By Sarah Rose de Villiers
“I was facing the ceiling in a dark room. I thought it was the end of my life and I would never escape.”
The air dripped with decay and despair. Time and its visitors had painted the iron bars the same red that covered the walls. The man who had returned the Morning Star to the sky now stood in the ashes of freedom.
“I was just facing the ceiling and I composed this song and I want to sing it for you. Simple.”
He has been a prisoner for several months but his heart had been a prisoner since screaming bombs fell from the sky and soldiers tore through his village. His heart had been shackled, beaten, bruised and broken when he watched the men with muddied boots rape his family. His heart had been devoured by darkness when the jungle became his home and he found more hearts marked with similar scars.
Then his heart challenged its chains, collected its courage and called its people. He became a leader. The people came together. Their feet kissed the land they loved as their songs took to the air. Their hearts and his hands raised the flag and their plea was for peace: Independence for West Papua. Self-determination for the people. Freedom. Free them.
Now, in this cell, both the man and his heart are prisoners. But their prisons are different. Concrete walls can kill the light. Guards can try, and try, and try to take his life. The iron bars can cage the man, but his heart is still free to hope. And where his heart goes, he will follow.
“Indonesians charged me with 25 years in prison. But I managed to run away. Three times, they tried to kill me. I managed to run away. Now I’m with you, here. But my people, I left them behind with a cry for help. So I want to sing you this song.”
The heart that follows hope will never again be caged. For hope cannot be captured or detained; it cannot be conquered by a concrete cell, it cannot be tried in court. But hope can be smuggled across borders, hope can find refuge in foreign lands, hope can be carried across seas and skies. Hope can find help.
He followed his heart, leaving the land he loved. He left the land where elders had their tongues cut from their mouths and dropped from the sky like silent bombs with messages loud and feared. He left the people who writhed naked in the dirt as burning sticks scorched their skin, where a man is reduced to scars. Which will turn to ash first? Their dignity or their desire to live? His heart carried the land he loved, and its suffering was his song.
There he stood. The Interpol red notice had described him as 1.63 m tall. Black hair. Black eyes. Crimes involving the use of weapons. There he stood, holding his weapon. Behind him, the flag shivered. “Why I hold a ukulele – I’m a singer-fighter. This is my friend, he’s a freedom fighter as well.”
He held up the ukulele, the freedom fighter emblazoned with the flag. He wears a majestic crown of cowrie shells and feathers. It is a regal affair of brilliant blue, deepest black, tainted white, yellow and jeweled red. It quivers and quakes as his head bows and shakes. A necklace of ivory and shells hangs from his neck. His shirt is the colour of blood, and covered in black patterns that tell stories which cannot be read. Something catches the light – it’s a badge pinned onto his shirt – it’s the West Papuan flag, the Morning Star. His black trousers gather at his ankles and he has polished his shoes with pride. His skin is the colour of golden sand; rich with the wonders and secrets of an ancient people. A beard dusted with the grey of prison walls frames a shy smile. Time has buried itself in deep dimples and been knotted in his brows. His eyes are not black. They have certainly seen the darkest sins, and wept for nights on end, but they are not black. There, in his eyes, a certain light has been captured and enraptured. There it is. Hope.
“So I want to sing this song.”
The Singer-Fighter wields his weapon and the sound of string and song haunts the air. His eyes are closed, his hand dances along the ukulele, his voice rises and the world falls away. All that is left is this song, their suffering and these words.
Benny Wenda is a UK based peaceful freedom fighter, international lobbyist, exiled tribal chief and independence leader of West Papua. On Tuesday 24 February he gave a presentation at Rhodes University as part of his campaign to raise awareness about the situation in West Papua.