ndonesia correspondent for Fairfax Media
West Papua’s youth are being removed to Islamic religious schools in Java for “re-education”, writes Michael Bachelard.
Johanes Lokobal sits on the grass that cushions the wooden floor of his little, one-room house. He warms his hands at a fire set in the centre. From time to time a pig, out of sight in an annex, squeals and slams itself thunderously against the adjoining wall.
The village of Megapura in the central highlands of Indonesia’s far-eastern province of West Papua is so remote that supplies arrive by air or by foot only. Johanes Lokobal has lived here all his life. He does not know his exact age: “Just old,” he croaks. He’s also poor. “I help in the fields. I earn about 20,000 rupiah [$2] per day. I clean the school garden.” But in a hard life, one hardship particularly offends him. In 2005, his only son, Yope, was taken to faraway Jakarta. Lokobal did not want Yope to go. The boy was perhaps 14, but big and strong, a good worker. The men responsible took him anyway. A few years later, Yope died. Nobody can tell Lokobal how, nor exactly when, and he has no idea where his son is buried. All he knows, fiercely, is that this was not supposed to happen.
“If he was still alive, he would be the one to look after the family,” Lokobal says. “He would go to the forest to collect the firewood for the family. So I am sad.”
The men who took Yope were part of an organised traffic in West Papuan youth. A six-month Good Weekend investigation has confirmed that children, possibly in their thousands, have been enticed away over the past decade or more with the promise of a free education. In a province where the schools are poor and the families poorer still, no-cost schooling can be an irresistible offer.
But for some of these children, who may be as young as five, it’s only when they arrive that they find out they have been recruited by “pesantren”, Islamic boarding schools, where time to study maths, science or language is dwarfed by the hours spent in the mosque. There, in the words of one pesantren leader, “They learn to honour God, which is the main thing.” These schools have one aim: to send their graduates back to Christian-majority Papua to spread their muscular form of Islam.
Ask the 100 Papuan boys and girls at the Daarur Rasul school outside Jakarta what they want to be when they grow up and they shout, “Ustad! Ustad! [religious teacher].”