Violence escalates in the highland regency of Nduga – at least 24 people killed in armed conflict

An armed attack against construction workers on 2 December 2018 in the remote highland regency of Nduga have allegedly resulted in the deaths of at least 15 civilians and one Indonesian army member, while leaving three further civilians injured. Subsequent clashes between the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB), which is the armed wing of the independence movement, and the Indonesian military forces (TNI) allegedly caused the deaths of five military members and at least four civilians. The TPNPB  has claimed responsibility for the attack against the construction workers. The number of fatalities reported varies between Indonesian authorities and various media sources. Hundreds of indigenous Papuans from the villages Mbua, Yall and Yigi fled into the surrounding forests because they feared repressive acts by Indonesian security forces.

Large caliber projectiles NdugaThe TPNPB Commander Egianus Kogoya claimed full responsibility for the initial attack on 2 December 2018, mentioning a number of 24 fatalities during the armed attack. Another five military members were allegedly killed in armed clashes between Indonesian security forces an the TPNPB over the following days. According to the TPNPB, the Indonesian Army fired heavy machine guns and dropped explosives (described as bombs) from helicopters on several villages –seven explosives on Yigi Village and five explosives on the village of Mbua and Jig- (see image on the left).

Two villagers allegedly died as the military members tried to evacuate the bodies of the killed workers on 2 and 3 December.  Further attacks on 5 December caused the deaths of two villagers named Yulianus Tabuni and Rabu Gwijangge, and severe injuries among four villagers. Military commander Colonel Muhammad Aidi denied the allegations that the military had used airstrikes. On 8 December, the alleged airstrikes stopped while additional police forces and military personnel from Wamena, including 50 military vehicles and two battle tanks, were heading towards the Mbuah district. Indonesian media reported that the armed separatist group killed construction workers who were building parts of the Trans-Papua-Road through the Nduga Regency – the numbers reported varied between 15 and 31 workers.

Peta Rencana Jalan PapuaEgianus Kogoya called the attack an act of self-defense against the TNI which has committed violent acts against indigenous Papuans. He justified the attack, arguing that the construction workers were Indonesian military members, not civilian workers and that the Trans-Papua-Road would contribute to the mobility of Indonesian security forces but bring almost no benefits for indigenous Papuans. The Indonesian Government has assigned large parts of the Trans-Papua-Road construction to the Indonesian Military (see image on the right - yellow roads have been assigned to the TNI). A military member was allegedly killed and another one injured during armed clashes against the TPNPB guerilla forces. On 3 December 2018, TPNPB fighters again attacked a military post in the Mbua District.

The information about the armed clashes, the current refugee situation and the exact number of fatalities remains uncertain as the security forces prevent human rights defenders and journalists from investigating the ongoing military operation in Nduga. A local human rights defender reported that the strong surveillance and restrictions on movement even affect high government officials. In the early morning of 8 December 2018, the vice-regent of Nduga Regency was allegedly stopped at the local airport in Kenyam. A military officer asked the vice-regent where he wants to go. Being aware of the high number of displacements and killed civilians the vice-regent gave an emotional response to the soldier. The informant claimed that the soldiers immediately arrested him and subsequently brought him to a military facility. Until the afternoon, the family was prevented from visiting him at the military base.