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Read original reports from some fascinating places few have been before.


Photo: Darren Jew
Photo: © Darren Jew 2001.

Hosting volcanoes, giant bears, nuclear submarines and hunters of various persuasions, Kamchatka, a far-flung peninsula in Russia’s Far East, contains some of the country’s greatest natural wonders and its most lethal environmental threats, reports Anouk Ride.

White sparkles in the orange light of sunrise. Spun in frost overnight, plants hang stiff over the running riverwater. Powderlike steam rises where the river’s icy flow meets hot volcanic water bubbling up from underneath the earth.

Looking up from the river, its surrounding plain fades into the forest of white and stone birch stretching their twisted naked branches towards the sky. In the distance are mountains and volcanoes blanketed in snow. One known as Avacha smokes listlessly.

A splash returns my attention to the Nalychevo River. Hovering in the lukewarm current at the banks is a silver salmon, taking a rest from its jumpy journey inland. Half an arm’s length, its dark gray body is flecked with red: a sign that its days are numbered. But it exudes vitality – this flushed fish is at the beginning and end of life in a world of white.

“This colour signifies life and purification. White is a lifeforce,” says Zhanna Dolgan, an indigenous woman, of this colour, that up until now I assumed I knew.

Kamchatka, a Far Eastern region of the Russian Federation, is one day an autumnal orange and the next covered in ice. But this deflects attention from another natural drama: what is happening underneath.

“The volcanologists say the time has come for the earth to regenerate. Since the year 1737 when the first eruption was recorded, on average once in 50 years we have a catastrophic eruption of seven or more degrees on the Richter scale,” says Margaret, a walking guide to the regional capital, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. “The director of the Volcanology Institute says that in the next two years there is a possibility of a strong earthquake and our emergency agencies should prepare.”

Are they prepared? “There are plans for what to do when the eruption happens,” she says confidently, “but the public do not know what the plans are.”

Containing around 300 volcanic peaks and at least 30 active volcanoes, Kamchatka is a fish-shaped peninsula that was once connected to Alaska via the Aleutian land bridge. A territory the size of Germany, Switzerland and Austria put together it is bounded by the Pacific Ocean, Bering Sea and Sea of Okhotsk.

Although part of Russia, Kamchatka in reality is like a far-flung island. There is no railroad or main road from the mainland and the only way to get there is by plane or ship. Hosting the closest port to the United States, Kamchatka enjoyed a special military status during the Cold War. This meant foreigners and most Russians were banned from entering the peninsula – leaving a small and declining population of 347,000 people, including around 15,000 indigenous people.

Kamchatka still hosts the Russian Pacific Naval Fleet and is only just beginning to awaken to its new geopolitical reality. While official attention was focused on its maritime resources, Kamchatka’s forests, volcanoes and mountains remained largely unexploited. Only a few avid hikers and mountaineers set out beyond Koryakski and Avacha volcanoes on the outskirts of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, armed with ice picks and dried pig fat. “Because it’s purely the fat of the pig, doctors warn: Do not eat this! It is unhealthy! But if a doctor goes out into the forest you can guarantee he himself will have it in his pocket!” jokes one climber and ranger Irina Kruglykova who took her son to climb his first volcano, Avacha, at the tender age of 11. The closest cone to the airport, Avacha erupted 12 years ago. But Irina says locals were not scared: “They came and watched as though it was amazing fireworks. It was a truly fantastic sight. Too beautiful to be scary.”

In the early 1990s, rumours started that some state-owned lands were to become private lands generating fear that developers would take over such natural treasures. The club of hikers and mountaineers set out into the city and collected 1,300 signatures that were presented to the then-Governor Birikov asking him to protect the Nalychevo river’s watershed. Nalychevo Nature Park was established, an alpine range and 1,000 indigenous people were encased in Bystrinsky State Reserve and an area of coast became South Kamchatka Nature Park in 1995. Four years later Blue Lakes Park, Karymsky Volcano and the spectacular Klyuchevskoy Group of Volcanoes were established as protected areas as part of a WWF Gift to the Earth by Governor Birikov. Around 28 per cent of Kamchatka’s land is legally protected and the rest so far is almost untouched by mining and logging.

Instead, many are hoping the parks can be used to generate tourism. Irina, whose favourite park is Klyuchevskoy, would like “the whole of Kamchatka to be a park” using tourism to make this economic. When asked what would happen if too many people came, she points to the low number of tourists currently coming to a region as spectacular as Kamchatka – 2,000-3,000 a year compared with 2.5 million in Alaska – and says: “Too many? I dream about it.”

Her dream becomes closer each summer when increasing numbers of Europeans make their way over on the 9-hour flight from Moscow to see the volcanoes, bathe in hot springs, taste wild salmon and see wildlife.

Even rangers who have seen Kamchatkan brown bears many times are daunted by their presence.  At dusk I watch a male brown bear wander along the edge of a cluster of dark-green dwarf pines grazing for berries on the opposite side of Nalychevo river. It is so large I can hear it move even though it’s a small black dot in the distance where the tundra meets the forest. Weighing around 500 kilos, these bears can shed 150 kilos over the winter. So they spend the summer and autumn eating as much as 40 kilos of berries and salmon a day. The river’s edge is littered with signs of their passing – salmon tails and heads with the brains sucked out. This abundance of food apparently means the bears rarely pick fights. “Kamchatkan bears aren’t angry. They are the least aggressive bears in the world, its true,” comments Irina, “because it’s not difficult to catch or find food, our bear always has enough to eat.”

Early the next morning, led by a young guide, Egor Afanas’yev, we approach three bears in a circle so they do not detect our scent with their keen noses. “Like cows,” comments Egor of the mother and two cubs and indeed they do graze at the same pace over the berries with their heads down and mouths in constant motion. They are huge but a pale camel-brown with lighter tips giving their fur a whitish glow in the sun. As we draw closer, one marks its territory by standing on its back legs to scratch a tree. It must have caught our scent because it turns to see us. And then all three are standing on their hind legs looking at us and sniffing. Eyes shining and noses wet. There is electricity in our met gaze and a shared adrenalin rush at the sight of the unexpected. But they linger only a minute or two before turning and running behind scrub and out of sight.

Indigenous people have relied on bear meat and skins to survive the winter for over 21,000 years and continue to depend on them. “Every time I meet with my father back in my village we hunt bears. We use a rifle now but the method of hunting and traditions are the same. When we kill someone – the bear is not something but someone to us – we have special rituals that I have to do every time. Put something into the fire, ask the spirit of bear to forgive us and not to be unhappy with us,” says Zhanna. “At one time we had a friend among the bears – we had a house near the river and this bear used to be quite curious. We called him Spyer and left him stewed milk. We didn’t kill him because he was like one of us.”

As she describes traditional hunting by Koryak people in the north, we sit in an office in the urban capital. The difference between the story and the setting in which it is told illustrates the dual life of Kamchatka’s indigenous people. She says this is made particularly difficult by the negative attitudes of Russians to indigenous people and the “politics of paternalism” of the federal government. Except for Koryak people, most indigenous peoples have lost their language and are struggling to hold onto remnants of traditional culture. “Usually the tradition of bear tracking and hunting is passed from father to son,” explains Zhanna. “I have a brother but our mother is Russian and in his passport and official documents he wrote: ‘I’m Russian’. I’m not sure he’ll ever hunt. And my father he hopes I’ll continue the tradition although I’m a woman. Right now I don’t know. But there is a proverb that eventually each salmon returns to their stream.”

Some indigenous people have decided to rely on the wilderness as Russia’s economic woes forced each individual to fend for them self. Viktor Nikiforov from WWF-Russia explains: “Under the old policy of the Communist Party eight years ago, there are maybe 100 places where indigenous people were living. But the state decided to close services to all 100 villages except two. Now life is very poor in those villages: there are not enough jobs, not enough funds for services.”

Some indigenous communities are making trade links beyond the villages. Communities in Bystrinsky Nature Park are working on marketing non-timber forest products such as mushrooms, berries, natural medicines and herbal teas with the help of IUCN – the World Conservation Union and the Canada International Development Agency. Other indigenous groups sell handicrafts to tourists. “Those that have lived almost all their lives in the village move with their kids far away from civilization to where their grandparents were. It’s quite incredible, without any support they start their lives in another place,” says Nikiforov.

But not all that are seeking out the wilderness in order to make a living have such a benign impact. In the centre of Nalychevo is a reminder of the consequences of just one intruder in this volatile ecosystem.

Boiling sulphurous water bubbles up the man-made clay walls of a pool. A small raised gutter stops the water from spreading and killing forest around it; instead it leads excess water towards the river. The aqua pool steams more vigourously when the volcanoes smoke. “It’s the same system. Its all happening together,” comments Irina. “This pool was created 43 years ago when a geologist began digging. He hit water here but the springs nearby mysteriously dried out. The high mineral content of water here is dangerous for plants and animals.”

Now that the local administration is searching for sources of income, geologists may be back to explore Kamchatka. In Koryak Autonomous Region platinum is mined and gold deposits are believed to be large in many parts of Kamchatka. The same areas are home to spawning rivers for salmon, which are already threatened by illegal overfishing.

The lunar-like landscape made by a lone geologist prompts a conversation about Russia’s space program – one of the many reminders of the nation’s former might. We realize that many of the Russian words and names known by English-speakers – such as sputnik – are connected to the days when the world watched Soviet exploits in outer space. There are some important exceptions – we realize that what Irina has been referring to as a “helicopter to the moon” is a spaceship.

If the moon is a vast space with no human inhabitants, then the helicopter that arrives that day takes us to a lunar landscape. A wry, black leather-clad man known as Sergey starts the engine to his helicopter, which is bare except for a manual in a plastic pocket and a tube of salve on the floor (presumably these two cover all situations). As the propeller increases speed, autumn leaves begin to crowd the air around us like crazed golden insects buzzing round the helicopter as it hovers, turns and then dips its nose and ascends. We fly over wooden dachas with small market gardens, over fields of rolled, stacked hay, over cows that scatter at the sight of us overhead and then over a rich rusty brown forest, plains dotted with reindeer and then…mountains. Through the cracked, splattered glass they are so close, streaked in snow and sometimes completely white. Past the white mountains and volcanoes is one lone peak of dark gray ash and stone – Karymsky volcano. Flecked with snow on its flanks it stands at 1,486 metres above sea level. We circle the crater at the top which releases smoke through pores in its sides and rim. It’s a strange sight – gray but far from bland – alive.

Next to it is a crater lake filled with greeny-aqua water that hosted fish up until both the lake and Karymsky volcano last erupted in 1996. Even in a region where eruptions are common, its scientific description by the Institute of Volcanology of the Russian Academy of Sciences is dramatic: “The underwater eruption in the Karymsky lake began on January 2, 1996 between 14:00 and 15:40. A gas-ash trail rose up to 3 km and spread to the southeast, in the direction of the Pacific Ocean. Ash fall from the trail covered hundreds of square kilometers. Simultaneously, in the northern part of the Academia Nauk caldera, steam and gas loaded with a dark material rose in columns above the lake with a frequency averaging once every 5-6 minutes. In the process of the volcanic expulsions a cupola-like cloud with a diameter of 200-300m formed. Over the course of several seconds the cloud changed its form. A basic wave in the form of a Taurus-shaped cloud spread to all sides from the eruptive center. Its top edge was approximately 100m high. At the same time, a white gas-steam plume extended upward 7-8 km from the eruptive center. Each series of underwater explosions was accompanied by the formation of waves on the surface of the lake, some of which reached several meters in height. The energy of one explosion, as calculated by S.A. Fedotov according to the maximum height of the gas-ash clouds, reached 1014 J. On January 3, explosive activity in the lake stopped. According to our calculations, the activity lasted a total of 12-14 hours. The enormous waves, along with the sharp change in chemical composition and water temperature, lead to the death of practically all life in the lake. The lake became one of the largest reservoirs of acid water in the world. The entire surface of the lake steamed…”

Now while the Karymsky volcano smokes, the lake looks like its silent sibling, barely a ripple on its surface. We try to land at the top of the crater’s rim but as we do so the snow surrounds us like a stirred up cloud, the helicopter rocks and Sergey decides against it. So we go on further. Rivers that glint in the sun and seem to slither like snakes shedding their skins as we approach break through the forest. Steller's eagles fly over these scouting for food. Then the rivers become wetlands – spots of dark water against the yellowish grass look like the fur of a blue-spotted leopard. Its extraordinary to see the landscape’s patterns – sea, black sand beaches, wetlands of blue pockets amidst yellow grass, rivers, mountains of white birch and then Zhupanovsky – a white, perfectly formed snowy volcano. On the other side of Zhupanovsky the scene changes again to bare mounts of ash, dark brown volcanic-enriched soil and a few patches of scrubby plants. You could suppose that mining or logging had stripped the area but it is naturally barren – a landscape only recently spewed out of the centre of the earth. This is a slice of nature kept but not tamed.

Tying Kamchatka’s fortunes to the military seemed like a necessary marriage of convenience to protect the closest settled part of Russia from the US during the Cold War. But the region’s white mounts are no longer prized as being kept clean from foreign intrusion and it has lost its strategic importance to the national government. While the military’s presence has forestalled exploitation of Kamchatka’s nature, the flailing army and navy now pose a potentially irreversible environmental threat.

Not just important as a military base, the region has also been a testing ground for Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles. Kamchatka continued in 2001 to provide a target for missile launches, with the launch of a ballistic missile from a submarine in the Barents Sea to the Kura test range in Kamchatka in February just one of the incidents. In September the press center of the Pacific fleet confirmed they had “lost” a Granit missile during its exercises that month in Avachinsky bay, stating it was luckily equipped with a practice warhead. On land contamination from heavy metals, radiation and pollutants exists.

Current military equipment is often not maintained, let alone there being effort to clean up that which has been abandoned. For instance in 1997 a decommissioned nuclear submarine sank in the bay after corrosion allowed water to leak into the hull. The Rybachy submarine base lies just outside the urban capital of 250,000 people and may in an unused state the chance of submarine accidents is greater.

“More than 20 submarines are out of activity and parts of these submarines still contain radioactive substances,” says Alexander Ivanov, a deputy of the Committee of Ecology and Natural Resource Use. “The nuclear submarine is a potential source of environmental catastrophe. Its radioactivity has no reason, no colour and only death. Large funding is needed to decommission such submarines but do we have it? No. And the number of submarines sitting there is growing. There is a possibility of drowning of these submarines – like with the Kursk.”

But most people, including politicians and military staff, seem unfazed by the presence of submarines and unaware of the dangers associated with them. In the 1999 energy shortage reactors of nuclear submarines were used to supply power at the Rybachy base but a 5,400A current had to be sent through power lines designed for 1,200A overheating equipment and presenting a threat of malfunction.

Another side effect of the region’s economic difficulties is the increase in stealing metals from military bases. In 2000 two sailors stole catalysts, for igniting the reactor of a nuclear submarine, containing palladium: a metal more valuable than gold. (The nine stolen tubes were worth $US3,571 each). The two men tried to lift control rods but failed as an engineer had welded the lever down on his own initiative. Perhaps he realized how common theft had become and what dangers this could unleash. If this had not been the case, the thieves could have vented radioactivity over the port and its thousands of inhabitants nearby. The sailors also reportedly did not realize the equipment was potentially radioactive and kept the stolen metal under their mattresses.

The office of the Vice Speaker of the Public Parliament of Kamchatka, Vladimir Novikov, is dominated by oil paintings of submarines. “I worked on these ships,” he explains with a grin. “I lived for 38 areas in a secret base where the radioactive vessels are based. Up till 1992 this base was closed, but today the military men can describe the situation freely. And I may say that the area is healthy and the people are healthy.” The grin widens. “Look at me, do I look to you unhealthy? Can you say that I look 55 years old?”

Mikhail B. Mashkovtsev, the white-haired Governor of Kamchatka, is an old-school member of the Communist party. He is also unconcerned about the submarine base, saying briskly: “It has passed our environmental experts.” He seems weary from being asked questions concerning the region’s environmental controversies: “There are no ways to use nature without causing some hurt. It has been this way since the world was established.”

When asked about Karymsky volcano, an area shelved for protection under the previous Governor but its status remains unconfirmed, Mashkovtsev is vague. He adds: “I support the existing nature parks but some boundaries of these areas will be changed if there are possibilities of mining in this area.”  In Kamchatka while the Governor cannot unilaterally alter the status of protected areas, he does have discretionary powers to re-draw the borders.

“Today we don’t have a mining industry,” says Mashkovtsev. “Maybe the ecologists are happy about this. As for us, we now have a large task ahead – to prepare to find investors for this industry. ”

Part of the enthusiasm for mining is linked to the need to find a solution to Kamchatka’s energy shortages. Up until recently the Russian Government helped fund shipments of oil in tankers from Sakhalin to supply locals with energy. But now supply is unreliable. Delays in oil deliveries can mean days without heating which is no trifle for inhabitants living in -15 degrees Celsius winters in the city and as cold as -50 degrees Celsius further north.

“The problem has been that we can’t pay for the fuel that is coming to us. Now we have guarantees from our Russian government that we will have supplies. I hope that we won’t have difficulties this winter,” says Novikov.

Ivanov is urging for the exploitation of thermal water that he sees as the most environmentally and economically sustainable source of energy, following the example of Iceland, which has made use of its geologically active environment. “I think thermal water and the natural warmth of the land should be our main source of energy,” he says. “It is the best for nature but the Government has other ideas.”

“We will use floating nuclear stations to solve this energy problem,” says Governor Mashkovtsev. “We have several types of submarines here and a nuclear station, which is like a submarine but is used to produce energy, and this has passed all our ecological experts. In the case of a potential crisis we are assured everything could be shut down from the existing station.” It will be the first nuclear plant of its kind in Russia, and one Minatom – the Russian nuclear agency – hopes to later export to other countries.

A 300-kilometre gas pipeline is also being constructed to bring natural gas to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. Viktor Nikiforov from WWF-Russia comments: “It will go through many salmon rivers and you know there are volcanic activities and quakes so there is a big risk.”

Illegal fishing already beleaguers the lifeforce of Kamchatka’s waterways and seas. The rivers bring poachers further inland in search of salmon. “They take only the caviar and leave the dead fish behind. You can tell where they’ve been from the dead fish lying on the ground,” comments Irina. “Tourists are a help as when there are tourists around hunters are less likely to come into these areas,” she continues waving at a salmon-filled river in a valley where brown bears are found. The bears are also a poacher’s targets as their gallbladders can fetch high prices on the Asian medicine market.

With only four rangers in the 309,320-hectare Nalychevo Nature Park, the problem is one that goes beyond Park management. Prices for salmon caviar in Kamchatka are now as high as the rest of Russia and salmon poaching has come to resemble an operation from a Bond movie.  Russian newspapers have reported M18 helicopters taking tons of salmon caviar from protected areas such as the Kommandorsky Islands Biosphere Reserve and South Kamchatka Nature Reserve. The illegal harvest of salmon and other marine species is estimated to be worth more than $US1 billion annually. Local fishers, most of whom are out of work, say stocks are being fished out by Japan primarily but also Korea, the US and Alaska.

“Our State Committee and Fisheries Committee are responsible for harvesting and protection of the species themselves. But those who use nature can’t seem to protect it. There is less interest in biodiversity because agencies that control fishing and hunting are too close to the fishers and hunters,” says Ivanov. “Vessels that harvest fish illegally bring them not to Kamchatka but to Korea, China and Japan. Each year the harvest is less and less – because the fish are harvested with no limits, no controls. The only hope is to establish a specialized agency, a Ministry of Natural Resources, to protect the fishery. Like with all our other natural resources, the current system of protection simply does not answer the demands we have.”

These sharply differing views on how to manage Kamchatka’s rich natural resources reflect a general lack of political consensus. A classic manifestation of this was the decision to go ahead with the first geothermal power plant which started up on December 20th 2001 while at the same time developing a design and feasibility study for the floating nuclear plant. Pushed by the Ministry for Nuclear Energy, it is to be based in Vilyuchinsk which currently hosts a dozen rusting submarines needing decommissioning. The political outlook can look progressive or unchanged since Soviet times depending on who is speaking. For some, now is a time of actively introducing opening up the administration to the growing influence of tourism agencies and environmentalists seeking to promote Kamchatka’s natural assets. For others, it is a time of defending economic and political power built up during the military’s unquestioned reign of the region. Added to this are the complexities of the Russian federal system involving various layers of authority and politicians unaccustomed to acknowledging, let alone resolving, debate. What will emerge from these controversies is unclear. Kamchatka’s politics is a blank page.

Until this page is filled, who controls Kamchatka?

On our final day on the peninsula we encounter a moose, a snow sheep and a brown bear in the hotel lobby. The only recognizable animal is the moose, whose giant antlers are wrapped in strips of cardboard held together with beige masking tape. Through the gaps I tap its rock-like bone underneath, making a sound like a door knock. The snow sheep, a rare and popular prey for hunters because of its large twisted horns, is packed in boxes. The brown bear’s head and skins lie in a navy duffel bag.

A huge Spanish hunter, Juan, in military-dark green cords and shirt is the proud owner of these trophies. He is accompanied by his wife who confesses although she goes on the hunts she feels squeamish and looks away when the gun fires.

We spend the evening discussing their travels. It is known for hunters to spend $US10,000 to come to Kamchatka and hunt but Juan, being the sole foreign hunter this week, has spent a mere $US5000. They describe eating salmon caviar each morning for breakfast, praise the flavour of reindeer meat compared to the stringy snow sheep, relate their experience of camping out in the wilderness and trading tales with indigenous hunters. The white hunter and his Russian tour agent seems to have a reasonable perspective on why and how to hunt assuring us it benefits local indigenous people and does not endanger animal species. But Parks staff are more circumspect saying that the hunters natural desire to always shoot the biggest animal available means populations of bears will get smaller and smaller in size and that the offer of US dollars will tempt guides and trackers to let them do so. Radmir Korenev, from the Parks Department, says the hunting licence for a bear is 600 roubles ($US20) and snow sheep half this fee (40 per cent of this money going to the federal budget and the rest to the region’s budget).

The next morning at the airport our bags sit next to the reindeer, snow sheep and brown bear and I watch them all being pulled on a trolley across the tarmac. The sight of the blue duffel bag bulging with a bear’s skin and head sits uneasily with my memory of the first brown bear I had seen. That great male, in the distance and out of our reach. His dark fur rippled as he strode in a way that expressed an enviable confidence in his surroundings. Now the skin of one of his kind was being lifted by two men into the hull of the plane. 

Climbing the stairs to the aircraft my eyes are drawn beyond the airport, to Avacha volcano. Perched high and white it dominates the landscape. Its snowy cone evokes a ferocity and vulnerability as its trail of smoke sullies the blue sky.

Any questions about Kamchatka? Contact me:

[December 2001]

Kamchatka – Fast Facts

Location: Bounded by the Pacific Ocean, Bering Sea and Sea of Okhotsk, north of Japan lies Kamchatka, a 1,200-kilometre-long peninsula.

Capital: Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky.

Administration: Kamchatka is subdivided into the Autonomous Republic of Koryakskaya in the north and Kamchatka Region in the south – both part of the Russian Federation.

Natural environment: Kamchatka has around 300 volcanic peaks around 10 percent of which have been active volcanoes in the past 100 years plus 200 hot springs and geysers. Nature parks and protected areas form 28 percent of the region.

Animals: the world’s largest population of brown bears and greatest salmon spawning ground for ten different species, whales, half the world’s Steller’s sea eagles plus seals, sea lions and otters. Also contains sable, bighorn (or snow) sheep, reindeer, fox, lynx, wolves and moose.

Plants: Kamchatka’s deciduous forest is comprised of stone birch (which can be 200 years old) and Kamchatkan white birch (up to 70 years old).

People: There is a small and declining population of around 300,000 people, including indigenous cultures. Itelmen people once inhabited the entire central and southern portion of the peninsula – today some 1,500 Itelmen live on the west coast and fish salmon.

Even people live in the eastern mountains. About 700 of them rely chiefly on the reindeer and are separated from the rest of their people by the Sea of Okhotsk.

Koryak people number about 5,000 and live in the North hunting reindeer, fishing and hunting marine mammals.

How to get there: Flights leave Moscow for Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky 3 times a week: each Monday, Wednesday & Saturday.

Travel in Kamchatka: Tours can be arranged through PARK Travel Company which also contributes funds to maintenance of Kamchatka’s protected natural areas email: (Anouk Ride travels to Kamchatka were organized and supported by WWF, the conservation organization.)

1 rouble = 0.033 USD

In Jayapura, I spoke to independence leader Theys Eluay for this feature. Sadly, he was kidnapped and strangled to death by Indonesian military officers in 2001. They received jail sentences of only three years for the murder. Here are the thoughts of Eluay and others on what an independent West Papua may be like…

‘It’s very easy to understand,’ insists West Papuan leader Theys Eluay, ‘This is what we want – independence.’ It is also obvious that the locals in West Papua (officially known as Irian Jaya) have arrived at this conclusion themselves and, in stark contrast to Aceh, without propaganda wars and threats. This great slice of Papua, with 240 tribal groups, has involuntarily been Indonesia’s easternmost province since they took the territory by force from the Dutch in 1961. Ever since then the military have controlled the province’s resources and people using torture, rape, killings and land dispossession. Now, however, from the villages to the cities a grassroots movement for independence is spreading new shoots.

Zadrak Wamebu from the Institute for Irian Jaya Indigenous People Study and Empowerment agrees: ‘There is now a self-confidence in people. There have been many demos to raise the flag and also on land rights. Recently hundreds of people carried the body of a victim of the military to their headquarters in Jayapura. This body was buried in front of the military headquarters, not in a cemetery, so that they are forced to acknowledge what they are doing. Every month someone is killed. If you look at things now, everyone’s ready to face the military because we know too much. Before they just went along with it.’

People went along with it because they were never presented with an alternative. West Papua has been betrayed by the best of the West – by the US, the Netherlands, Britain, Australia, the world’s biggest mining company and most recently, the Highland peoples believe, by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

The US were the first to ignore the West Papuans. In 1962, they brokered a deal whereby the Dutch would leave the territory and transfer sovereignty to the United Nations until a local vote could be held for independence or integration with Indonesia. The West Papuans were not involved in these discussions and instead of the UN, Indonesia quietly took over administration of the province and repression began in earnest.

‘We don’t know why the US had to make that deal,’ says Theys. ‘We were already a nation, we had a culture, a flag, even an anthem. We already had freedom and rights as a nation. But we were never listened to. Why weren’t we asked?’

Seven years later, in 1969, under the ‘Act of Free Choice’ Indonesia selected 1,025 West Papuans to be ‘asked’ whether they wanted independence. All elected for integration with Indonesia.

One of the few journalists there at the time (the world’s media was focused on Indochina), Hugh Lunn, has written an account which records Papuans’ heartfelt and ignored pleas to the outside world. On arriving at his hotel he found a letter soaked in blood which said Indonesia was killing dissenting Papuans. Then a Papuan who came into his room supposedly to repair a light mimed himself being shot in the back of the head while another pretended to be handcuffed. UN staff who spoke to Lunn off-the-record had all experienced but not publicized similar creative requests for international support.1

Australia also ignored such pleas. At the request of Indonesia, it arrested two pro-independence activists when they entered Australian-administered Papua New Guinea. They carried testimonies from Papuans calling for independence and for the UN to abandon the Act of Free Choice. These were never delivered – instead the activists were put in jail.

A statement prepared by the US Embassy in Jakarta and presented to Australia before the UN-supervised vote says: ‘Personal political views of the UN team are... 95 per cent of Irianese (West Papuans) support the independence movement and that the Act of Free Choice is a mockery.’2

This new evidence confirms that the UN, Australia and the US all knew that the Act of Free Choice was actually what Papuans call the ‘Act of No Choice’. The duplicity is incomprehensible to most Papuans – the UN had embraced many new nations; the US, in its anti-Communist crusade, avowed support for freedom and Australia followed suit. But all these promises and pronouncements were void when it came to their own oppression.

After West Papua was officially proclaimed Indonesian, the small rebel group, Organisasi Papua Merdeka (OPM or Free Papua Movement) although armed only with bows, arrows and spears, provided the Indonesian military with a rationale to clamp down on the province. An estimated 60,000 troops were deployed. From 1967 to 1972 the military violence is estimated to have caused between 30,000 and 100,000 Papuan deaths. Then, in the late 1970s, a series of ceremonies raising the West Papuan flag in the Highlands resulted in the military bombing and strafing of whole villages, killing at least 1,000 people and causing at least 5,000 to flee and hide out in the forest.

According to Denny Yomaki, from the Irian Jaya Environment Foundation, the OPM is not a real threat but an excuse for military occupation. He says locals found groups of fake OPM on the border who have better weapons and who also have crates of Indonesian-brand beer and whisky delivered once a month. This stands in stark contrast to the ‘real’ OPM as Denny explains: ‘Some of the OPM fighters in the forest have been fighting for 30 years now and they are isolated – they have never seen cars or TVs or whatever. In the forest, the only way people can think is to fight with bows and arrows and whatever they have.’

Western silence over continuing human-rights abuses was ensured once they became intimately involved in Indonesia’s great land grab. West Papua may be the most profitable real estate Indonesia owns – mainly due to its rich mineral resources. The chief mining enterprise is the world’s largest copper and gold mine run by the American company Freeport McMoRan Copper and Gold. The Indonesian government has a nine-per-cent stake in the mine. Another major profiteer is British mining giant Rio Tinto which owns nearly 15 per cent of Freeport’s share capital, producing around $150 million for Rio Tinto in 1998. All that the West Papuans will get from this huge enterprise is a scarred environment – Freeport now dumps 70 million tonnes of tailings a year into the Ajikwa river and will leave behind a 230-square-kilometre scar in the jungle when the mine closes in 30 years’ time.3

‘We have been spectators not participants in development,’ laments Theys Eluay. ‘Java’s too crowded and they see Papua as a way to feed themselves. Without us they will starve.’

After years fighting a war largely unknown to the outside world, in January 1996 the OPM resorted to desperate measures to get their demands heard. They took hostages: scientists from Britain’s Cambridge University, the Jakarta Biological Science Club and the World Wide Fund for Nature, their assistants and local people from the district of Mapnduma. Eleven were released within the first two weeks but four British, two Dutch and five Indonesian citizens remained hostages. OPM leader Kelly Kwalik says: ‘We took the researchers hostage because we had no other way for our cause to be acknowledged.’4

The ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) had a solid relationship with the people of Mapnduma district. So it was natural that they became involved in attempting to reach an agreement to release the hostages. By early May it seemed that they had reached an understanding. A ceremonial feast to celebrate the release of the hostages and International Red Cross Day was scheduled for 8 May in Nggeselema village.

Yet the OPM cancelled the release of the hostages: they felt the ICRC had broken their agreement by failing to bring official representatives of the English, Dutch, German and Indonesian governments to Nggeselema.5

‘Even though we wear penis gourds and torn shirts we have the brains God gave to us all,’ said Kwalik. He was angry and announced that the hostages were not going to be released yet, but he did not threaten their lives. He also asked: ‘Is this really the Red Cross or people disguised as the Red Cross?’4 Kwalik was convinced that when they gave back the hostages they would be attacked by the Indonesian military. The next morning on 9 May Sylvianne Bonadei, the ICRC staff member who dealt most closely with the local people and the OPM, visited Nggeselema. It was agreed the ICRC would return three days later and it was clear that negotiations were not closed.4

At 3:00pm a helicopter with the logo and flag of the ICRC landed in Nggeselema village. As always when it arrived, locals approached the helicopter to welcome the medical staff. But the four white passengers (one of whom some eyewitnesses claim looked like Bonadei) fired into the crowd, the church and the clinic, killing two civilians. Five military choppers that had followed behind the ICRC helicopter then conducted an aerial bombardment that razed the village and left twelve people dead.5

At the same time as the attack, the ICRC announced its resignation as negotiator at a press conference at the Sheraton Hotel in Timika.5 The local people in Nggesselema had no way of knowing that their attackers were imposters.

Sylvianne Bonadei firmly denies she was on that helicopter of killers – and the other ICRC staff were put on a plane to Jakarta that same day. The ICRC is investigating who might have impersonated their staff and used their symbol and equipment. Bonadei says: ‘If the emblem has been violated... it was our only powerful means of getting into that place and get the trust from these people, so how can they possibly trust us again?’4

So who were the white attackers? Residents of Keneyam – a village used as a military base during the hostage crisis – have testified that 16 white people wearing army camouflage arrived in their village on 8 May 1996, the day before the attack.5

Britain appointed Military Attaché and SAS veteran Colonel Ivor Helberg to provide specialized assistance and advice to Indonesia’s General Prabowo during the hostage crisis. He says he had a team of police hostage experts working with him but others claim these men were actually the élite English military unit, the SAS. Ivor Helberg himself says: ‘I cannot imagine that either the Indonesian Government or Her Majesty’s Government... would allow some third party, mercenary organization to actually execute the kind of operation on our behalf. I mean, can you imagine if it all went wrong? It would be horrendous, wouldn’t it? What would the parents [of the hostages] think and that sort of thing?’4

Nick van den Bergh of the mercenary group Executive Outcomes (EO) has said that he led a team of five people in the Mapnduma area in 1996. The team worked as technical advisors and trainers for helicopter attack teams. He has also confirmed the participation of members of the SAS but denies that his EO troops were involved in the attack on Nggeselema.1 It has not been verified whether the white soldiers who undertook the attack were SAS, police working with Helberg, Executive Outcomes soldiers, or a combination of all three.

Meanwhile the violence and fear continues. This and last year, for example, independence rallies in early July resulted in the military firing on unarmed protesters, killing over 20 people and wounding over 100. Amidst the clamour surrounding East Timor, the military presence here has continued without comment. Military Head General Wiranto has made moves to strengthen rather than relax Indonesia’s grip – including proposals to legislate a state of emergency.

Some hopes for a political solution have been raised by a national dialogue on the province under President Habibie. Representatives from all over the territory have told Habibie they want independence. Indigenous activist Zadrak Wamebu thinks that Habibie is a better person than Suharto but: ‘Habibie doesn’t have control over what the military does. There’s still people dying. The military is supposed to be just used in an emergency. There’s so many armed forces here and there’s no need. If there’s an emergency, civilians can join the army and sort it out.’ He adds with bright-eyed enthusiasm: ‘I’ll join the army!’ Then pauses for a moment: ‘But, no, I wouldn’t join it because I’m anti-violence.’

Zadrak ponders what an independent West Papua would be like: ‘It’s hard to say. A system would have to consider all tribes. It would be dangerous if they took on a similar system to Suharto. If there were one tribe that controlled all the others.’ He adds teasingly: ‘Well, except if they were my friends...’

But he is certain about one thing: ‘The political system and the political culture which we’ve experienced have supported terror not freedom. We need a situation where people are sharing, where you have to listen and respect what your elders give you. We need to be in a different world where it’s not seen that some people have to be out in front of the rest.’

Any questions about West Papua? Contact me:

[December 1999]

1 Hugh Lunn, ‘How the West was lost’ The Weekend Australian 21-22 August 1999.
2 Sydney Morning Herald 26 August 1999.
3 World Development Movement.
4 Australian Broadcasting Corporation Website.
5 Press Release Military Operation for the Release of Hostages and Human Rights Violations In the Central Highlands of Irian Jaya: Unveiling the Mystery of the Bloody ICRC Mission, The Involvement of Foreign Soldiers and the Indonesian Army, signed by Johanes Bonay, SH (Director IHRSTAD), Herman Saud (Christian Evangelical Church in Irian Jaya ), Mgr Leo Laba Ladjar (Bishop of Jayapura), Rev Benny Giay, PhD (Research and Development, Christian Missionary Alliance of Indonesia, Jayapura) 25 August 1999.


Australian West Papuan Association (Sydney)
PO Box 65, Millers Point, NSW 2000.
Tel: +61 2 9552 6022.
Fax: +61 2 9960 1698.

Survival International,
11-15 Emerald St, London WC1 N3QL England.
Tel: +44 171 242 1441.
Fax: +44 171 242 1771.

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