

A roadside market in Merauke city.

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