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Going Home to Wamena

Novita Dewi started writing poetry and short stories during her elementary and middle school days. She published in Si Kuncung and Bobo, children magazines, as well as wrote for the children’s columns featured in Kompas and Sinar Harapan (now Suara Pembaruan). She now nurtures her interest in literature by writing articles about literature and translation for scientific journals. Novita is widely published. The short stories translated and published by Dalang Publishing are her first attempts of literary translation.

She currently teaches English literature courses at Sanata Dharma University, Yogyakarta, Indonesia. Novita can be reached at or


Going Home to Wamena

I placed my teaching job assignment to Wamena on the dark brown table in my room and sipped some water, trying to calm myself. A framed, faded picture of my parents caught my eye. I could not remember the last time I had last looked closely at the photo.

I picked up the picture and sighed. “Ibu, Mother, Ayah, Father, I miss you! Will we ever meet again?”

My childhood memories swiftly returned. I was born in 1996, in Wamena, a small town in the Jayawijaya Regency of Indonesia’s Papua’s highlands. “Wamena” meant piglet in the vernacular language. I spent my childhood there. Although my parents were not natives of Wamena, they always taught me to love my place of birth. My childhood was no different from that of other Wamena children.

The small town had a diverse population that came from various regions. I had playmates from Padang, Madura, Sunda, Toraja, and Wamena. My parents taught me to not discriminate against my friends regardless of where they came from.

My father was a migrant from Java, and my mother came from Sumatra. My father drifted to Wamena right after graduating from high school. At first, he worked as a shopkeeper in a furniture store. Later, he decided to start his own business and opened a convenience store in Wamena.

My mother was a civil servant in the Social Services Department who had been assigned to a clerical position in Wamena.

The two met, married, and decided to continue living in beautiful Wamena. My childhood had been fairly pleasant until that dreadful day came.

The incident began when the TNI (the Indonesian military) and Polri (the Indonesian National Police) forcibly removed the Bintang Kejora (Morning Star) flag of the native Papuans, as a government measure to repress the Papuans’ independence movement.

I was only four years old.

That afternoon of October 6, the sun had just disappeared behind the mountains that surrounded the town. I was running around, playing with my favorite blue ball, and became scared when suddenly a column of thick black smoke appeared over the mountains that had been so beautiful just a moment ago. The rattling of gunshots filled the far corners of town. In front of our house, some people started running.

A neighbor, who was a local Dani tribe member, told us to go immediately inside and take shelter under the bed.

We quickly followed his orders. The gunfire continued for hours.

Ayah held me in his arms. He covered my ears to keep me from hearing anything. But I could still hear the frightened screams outside, and to this day, those sounds are recorded in my mind.
The Danis, the indigenous Papua tribe who lived in the Wamena area, raided our house several times looking for Javanese migrants. Some of them shouted, “Ou! Ou! Ou!”

“What happened to them?” My mother asked nervously. “Why are they in pain?”

“They’re not in pain.” Ayah tightened his arms around me and whispered, “Ou, ou, is the Dani tribe’s war cry.”

My father’s embrace pressed my ears against his chest, and I could hear his heart racing. “Apparently, they believe that all Javanese are the oppressors, and they want us to leave Wamena immediately.” Ayah sighed heavily.

From under the bed, I peeked between my father’s arms and saw one of the Dani men holding a sharp machete covered with fresh blood.

All through the night, we hid under the bed. Ibu counted rosary beads, praying that someone would rescue us.

That night was the most terrible night of my life. I felt suffocated in the narrow, dark, dusty space under the bed. From time to time, I whined, pleading to get out of the place soon. But Ayah could only give me a hug to make me wait patiently for help.

In the morning, my mother’s prayers were answered. Several armed members of the TNI came to our house. Ayah immediately went outside and asked for help. They loaded our family into a military truck.

Around us, the riots continued. Massacres were rampant. Members of the Indonesian National Police and the indigenous Dani Papuans of Wamena killed each other. So much blood was shed, it seemed that peace could no longer be possible between them.

As we rode along, Ibu covered my eyes with her hands. Peeping through her fingers, I saw corpses lying along the road. Some of the bodies were mutilated.

People screamed in fear and ran to save themselves. Many became separated from their families; many witnessed family members being decapitated before getting killed themselves. Children cried, desperately looking for their mothers. The sound of crying everywhere was heartbreaking.

We were taken to the police station in Wamena and put into a room with barred windows. There, we joined other refugees who shared our fate. At that point, we were thankful we had managed to escape the October 6 incident.

The refugees all helped each other out, treating wounds, and helping mothers look after their children, who cried incessantly in fear. The men helped the Indonesian army prepare food. They used shovels and drums as cooking equipment because there was no other choice. At that moment, survival was the most important thing.

After several sleepless days and nights, my mother held me and encouraged me to close my eyes. But in the corner of the room, I saw my father scribbling on a crumpled piece of paper.
He looked nervous.

I immediately went over to him, crawled onto his lap, and hugged him tightly.

Ayah put the crumpled piece of paper into my jacket pocket. He stroked my hair and said, “Get some sleep, sweetheart. We will be leaving here soon; we’ve already waited a long time.”

That was the first time I saw tears well up in Ayah’s eyes. Before the tears rolled down his cheeks, I held him tight.

The next morning, because the town was still unsafe, the military transported a large group of us to the airport. As the military escorted us by truck out of Wamena, dark smoke still covered the sky. An Indonesian Air Force plane made several quick passes over us.

I saw almost everyone try to control their fear.

Ayah whispered, “Don’t be afraid, Lin; after this, we’ll go far away.” And, as usual, I believed him.

But when we arrived at the airport, things did not turn out as expected. Several Dani tribesmen, armed with bows and arrows, had closed the airport. Unable to land, the Indonesian Air Force plane continued to make passes above the town.

The number of Dani militia at the airport increased.

The TNI and the Dani militia clashed. Members of both parties died on the spot, either pierced by arrows or shot. The airfield was splattered by blood. Eventually, the army overpowered the Danis.
Quickly, the Air Force plane landed.

Ayah immediately picked me up, grabbed my mother’s hand, and ran toward the plane. As we got closer to the plane, the crowd’s jostling intensified. People elbowed each other, trying to board the plane as quickly as possible.

Ayah shielded my head, protecting me from being hit by the crowd pushing onto the aircraft with increasing aggressiveness.

Trembling with fear, I clung to Ayah.

He lifted me up onto his shoulder and managed to bring us very close to the plane. I heard him asking several people near the plane’s door for help to take me.

A middle-aged man next to us yanked me off my father’s shoulders. It felt as if I’d lost my arm, and I cried out in pain.

The man, with me in his arms, managed to climb several steps up to the aircraft.

Meanwhile, as people tried to overtake each other to board the plane, my parents were pushed farther back in the crowd.

I did not want to be separated from my parents, and I struggled in the man’s arms.

He held on to me while continuing to climb the steps crowded with people muscling each other. Several people trampled him, and he began to limp.

I did not care at all what happened to him. I just kept shouting as I watched my father and mother being pushed farther and farther away by the crowd.

A few moments later, the middle-aged man got us both into the plane.

Sobbing, I called for Ayah and Ibu, but they were nowhere to be seen.

The plane’s door closed and, I still did not see them. I didn’t know anyone on the plane.

Terrified, I ran screaming down the plane’s aisle, looking for my parents.

The middle-aged man quickly caught me and pulled me back into his arms. He tried to make me stop crying, but I ignored him. I was so very scared knowing that my parents were not with me. I kept sobbing until I started to feel very tired. During the flight from Wamena to Jayapura, I fell asleep in the man’s arms.

When we landed in Jayapura, the middle-aged man looked nervously in every direction, as if he were looking for someone among the refugees. He then entrusted me to the care of the nurses at the airport.

The nurses tried to comfort me as they treated my injuries. They found the crumpled piece of paper that my father had put in my jacket pocket. It was a note with the name and address of my aunt in Jakarta.

I was sent to her, and Budhe, my aunt, became my guardian and raised me.


My tears wet the photo of my parents. Because of all that had happened, I never wanted to return to Wamena. I hated my childhood memories; they always stirred up sadness and fear. My new job assignment, however, presented me with a difficult choice.

I slowly reread my job assignment post: Wamena, Jayawijaya Regency. I began to feel the pain. I closed my eyes tightly. I wanted to scream loud enough to penetrate the sky. “Why does the universe turn things around at will?”

I sunk deep into the memories of my parents and my childhood. I remembered how I was raised with a great love for the land of my birth. I also remembered how my mother taught me not to differentiate others based solely on their physical appearance.

I repeatedly pounded the table with mixed feelings of regret and anger. How could I have possibly grown up while holding a grudge? This was not the attitude my parents would have wanted to see in their daughter. Still, the loss of my beloved parents remained so painful.

But I now realized my mistake. I had misjudged a group of people based solely on my own prejudices. What I had experienced in my childhood shouldn’t cause me to discriminate now. Everything that happened to my parents and me was not entirely the fault of one segment of society. My parents and I, like everyone else, were victims of the anger and differences that were reflected at that time.
I tried to calm myself and return to silence.

I now understood what my parents had hoped for. I took a piece of paper and poured my innermost feelings into the writing that quickly filled the paper. I wrote:

The incident on October 6, 2000, would not have happened had peaceful deliberations been used to resolve the problem. Instead, both parties — the joint network of the TNI military and Polri police force on one side, and the Papuan community in Wamena on the other — stood unwavering in their respective opinions.

The Indonesian government insisted that the Morning Star flag, flying at several points in Wamena, be taken down, while the Papuan population refused to obey and opposed the order.

This incident resulted in at least thirty people being killed and forty others seriously injured. The wound from this event makes me understand that the actual problem was not caused by differences. It was not about different perspectives. It was not about cultural differences. It was about trust. There was no trust between the two parties, who both saw themselves as victims: victims of violence and victims of injustice related to differences between communities. Both entities felt threatened by the presence of the other.

We are not fortified by differences because, in essence, we are never different. The biggest barrier between us is our suspicion of each other. This is the element that prevents us from living peacefully side by side.

During the incident, not one single corpse I saw had a different color of blood than another. Only when covered by different skin colors did indigenous Papuans and Javanese migrants start to distrust each other, and this widened the gap between them. The military apparatus, government officials, and civilians — including the indigenous Papuan people who live in the region — should understand this historical wound. By understanding history and the character of the Papuan people, we can coexist peacefully in the land of Papua.

After writing the short note, I felt greatly relieved. I focused on my job assignment to teach in Wamena, and I remembered Budhe once said to me, “Teaching is a noble profession.”

In my opinion, noble work should be done sincerely. Determined and ready to make peace with my bitter childhood memories, I was convinced I had made the best decision. I would soon ask Budhe’s blessing for my teaching career in Wamena.

Hopefully, Budhe would not only accept, but also understand the decision I had made. I slowly picked up my employment agreement. For a moment, I re-read it. My grip around the pen tightened, then I signed the document. I am ready. Taking a deep breath, I said, “Wamena, I’m coming home.”


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