west papua refugee camps
A woman and her child inside a Honai (a traditional Papuan house) at the Nduga camp. All photos by ALBERTUS VEMBRIARTO.
West Papua Conflict

Inside West Papua’s Forgotten Refugee Camps

Tens of thousands live in subpar conditions due to ongoing violence between the military and pro-independence fighters with no end in sight.
10 February 2020, 5:44am

This article originally appeared on VICE Indonesia.

Klara, 26, has been sleeping with one eye open for the past year. Constant bouts of fighting between Indonesian security forces and militant separatists in West Papua forced her and thousands of others out of their homes into camps, where they live in appalling conditions without basic needs.

She even recalls a similar raid that took place in 1996, when Indonesian soldiers pillaged her region with bombs in search of separatists.

Klara is just one of tens of thousands who were displaced into camps in Wamena.

A significant portion of West Papuans, who are a racial minority in Indonesia, have been fighting for independence since before the province was annexed to Indonesia in 1962. But Indonesian police and military have effectively stifled independence movements, imprisoning freedom fighters and occasionally barring journalists from entering the province. Some factions of the separatist movement, like the one that sparked violence in Nduga, have turned violent.

In response to an armed attack by separatists that caused the deaths of 16 construction workers in December 2018, President Joko Widodo’s administration retaliated with a military-backed manhunt for pro-independence fighters. Many of the Papuans affected by this crisis believe the military operation has only led to more bloodshed.

The ensuing armed conflict between the Indonesian military and Papuan pro-independence militants, which continues with no end in sight, has forced 45,000 civilians from 13 districts in Nduga to relocate to the nearby city of Wamena. Nduga is home to a total population of 106,000; nearly half have been forced out of their homes.

Some of the internally-displaced Papuans have been caught in the crossfire, like Hendrik Lokbere, aide to the Nduga mayor, who was shot by Indonesian security forces in December 2019.

But disease is the camp’s number one killer. Camp residents have been denied government health services for attempting to seek care outside their district of residence or not having a national identity card.

Kamila, 30, said her 3-year-old son injured himself in the aftermath of the violence, affecting his motor skills. He has yet to receive sufficient medical care.

Government efforts have been ineffective in improving the living conditions of the tens of thousands of internally-displaced persons in Wamena. Nduga’s heated political climate is no help either; regional and provincial governments have found no viable solution to the conflict.

Theo Hesegem, executive director of Justice for the People of Papua Foundation, has called on the government to re-evaluate its militaristic approach in West Papua.

“I believe a military-based security approach has never solved any of Papua’s problems. The local government, provincial government, and NGOs have called on the Central government to withdraw troops from Nduga, to no avail,” Hesegem said.

MARIO, 4, an internally-displaced child, is malnourished and has acute ulcers on his head and neck.

NEMI, 61, is malnourished and dehydrated.

A newly-built shelter for Ndugan refugees. A local allowed internally-displaced persons to construct shelter on his land.

Children play with marbles to pass the time.

Ulcers on the feet of a child in one of the camps. Ulcers are common among children in camps.

Ndugan women returning from the farm. It is difficult for them to grow food in the camps.


Albertus Vembrianto is a Papua-based freelance journalist and photographer. Check out his work here.