Fears for West Papua’s stolen generation
Taken from West Papua to Jakarta, two brothers describe being ‘‘schooled’’ in the Muslim faith and how they were forced to adhere to Islam.
When the parents of Demianus and Seth Gobay died in their small West Papua village of Nabire perhaps five years ago, not all their six children could afford to stay at school.
So when the boys’ uncle, Jupri Gobay, approached with an offer of free schooling for the youngest, Demianus, the remaining children leapt at the chance. The offer had a catch, however. Demianus, who says he was just five years old at the time but was probably a little older, would be taken away to Jakarta. To him it seemed an adventure, but neither he nor his family had any idea that when he arrived at the port in Jakarta, the young Christian boy would be converted to Islam and taken to a strictly religious boarding school. There he would learn little else but how to chant Koran verses and preach his new religion.
His name would be changed to make him sound more Muslim, he’d be denied communication with his family and beaten if he strayed from the curriculum. Demianus shows a scar where he says he was burnt with a cigarette after one infraction.
A few years later, without Demianus’s knowledge, his older brother, Seth, was also taken from his home and brought to Jakarta. Late last year, the two boys, now young teenagers, were finally reunited. They escaped their respective schools and decided to tell of their experiences.
Their story is more evidence that Christian children are being taken from West Papua and converted to Islam – a practice officially denied after being revealed in Fairfax Media’s Good Weekend magazine last year. It also makes clear for the first time that knowledge of the practice reaches high into the upper echelons of Indonesia’s political elite.
The religious conversion of any young child is illegal in Indonesia, and the United Nations deems any transfer of a minor, even for education, as trafficking.
But an Islamic boarding school that both boys attended, As-Syafi’iyah, is run by Tutty Alawiyah, a former women’s minister in the Suharto government and now a prominent preacher and educator.
The woman widely known as Ibu Tutty – who was too busy to answer queries about such a ”small thing” – is highly politically connected in Jakarta. Indonesia’s economic affairs minister, Hatta Rajasa, has been photographed meeting West Papuan children from her school and Religious Affairs Minister Suryadarma Ali presided over a recent celebration of the school’s history. In another twist, Forestry Minister Zulkifli confirmed he had at one point fostered the small boy Demianus Gobay at his Jakarta mansion.
Demianus was a naive young village boy when he was taken away by his uncle on a ship called the Labobar. There were about 12 Papuan children on board, Demianus says, most of them girls and most of them also put there by his Uncle Jupri. The girls, Christian or Muslim, were required to wear headscarves.
On arrival at the port in Jakarta, Demianus says the group was taken to a nearby mosque. The children were made to dress in Islamic clothes and taught to say the ”syahadat”, the prayer to convert them to Islam. From then on, Demianus was told, his name would be ”Usman”. His original name was ”haram,” or forbidden, the clerics told him.
From the port, the children were taken to different Islamic boarding schools – pesantrens – in Jakarta and the nearby city of Bogor. Demianus was taken to As-Syafi’iyah, run by Ibu Tutty.
For two years Demianus says he stayed at the school before he escaped, only to be caught again and taken to another pesantren in Bogor, about two hours’ drive from Jakarta.
Some years later, Demianus’ older brother, Seth, was also brought to Jakarta, also by Jupri Gobay. He says he and two girls were on the boat, and all three were converted soon after their arrival. Seth was given the name ”Umar”.
Like his brother before him, Seth was sent to As-Syafi’iyah, though Demianus had already left. At that stage, the brothers had little idea that they were sharing the same experience.
Years later, though, their accounts of life as Papuan village boys cooped up in a pesantren are almost identical. Both were bored with the lessons, which concentrated heavily on Koran recital, religious studies and chanting Arabic. They were punished for being late with their prayers, for leaving the pesantren and for watching TV or using the internet. ”They told us: you get naughtier if you go to an internet cafe,” Seth says.
Demianus went to several different pesantren so it is difficult to tell which incident refers to which school. But he says he was beaten on the legs with bamboo, on the back of the head with a belt until he bled, and burnt with a cigarette if he strayed. He shows the circular scar on his hand. ”If we didn’t read the Koran and pray at certain times of day, we were locked up and then we were burnt,” Demianus says.
Seth, who only went to As-safi’iyah, says he also was beaten. Another punishment was to make children walk squatting for one or two circuits of a yard. The children had no access to telephones to call their families in West Papua.
The quantity of food was usually sufficient, they say, but there were sometimes weevils in the rice; and they were not allowed to eat pork – traditionally an important part of a West Papuan diet. When they were sick, ”we were just told to lay down, they didn’t do anything for us,” Demianus says. They were allowed out, but only for an hour at a time. If they were late returning, they were called in and punished ”with a belt on the legs”.
One of the teachers at As-safi’iyah, Usman Musa, told Demianus that when he grew up he ”should go back to Papua and Islamise the Papuans”, the boy recalls.
Ibu Tutty Alawiyah is famous in Indonesia for her work with children and orphans. She owns the As-safi’iyah pesantren, which was founded by her father, along with a number of other Islamic schools and a university. She was the women’s affairs minister in the dying years of the Suharto government and in 2003 unsuccessfully put her hand up to be the presidential candidate for Suharto’s former electoral vehicle, the Golkar party. Her staff declined several invitations for an interview, saying she was too busy. Ibu Tutty did not answer a list of written questions.
However, one staff member insisted that all the children who came to the school were already muslims, and they were sourced through another religious organisation, BKMT. But this also appears to be part of Ibu Tutty’s Islamic empire, and an article on a website for recent converts called ”Mualaf Centre Online”, suggests she is not fussy about how recently her students were introduced to Islam. Describing a group of Papuan children aged from five to 18 as ”cheery-faced teens and smaller kids” who were ”dark-skinned and with curly hair,” the article says many were ”recent converts”. As-safi’iyah was one of the schools they were destined to be sent to.
As the ethnic Melanesian Christian majority in West Papua is gradually outnumbered both economically and socially by migration from other parts of Indonesia, Papuans see the removal and Islamisation of children as a direct assault on their identity.
But a Muslim bloc within Indonesia’s national human rights organisation, Komnas HAM, has made it difficult for the body to mount a full investigation of the issues raised by Fairfax Media – including the existence of a small but active network of agents and middlemen who seek out vulnerable children and bring them to pesantren. It’s unclear if these men are paid for their work, or who might be funding it, but there is a suspicion that oil money from Saudi Arabia may play a role.
The boys’ uncle, Jupri Gobay, who took them to Jakarta, apparently makes regular trips to West Papua and according to Demianus, Jupri himself was trafficked to Java as a primary school child and converted and educated in Islam.
Approached for comment by Fairfax Media, Jupri Gobay says the only people he ”helped” were family members, before terminating the call. Demianus does not know if anyone paid his uncle to take him to Jakarta.
Another key middleman, Fadzlan Garamatan, from the organisation AFKN, boasts of having brought thousands of Christian children and converting them, as well as undertaking mass conversions inside West Papua itself. Seth Gobay says he knew ”Ustad Fadzlan” and had been to his house in suburban Jakarta during his time as a student at As-safi’iyah pesantren.
Ibu Tutty is not the only member of Jakarta’s elite that Seth and Demianus Gobay met. In early 2012, Demianus escaped from a pesantren near Bogor and began living on the streets on the outskirts of Jakarta. He was being helped by a local family when two men came and asked if he wanted to go to school. The men worked for the Indonesian forestry minister, Zulkifli, who then took Demianus to live in his house in East Jakarta. Zulkifli confirmed these events when questioned by Fairfax Media, saying his own son, Ray, a university student, had found ”Usman” and fostered him because ”my son has a generous heart”.
”During his staying with us I rarely chatted with Usman because I always came home late. But when I got the chance to talk to him, he didn’t speak much,” the minister told Fairfax Media. ”I heard his parents died after natural disaster hit Nabire … That’s why I didn’t want to ask him much about his life in Papua, about his parents … I didn’t want to bring back his trauma.”
Demianus says he was at the house for about six months; Zulkifli says it was a matter of weeks, but they agree the minister sent the boy to a pesantren.
In high society in Jakarta, Papuan children are sometimes regarded as charity cases. In the past, East Timorese children were often taken by Indonesian army members as adjutants or household servants, and their presence raised the reputation of the carer. The same perhaps could now be said for young Papuan orphans.
At an event last year organised by Ibu Tutty with 350 orphans, Indonesian economic affairs minister Hatta Rajasa described helping orphans as ”one of our ways to obtain a ticket to heaven”. Zulkifli and bureaucratic reform minister Azwar Abubakar – all three are from the Islamic PAN party and part of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s governing coalition – were also in attendance. Asked if it had occurred to him that ”Usman” and the others may have been victims of trafficking, Zulkifli says: ”I know nothing about trafficking, I only look after the forests.”
Demianus says that, during his time at the minister’s house, Zulkifli and his family ”were all nice” to him.
In December last year, the boys, now young teens, both escaped from their respective pesantrens and sought help from some West Papuan university students, who referred them to a Christian organisation.
After much thought, the boys decided in December to return to Papua, though Demianus remembered very little of his life in his home village, or any of the ceremonies of Christianity, including the Lord’s Prayer.
At Christmas, they were taken back by university student Frans Tomoki. The boys are now doing catch-up classes at a village school to prepare them for junior high school.
Tomoki, meanwhile, believes a group of men in the western part of Papua, including Demianus and Seth’s uncle Jupri Gobay, are still bringing children out of poor provinces. All the children are Christian, Tomoki says, destined for conversion.
Tomoki says that when it had become known he was helping Demianus and Seth, he received several threatening calls – one from Jupri Gobay, and two more from a man called Muhammad Kotouki, a parliamentary candidate for the strongly Islamic PKS political party in West Papua. The men were quite specific in their threats, Tomoki says. ”They said they would have me arrested for kidnapping.”