New Internationalist

The NI Interview

Issue 321

new internationalist
issue 321 - March 2000

The NI Interview

Jacob Rumbiak
Andrew Kilvert
tells the story of a West Papuan
independence campaigner whose will to survive outlasted
the best efforts of the Indonesian military to break him.

Photo by Andrew Kilvert Jacob Rumbiak is a polite and softly spoken man whose quiet demeanor masks an adventurer, activist and a political prisoner with a survival tale that makes the fictional adventures of Papillon seem mild. Last September Jacob escaped East Timor and turned up in Australia. After fleeing the UN building in Baucau which was strafed by Indonesian troops for over an hour, he slipped through the military blockade at the airport posing as a citizen of Papua New Guinea who had lost his passport. He managed to get on the plane along with Bishop Belo and two of his aides, making him one of only a handful of Indonesian UN staff to be evacuated before UN peacekeepers arrived two weeks later. But he was no ordinary UN official.

Born in a small village on the island of Numfor in the mountainous Indonesian province of Irian Jaya (West Papua as it is known by those seeking independence from Indonesian military rule), Jacob and his family fled to the provincial capital, Jayapura, from military operations following the Indonesian invasion of West Papua in 1961. Jacob eventually gained a masters degree in climatology and joined the non-violent independence movement in the late 1980s. Now he is one of the few survivors from this movement – the others were either executed, died in prison or simply disappeared.

‘I didn’t tell them names.
If I died then it was me only.’

In late 1988 after the outlawed ‘Morning Star’ independence flag (see updates) was raised during an independence protest in Jayapura he was arrested for subversion. This began a ten-year ordeal which took him through six prisons and eventually to the comparative luxury of the infamous political wing of the Cipinang prison in Jakarta. When asked if he was tortured in any of these jails he gives a quizzical look as if to say ‘Why are you asking such ignorant questions?’ but answers quietly: ‘All of them.’

In Jayapura, where he spent the first three years, he was thrown into cells with an electrified metal plate and water on the floor. He says the shocks threw him against the walls until he was unconscious. ‘It lasted for three to four minutes. I awoke on the floor and I was very cold then I remembered what happened.’ he said. Periodic torture was designed to obtain the names of other supporters of West Papuan independence in the university and the provincial government. ‘I didn’t tell them names,’ says Jacob. ‘If I died then it was me only.’

According to Jacob many political prisoners met their deaths this way without giving up names. In 1990 during one of these interrogations, Jacob told a young lieutenant called Safey that he didn’t care if he died. Safey lost it, pulled out his revolver and shot at Jacob’s heart – but just as he turned sideways. He now sports a neat entry and less neat exit scar on either side of his chest. There are also numerous bullet scars on his legs where he was shot during other interrogations in Jayapura and Sulawesi.

But of all the starvation, electric shocks, shootings and beatings he endured, the worst treatment was the two years and eight months in the tower at Tangerang Prison in West Java. There is one small cell in this tower in which political prisoners are kept in total darkness and fed grass and rice contaminated with stones and dirt. Jacob says that he lost the use of his legs towards the end of this period of incarceration. He thought he would die and could no longer sit on the tin which was his latrine. His only human contact was four visits at six-monthly intervals from the International Red Cross who made repeated requests that Jacob be moved to Cipinang Prison. Another prisoner from the Indonesian democracy movement, who later met Jacob in Cipinang, said he himself had been in the tower for only five months. Intense lobbying by his family resulted in a lifesaving transfer. He too had lost the use of his legs. This man from Batak in Java was amazed that Jacob could have survived for so long.

Cipinang prison has an entire wing for political prisoners containing many high-profile leaders of the democracy movement in Jakarta and others like Jacob from the contested outer provinces who end up in Cipinang because of a remarkable ability to survive other jails. According to Jacob this wing became like a university of Indonesian resistance with Xanana Gusmao, the famous East Timor leader, holding court, explaining to activists from all over the Indonesian archipelago exactly how the East Timorese support network operated. ‘In Cipinang the food was very good,’ Jacob says. ‘We were left alone more and I became good friends with Xanana Gusmao – we shared a cat in our wing.’

In 1999 after serving 10 years of his 17-year sentence, Jacob was released on parole to live in military barracks in Jakarta. He immediately obtained a forged passport in a false name and was flown to Japan where he attended a human-rights conference as the West Papuan advocate. Upon his return to Jakarta he went to East Timor to act as an observer in the UN-sponsored East Timor referendum. It was here during the bloody aftermath of the referendum that Jacob saw several of his comrades from the KIPIR observer group killed by Indonesian military and militia gunfire. Jacob himself had numerous near misses including one incident where his glasses were shot off his face. He spent the nights sleeping in the streets hidden under pieces of tin: it was safer than the house which the authorities knew contained KIPIR workers.

Now Jacob is in Darwin after obtaining a bridging visa until his case can be dealt with by the Australian immigration authorities. His case is now subject to the vagaries of the Australian immigration and refugee process. At the end of three years refugees (who are denied welfare in the interim) are forced to prove their case all over again. It appears that the infamous ‘White Australia Policy’ abandoned in the 1960s has reinvented itself as the ‘Middle-Class Australia Policy’. Those with wealth are allowed in, those in genuine need may not be. Jacob is learning English during his period in Australia but wishes eventually to return to West Papua. ‘It will only take two years,’ he predicts, ‘for Indonesian colonialism to end and then West Papua will be free.’

Andrew Kilvert is a journalist based in Darwin, Australia.

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