Not to be confused with Cormac McCarthy’s masterpiece, John Martinkus’s book nonetheless offers its own dystopian nightmare. The opening pages credit “all the West Papuans, dead and alive, who have dedicated their lives to justice since the illegal Indonesian takeover of 1961”, thereby providing a clue to the searing contents within: a precis of the West Papuan struggle for independence. For those less au fait with geopolitical manoeuvres in the area, Martinkus includes an abbreviated history lesson. Back in the early ’60s, independence for what was then Dutch New Guinea was moving apace. The West Papuans were in a transitional phase, in the process of decolonisation and looking ahead to a time when their island nation could be under their own control. But their bid for self-determination was thwarted by the increasing and flagrant violence of the Indonesian military forces who sought to prevail over the land.
Martinkus, a four-time Walkley-nominated investigative reporter who previously covered the massacres in East Timor, knows his material intimately. The Road is the culmination of years of travel to remote locations, traversing ground inimical to Western journalists. It’s a slender book and the prose is matter of fact, baldly journalistic in style; this can make for dry reading but the understated delivery packs a power of its own. With muted international outcry, explains Martinkus, “the Indonesians began making plans to exploit the natural resources of their new territory. The rights of the locals were at best ignored and at worse abused and violated.” As he points out, within three years West Papua went from colonial backwater to war zone to occupied country.
This book charts the resultant and ongoing upheavals of the West Papuans: economic marginalisation, treks across the border to Papua New Guinea, deaths from starvation and disease, and the killings, crackdowns and riots in response to a slowly re-empowered movement for independence. Such a fight to reclaim sovereignty continues as it remains illegal for West Papuans to raise their own flag on their home soil. Martinkus notes with jaded sadness that despite the “herculean work of a few journalists”, the West Papuans’ plight remains mostly unreported by the outside world. That Australia remains silent on “the historical and current abuses by the Indonesian military” is plaintively noted.
Black Inc, 128pp, $24.99
(Black Inc is a Schwartz company.)
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 20, 2020 as "John Martinkus, The Road".
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