‘Are You Rebels?’: Biak Spaceport’s Land Acquisition Carries Dark Past

Mateus Rumaikeuw menunjukkan patok tanda klaim lahan oleh LAPAN di wilayah hutan adat Warbon, Distrik Biak Utara, Kabupaten Biak Numfor, Papua, yang dipasang pada 1982. (Project M/Permata Adinda)

By Permata Adinda,
Published by Project Multatuli, 4 April 2022

  • The people only recently found out the existence of a land release certificate to LAPAN in 2002. In 1982, they thought they only signed the attendance list and agreed to the cost of compensation for crops. Those who refused were branded OPM.
  • A Biak woman, Arina, recounted her memories of dark moments in Biak people’s lives: the 7-meter tsunami, the military operation, and more recently, the threat of losing their land to Indonesian government ambition to build a spaceport, touted to Elon Musk.

A HISSING SOUND, like gas, came from the direction of the beach.

Arina could not say for sure whether the hiss was the sound of the wind or the crashing waves, or both.

But she remembers how violently the stilt house she lived in near the beach shook. It was an earthquake.

Moments after, a 7-meter-high wave hit. Such was Arina’s recollection of the tsunami that destroyed her village back in 1996.

Arina Kapitarauw recounts her story while sitting on a plastic chair in her living room. She had wanted to go to the farm, but the sky was overcast and before she knew it, rain was falling. The ground was too slippery. She might slip and fall if she insisted on leaving.

The living room area of the house is about three by four meters. There isn’t any furniture apart from a few plastic chairs, a small table, and a few family photos hanging on the wall; mostly her children’s graduation photos. There is a door connecting the living room and the bedroom. Another door leads to the kitchen.

Not too long ago, Arina and her family lived in this house. The Kapitarauw clan used to be the only people living in a complex of stilt houses near the beach. After the tsunami, the Indonesian army built cement houses for affected residents on the customary lands belonging to the clan Abrauw-Rumander. The new houses marked the beginning of a coexistence between indigenous peoples of various clans and the migrants in one village.

Every now and then, Arina stands up from the plastic chair as she gets lost in her story. Her eyes glaze over, her expression tense. The past is coming back to her.

During her 60 years in Saukobye Village, Arina has gone through no less than three traumatic events: the Indonesian military operations in 1960 – 1970, the tsunami of 1996, and the Bloody Biak tragedy in 1998.

Lives were lost, but days go on as if nothing had ever happened.

The 1996 Tsunami

Arina remembers exactly that the tsunami happened on Saturday, February 17, 1996, 3 p.m.

Her husband had just gone to sea. They were preparing for a family funeral. The oci fish were in season. Coming home from a successful fishing trip, her husband grinned ear to ear as he showed off the abundant oci fish in his large fishing bucket.

Her husband then went into the kitchen to grill some of the day’s catch, which he sat and ate with a serving of rice.

The radio on the dining table was playing religious songs.

Arina was getting ready to go to the farm. Tomorrow was Sunday, and she had to go to church. This was the time to harvest keladi (taro) and other vegetables. After folding her clothes and storing them neatly in the closet, Arina brought a machete, basket, and other tools to the field.

However, as she stood up, she felt the floor shake.

Arina was a little annoyed. She thought her husband was making the floor shake from the excitement of catching so many fishes.

“Hey, are you rocking?”

Her husband was puzzled, “Huh? I’m not rocking anything.”

That was when they realized the ground beneath their feet was shaking. The tremor was so huge that she couldn’t stand up.

In a hurry, her husband started to run, jumping out of the house. He shouted, “Hey, come down. The house is going to fall.”

But the ground was shaking so violently that Arina couldn’t even stand. ”Come down. The house is falling. You’re going to die there,” her husband shouted again.

Somehow, she managed to get down despite slipping on the stairs. The floor was still rocking.

For a moment, the earthquake seemed to have stopped. Her husband went back inside to eat. Arina got ready to pick up her two children, who were at a relative’s house. They were no stranger to earthquakes and intended to return to their daily activities.

However, when Arina looked up towards the beach, she spotted something unusual. The waves were starting to rise. Her husband’s boat was lifted. “Is it the wind? Waves?” she wondered, unsure of what to make of what she was seeing.

Her husband came back down, looking towards the beach.

“Wave. Run.”

The earthquake that measured 8.2 on the Richter scale was followed by a 7-meter-high tsunami.

“The waves came. Three times.” says Arina.

NO ONE guessed that the earthquake would lead to a tsunami. The northern coast of Papua was never categorized as a tsunami-prone area. A study shows that no tsunami was ever recorded in the region from 1900 – 1995.

The locals were caught completely by surprise. Several residents had been cheering as the sea receded from the beach just before the tsunami hit. They were catching the fishes that were stranded on the sand. Old and young were celebrating with grilled fish.

“They were eating at the beach. Relaxing. They all died.”

Luckily, when they saw the waves starting to rise, Arina and her husband immediately evacuated to higher lands. Men, women, and children were running. Some were swept away by the waves. Children slipped out of their parents’ arms, taken away by waves. Adults were getting impaled on the feet by glass shards, iron, and nails.

Her husband had told her to climb up on a tree. “Climb up the coconut tree. I will climb the African tree.”

But Arina realized something: the rising waves were bringing along lumps of wood and stones. “The coconut tree will break and we’ll die,” she said.

So they kept running.

During the first wave, Arina could still spot some houses left standing. People were trapped underneath screaming for help. After the second and third waves hit, nothing was left. “It’s all gone,” she whispered.

The natural disaster, which was centered in Biak and could be felt as far as Supiori, Manokwari, and Sarmi in Papua Land, killed at least 108 people, injured 423 people, and resulted in 58 people missing. A total of 5,043 houses were destroyed.

Stumps of coconut trees that were broken in the 1996 tsunami still dot the beach in parts of Biak. (Project M/Permata Adinda)

Saukobye: The Village of Survivors

Saukobye village is located on Biak Island, a small island in Cendrawasih Bay, north of the coast of Papua Province. The total area of the island is about 2,500 km², less than half of Bali.

From the city of Biak, it takes another hour by car to get to Saukobye village. The area of the village is only 8 km². The village head said it was inhabited by 126 families, 567 residents.

The Warbon indigenous people, consisting of the Abrauw-Rumander clan, live there. The name “Abrauw” was taken from the name of the abrauwi tree — the local name for the apyao tree thriving around the coast. There is a folklore that goes as follows: their ancestors made homes under those trees around the beach. They descended down from the mountains, building huts around the trees. They then named themselves the Abrauw people.

The elders refer to the Abrauw – Rumander clan as a minority fam, because their only customary land, around 2,000 hectares, is located in Saukobye village. The Abrauw clan is not found anywhere else in Biak.

“They only have that land,” said elder Apollos Sroyer.

Abrauw and Rumander lived in the coastal area until the tsunami hit — it was formerly called Andei Village and was adjacent to other clans like Ampnir, Kapitarauw, and the migrants from Java and Makassar. They lived simple lives: the people went to sea to fish and went up to the highlands to farm.

Residents said the settlements along the coast were like small towns. Markets, schools, police stations, post offices, they even had cinemas there.

However, the tsunami forced residents to move in droves to the highlands. The name Andei was changed to Saukobye village. ‘Sau’ in Biak means “alive” or “survive”, so Saukobye means safe roads or safe settlement.

The customary land of the Abrauw – Rumander clan was initially used to farm. Then they started to give out the rights to build houses on their land to other residents. They also donated land to the government to build a sub-district office, a police station, and a school.

It was alright, said Marthen Abrauw, a mananwir and an elder of the Abrauw clan in the village.“It’s for the common good, isn’t it?”

Now, there are at least 11 clans in Saukobye village: Abrauw, Ampnir, Dimara, Dorwari, Erbo, Kapitarauw, Mansusen, Ruamikel, Rumbrar, Rumruren, and Sermumes. There are also people from outside the island, coming from as far as Ambon, Batak, Buton, Java, and Toraja.

For the indigenous Marbon people, Saukobye is the only place where they could live and is part of their identity.

THE LOCATION OF THE WATER SPRING in Saukobye village is less than 200 meters away from Marthen Abrauw’s house. Residents would usually walk down there while carrying empty buckets or dirty clothes, then climb back to the settlement with buckets filled to the brim with drinking water and freshly washed clothes. There is a divider between the pool of water that is used specifically for drinking and cooking and the pool used for laundry.

If you go further down, towards the forest, 500 meters – 1 kilometer from the settlement, you will see community farms filled with a variety of vegetables, areca nut trees, betel trees, and carbohydrate sources such as keladi and petatas (sweet potatoes). Residents would go to the farm at 8 a.m. and return to the settlement at 3 p.m., bringing with them fresh farm produce that would be sold at the market.

From the farm, it is not too far to get to the beach. Around the coast there are abrauw and apyao trees, which are considered sacred trees by the residents.

A local woman does her laundry in a spring in Biak regency. (Project M/Permata Adinda)

Their ancestors were part of nature. The Abrauw people believe that their ancestors still remain in the trees and are watching over the lives of their descendants. The Warbon indigenous people often asked for help from the spirits of their ancestors.

They would go to the location of the sacred tree just as the sun begins to set, then the Abrauw family would mention the names of all the ancestors’ descendants, from tete (father) to nenek moyang (great grandparents), as a sign that they needed help. They also brought with them offerings of areca nut, betel nut, and cigarettes.

“We come here, we feed nature, we call on the ancestors and leave all matters to them. Let them take care of it. As we humans work, our ancestors also keep us away from evil people, those whose intentions are not good,” said Aleks Abrauw, son of Marthen Abrauw.

Therefore, the emergence of a plan to build a spaceport within the area of the customary land angers them. Some of their customary lands have been used to help victims of natural disasters after all.

Losing their land completely is akin to losing their identity as indigenous Warbon people. Every area in Papua is customary land protected by law; moving into it is tantamount to occupying the customary land of another clan and could trigger inter-tribal tensions. Where would their descendants live?

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