I’ve come to the end of my first week here. I want to say that it’s all been great and inspiring, and it has at times, but it’s also been really challenging. My thesis has also become a lot more real to me. It should not have come as a surprise that conducting a project about West Papuan freedom fighters would be intense, but somehow it did.
I had my first meeting with my contact here on Monday. For privacy's sake I’ll call her Amy, she is a West Papuan woman who is helping me set up interviews with West Papuans living in Papua New Guinea. We had a great chat about the project and also the work she does in PNG and her plans for future study. That evening Amy called and asked whether I had noticed the Indonesian man who had come and sat down at a table next to us at the restaurant. She said he had sat there listening to us and not ordered anything, then got up to leave when we did. Amy said she had directed the conversation away from West Papua once she became aware of him. She said after we left and the man got up to leave to and she had to stall at the hotel for a little while to make sure he didn’t follow her home.
I had noticed the man beside us but I hadn't considered he might be listening in on our conversation. Amy told me it is common for West Papuans to be watched by Indonesians in Papua New Guinea. Although they were not likely to do anything in PNG except monitor us, we had to be careful about where we conducted the interviews the next day. We decided to hold the oral histories in a different place to ensure my participants could talk openly.
Although I knew these events were real and impacted the lives of real people, the severity of their impact is dulled when you encounter them only in documents and as words on a screen. As I sat out in the heat and humidity the next day listening to stories of men and women who had experienced Indonesia’s colonisation of West Papua and hearing about their suffering, their fear and their sacrifice, everything took on a whole new vividness. At the end of each interview I asked the participants: 'is there anything else you would like to add before we end?' And each time, they would look me in the eyes and urge me to tell their stories to the world, to tell people about the suffering of the West Papuan peoples still in West Papua and to not give up the fight for West Papuan independence.
It was encouraging and moving. Although I felt unworthy of their stories and their trust, the only way I can continue to do this kind of research with integrity is to be accountable to the communities’ whose stories I was telling. Over the next few weeks, hopefully I can continue to be taught and shaped by these incredible people.