In October 2021 the residents of the small Papua New Guinea village of Tumolbil received some desperate guests. A tired and scared group of 103 refugees walked into the village carrying a few belongings, looking for shelter and protection.
They were refugees fleeing from their villages in Kiwirok district a few days walk away in the Star Mountains, west of the border separating Papua New Guinea and Indonesia. They had fled in terror, they said, following days of shooting and bombings of their homes.
When they fled, they had just the clothes they wore and some food they could carry. But they carried another load – unexploded drone bombs and rocket shrapnel to prove to the world that the attacks had happened.
The refugees told how their villages were attacked, with soldiers shooting and of bombs and rockets coming from the air, destroying and burning many of their houses to the ground, killing several.
Indonesian media reports at the time referred to the attacks, blaming independence rebels for burning down a health clinic and some buildings in Kiwirok.
The independence group OPM, the Organisasi Papua Merderka (Free Papua Movement), along with its armed wing, the West Papua National Liberation Army or TPNPB, has been seeking independence since the 1963 Indonesian armed takeover of the former colony of Dutch New Guinea.
Some photos were taken of the mortar bombs brought in to Tumolbil and were sent to outside human rights monitors.
Matthew Jamieson of the PNG Integral Human Development Trust (PNG Trust) sent the photos to a London NGO, Conflict Armament Research (CAR), that identifies armaments and tracks the supply of weapons in warzones around the world.
CAR identified the bombs as Serbian-made 81mm Krusik M72 mortar bombs, modified by the addition of longer tail-fins and a larger detonator, to make them suitable to be dropped as gravity bombs from aircraft. They were likely part of a shipment of 2,500 modified bombs sent secretly to Indonesia in 2021.
The villagers had brought with them the hard evidence that aerial bombings of civilian villages were taking place, just over the PNG border and just a few hundred kilometres from Australian territory.
This was a story largely unreported in Western media – it deserved proper investigation.
With assistance from local human rights advocates, I set out to travel to the border region between PNG and Indonesia, to record their stories and prepare a film report for the ‘Friendly Jordies’ Youtube channel.
After taking commercial flights, I eventually landed by light aircraft in a remote grass runway, in the PNG interior, a few kilometres from the Indonesian border.
In the remote village of Tumolbil, four witnesses of the attack described an aerial bombardment from several aircraft.
The witnesses gave a harrowing account of what happened during and in the aftermath of the attack, and they presented this author handfuls of shrapnel and several of the bombs that did not detonate.
Witnesses to the attack describe rockets being fired from four Indonesian military helicopters and mortar bombs being dropped from drones.
Evidence has been found of Indonesian soldiers using hi-tech bomb-laden aerial drones in Papua.
An Indonesian defence news channel shows a BRIMOB (Mobile Brigade) soldier standing next to a drone model strikingly similar to what the witnesses from Tumolbil described and drew – and the drone is loaded with similar modified mortar bombs.
The drone has been identified as a Blowfish A3, a UAV manufactured by the Ziyan company in China. It boasts a swarm function, where up to 10 drones utilise artificial intelligence to take off and swarm a target in unison, completing the attack with full autonomy.
The news report describes these drones being used by BRIMOB soldiers “to hunt down the whereabouts of OPM”. These are the very cutting edge of combat in the modern battlefield.
Rocket parts and shrapnel gathered after the attacks and shown to me in Tumolbil, carry markings of a Thales FZ-68 rocket.
According to Jane’s Magazine, Indonesian Aerospace manufactures two types of warhead for the FZ-68 rocket: the FZ-32 smoke bomb for practice use, and the FZ-71 anti-personnel warhead.
Belgian defence manufacturer, Thales, licenses the design of the FZ-68 rocket to Indonesian Aerospace, to manufacture these rockets domestically.
The Indonesian army has received training from Thales on the maintenance of FZ219 Rocket Launcher pods installed on Airbus H125M attack helicopters. These launchers shoot the Thales FZ-68 rockets claimed to have been used in Kiwirok. The Indonesian army has 12 of these light-attack helicopters fitted with the FZ rocket pods, according to the now-deleted Thales website.
“It’s like steel rain coming at you,” says former Australian Army Intelligence Officer Professor Clinton Fernandes describing the effect of being hit by the spray of shrapnel from an exploding FZ-71 warhead. “Its lethality is why you have that rocket and that warhead.”
The witnesses from Papua say the attacks came quickly. Many of those who couldn’t run fast enough into the jungle to hide, the witnesses told me, were cut down by shrapnel from the rockets and drone bombs. One witness claimed their 4 year old niece, grandmother and great uncle were killed in the bombardment. Another said three of their older family members were killed.
Those who survived the bombing say they then fled into the bush. They still had to survive being dispossessed, without food or shelter in the rugged Star Mountains, a place believed to be one of the rainiest places on earth.
The survivors claim over 2,000 Ngalum people from Kiwirok fled, walking for days on end through dense mountain jungle, eventually setting up camps where many then had to survive on nothing but bush leaves.
The witnesses claim many of the people who fled did not survive. Four of the witnesses prepared a list of names of 297 people they say died due to the attack, the aftermath and the sustained military campaign in Kiwirok. They said 13 of these people died from the direct attack, and 284 died of starvation after fleeing the villages.
It is impossible to independently verify the exact number who have died. Reports from local independence members claim to have been able to verify that 72 people had died in the jungle, as of July 2023.
Yet according to further Papuan sources, the mountain camps where people are hiding are scattered and isolated, and any account of deaths may be limited to a certain area. It is also customary for Ngalum people of this area to use multiple different surnames depending on the circumstance. So it is difficult to make any conclusion as to the exact number of deaths.
Witnesses indicate that nobody has returned to their original villages as there is still an Indonesian military presence. They told me that residents who attempted to return have been shot at by snipers and in some cases killed.
One witness claimed that in October 2022 his uncle attempted to return to Pelebib village in Kiwirok to retrieve his pigs, but was spotted by a military drone and then shot dead by an Indonesian sniper. The local Indonesian media reported this killing as being of an armed independence fighter.
The survivors say that even if the Indonesian military have now left Kiwirok, there would be little for the villagers to return to. They say their food gardens have been bombed, their livestock have been killed and their few buildings and public facilities are now ruins.
German NGO Human Rights Monitor conducted an open source investigation into the attack. They compared aviation photography and satellite images before and after the attacks.
Their investigation concluded 206 buildings in 8 villages had been destroyed, they speculated by both Indonesian forces and independence fighters, during one period of clashes during September and October 2021.
A report conducted by the Papuan People’s Assembly casts doubt over the official Indonesian narrative of the events, preceding and justifying the attack. It alleges that the TPNPB were not responsible for the arson attacks on the villages, blaming instead the Indonesia Brimob forces and a group supporting the former regent that carried out the arson.
Out of this arises a disturbing account of an iniquitous and sustained assault on one of the most unique and vulnerable people groups on earth. Over 2,000 Ngalum people, an ethno-linguistic group with less than 20,000 members, have been permanently displaced. Their homes bombed to the ground, their subsistence farms destroyed, their towns now guarded by soldiers and snipers. An unknown number of innocent civilians are dead.
Human Rights Monitor claims these attacks could constitute ‘crimes against humanity’ under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. PNG Trust, an NGO that travelled to the border with this author, produced their own report that found that these attacks constitute aggravated human rights abuses against the Ngalum people.
Questions about the use of Thales weapons in the attacks in Papua were sent to the Belgian, French, and Australian offices of Thales Group, but at the time of publication no answers were forthcoming.
Australian law firm Xenophon Davis are investigating legal action in relation to these attacks, according to legal partner Mark Davis. “In our view it is not just the Indonesians, the usual candidates, who are responsible,” he says.
“Any weapons manufacturer who sells to these people, in full knowledge that there is a pattern of using such weapons against tribal populations in West Papua should be pursued. It is simply not good enough for an arms dealer to claim they did not know.”
“These types of incidents have occurred for at least 40 years in West Papua. It is very interesting to note that Indonesia has no military enemies – they are arming themselves to go to war against their own population.”
Tumolbil is a small village, sitting in the Star Mountain range, in the centre of the island of New Guinea, just inside Papua New Guinea. One of the most remote places on earth, enclosed by rainforests and mountains, only accessible by air or by foot.
The first Australian patrol arrived in Tumolbil in 1963. Kiaps surveyed the territory, bringing medals to gift to the local leaders who would become intermediaries between the people of Tumolbil and the Australian administration.
In the 60 years since first contact with the Australians, Tumolbil has had little development. Most of the contact with the outside world Tumolbil has had is due to its inauspicious position on the 141st meridian east, the border of Papua New Guinea and Indonesia.
Indonesia occupies the western half of the island of New Guinea. Claiming the territory in the 1960s after a rigged UN mandated referendum. Since the beginning of its occupation Indonesia has committed countless atrocities against the Indigenous Papuans, with estimates of people killed in the hundreds of thousands. In response to this unwelcome occupation West Papuans formed Organisasi Papua Merderka, the OPM (Free Papua Movement) with an armed wing (West Papua National Liberation Army TPNPB) that regularly goes up against Indonesian security forces.
In the 1980s, after conflict between Indonesian military and the OPM, Tumolbil experienced an influx of thousands West Papuans moving there from nearby villages across the border. Anthropologist Michael Wesch contends that Tumolbil’s population and status as a relatively dense population center (by Star Mountains standards), has been greatly formed by Papuans preferring to live on the PNG side of the border, to escape the violence.
Kristo Langker‘s report titled “Paradise Bombed”, is available online on the Friendly Jordies Youtube channel. Also available is a subsequent report “Hostage Land” on the hostage crisis in the Nduga Regency in West Papua.
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