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Wanted activist Benny Wenda tells of 'bows and arrows' revolt

Tjahjono Eranius / AFP - Getty Images

Papuan demonstrators wave a banned flag during before police opened fire to break up the protest on Dec. 1, 2011.

Benny Wenda was born in a village of the Lani people in the Baliem valley, a remote and beautiful mountain region of West Papua. It should have been an idyllic childhood.

Instead Wenda says one of his earliest memories is the bombing of his village in 1977; that at the age of five he witnessed his aunts being raped — "it make me hard cry, you know?"  — and that later his uncle Kepas was beaten and buried alive.

The culprits, he told msnbc.com, were Indonesia's security forces.

As an adult, Wenda became a leader of the campaign for West Papuan independence. But he then found himself accused of inciting people to attack a police station and an arson attack that resulted in several deaths.


While awaiting sentence in 2002, he escaped prison after hearing rumors he was going to be killed and fled Indonesia.

Wenda was granted asylum in Britain and settled down with his family in Oxford, while still continuing to campaign for freedom for his people and setting up his own website.

Leon Neal / AFP - Getty Images, file

Benny Wenda protests in London on April 15, 2010.

But late last year, he became aware that Interpol had issued a "red notice" for him at Indonesia's request and that he was listed as a "wanted person" on Interpol's website.

"I think Indonesia is just trying to stop me and my campaign," he told msnbc.com. "Because I'm getting support around the world, that's why they put Interpol on me. I'm telling the truth and I'm standing for my people."

'Justice, freedom and dignity'
Wenda admitted there was an armed resistance movement in West Papua, but said they were freedom fighters, not terrorists.

"They are standing for justice, freedom and dignity," he said.

Wenda said some fighters had guns but "mainly they are fighting with bows and arrows."

"They know where to go, they are hiding on their own lands, hiding in the bush," he said, of their conflict with one of the world's largest militaries.

"We're not scared of those Indonesians, because we are standing for our rights," Wenda said.

In 2004, a 75-page Yale Law School report detailed bombings of the Baliem Valley in 1977, citing a former Indonesian official's estimate that 3,000 people had died.

"The Jakarta daily, Kompas, reported ... (the) 'Baliem River was so full of corpses that for a month and a half ... people could not bring themselves to eat fish'," the report said.

Natural resources
Wenda said while the U.S., U.K. and other countries had previously been mainly interested in the region's natural resources, he sensed "a new generation" of politicians were changing their views.

In October, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton voiced her concern about violence and human rights violations in the region, the Jakarta Globe reported in an article that said 2011 had been "marked by violence and increased militarization."

Indonesia says West Papua — officially divided by Indonesia into the regions of Papua and West Papua, names rejected by Wenda — belongs to them because it was part of the Dutch East Indies colony, which became independent as Indonesia in 1949.

The Dutch retained control over West Papua at that time and in 1961, Indonesia threatened to invade. After discussions at the United Nations, it was decided to let West Papuans make the decision in an "Act of Free Choice" in 1969. Just over 1,000 specially chosen tribal leaders voted.

'A Greek tragedy'
According to an article published by The George Washington University in 2004, a secret U.S. Embassy telegram in 1969 said the Act was "unfolding like a Greek tragedy, the conclusion preordained."

"Dissident activity is likely to increase but the Indonesian armed forces will be able to contain and, if necessary, suppress it," it added.

Ambassador Frank Galbraith said in another secret 1969 document that "possibly 85 to 90 percent" of the population "are in sympathy with the Free Papua cause." He added that recent Indonesian military operations had resulted in the deaths of hundreds, possibly thousands of civilians, leading to rumors of "intended genocide."

However, secret briefing papers show that Henry Kissinger told President Richard Nixon not to raise the West Papuan issue on a July 1969 visit to Indonesian capital Jakarta, the GWU article said.

According to Amnesty International, "human rights violations are a daily reality" in modern-day West Papua.

"Freedom of express and association are severely restricted. Since the late 1990s, hundreds of people have been arrested for pro-independence activities, and dozens of peaceful protesters remain in prison," Amnesty says on its website.

"Reports indicate that the security forces use unnecessary force during demonstrations, and torture those who are perceived to be pro-independence supporters ... torture by Indonesian police is also widespread," it adds.

In Nov. 2001, BBC News quoted an Indonesian official as saying Wenda was part of a "clandestine organization dedicated to secede from Indonesia using any means available to them."

Billy Wibisono, Third Secretary (Information and Socio-Cultural Affairs) at the Indonesian Embassy in London, told the BBC: "Mr. Wenda and several other accomplices participated in an attack of the Abepura Police Station on December 7, 2000 and caused the deaths and destruction of property."

He told the BBC that six police officers and civilians were killed. Wibisono added that the red notice would be withdrawn if Wenda "can prove his innocence in our court of law."

Father of six
Now a U.K. citizen and living with his wife Maria and six children, aged from one-and-a-half to 11, Wenda said he was confident he is safe from the Indonesian authorities.

"I'm not alone, because all the British people are surrounding me. They are really nice people," he said, adding that he has not heard anything from the British authorities about the red notice.

But his children are not so certain.

"They are really scared. My oldest daughter ... she really worries because 'I don't want my daddy in prison again, I don't want my daddy tortured again,'" he said.

"I'm confident one day my people will be free, just like other people. That is my dream: One day my people will be able to get freedom."

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