The coastal region in the southern Papua New Guinea near the Indonesian border is notorious for the illegal cross-border trading activity. Indonesian traders often cross the sea border from Merauke in the west and venture to Papua New Guinean villages to do their unlawful business. This is a very dangerous journey, due to attacks from the pirates and possibility being caught by joint PNG—Australian border patrol.
I could sense the over-cautious attitude in Herman—a Marind trader from Merauke, whom I saw one boat of three passengers floating on the sea near the Buzi village. Marind is a Papuan native tribe inhabiting Merauke, a big city and its surrounding regions at the Indonesian side of the border. Thus, as a dark-skinned and curly-haired Melanesian, Herman did not look any different from the PNG villagers in this area. It was Sisi who disclosed Herman’s Indonesian identity to me.
Herman’s boat was heading from west to east, making a short stop in Buzi as he was to meet someone here. At that time, Sisi was about to cross the sea to Australia (Boigu island, only six kilometers away across Buzi), so she walked to the water and talked to Herman. “There is one Indonesian there on the beach,” Sisi said in Indonesian language while pointing to me, “You can talk to him if you want.”
Herman just nodded, said nothing.
Sisi then looked at Herman’s boat. She saw big nets there. “Where are you going? Do you bring with you Indonesians to steal fish somewhere?”
“Sssh!” Herman quickly put his finger on his lips.
Sisi left for Australia with her boat. Herman jumped off his boat, walked through the water and reach the beach of Buzi. The tall middle-aged man carried two containers of fuel in his hands. He was looking for the wife of the pastor of United Church. She was a Kiwai-speaking lady from a Kiwai village eastward. The pastor’s house was located exactly in the waterfront. The skinny lady in ragged blouse welcomed Herman with open arms, big smile on her face. Herman spoke only in Kiwai to the lady. He handed the fuel to the lady. A present from Indonesia. The lady’s smile was even wider.
The way he spoke such fluent Kiwai language made me doubting whether he was actually from the Indonesian side. The Papuans speak hundreds of languages. Even the Na-speaking people of Buzi can’t communicate with the Kiwai-speaking lady despite of the fact that their villages are only 50 kilometers apart, let alone the Marind-speaking people from Merauke. But Herman spoke the language just as perfect, as if he was raised there.
They went talking on and on. I stood next to the lady, but Herman did not even look at me. He simply ignored me, as if I did not exist. He then turned his gaze to the Buzi people, speaking to them in fluent English, “You guys know who I am, right? You guys know that I have been around for so many years and never do any wrongdoing, right?” The people nodded in agreement. Herman turned his back, walked through the water, jumped on his boat. The engine was started. They continued traveling eastward.
Later I learned from Buzi villagers that Herman indeed came from Merauke, lived in the Papua New Guinean border village in Bula. Herman got married in Papua New Guinea, and stayed for years in the Kiwai villages. Nobody was sure whether Herman was an Indonesian citizen or already a Papua New Guinean. But with such strong PNG connection, Herman could be regarded as a full PNG man by the villagers. But, then, why the fear? The normal PNG villagers I saw so far were always curious about my arrival from the “other” side, and we may ended up in chit chat for hours; while Herman simply intentionally avoided me, and rushed to get rid of me as soon as possible.
I was very curious about the Indonesian illegal traders operating here. The relation between them and the locals was kind of love-and-hate. From the locals, they usually buy sea products, many of which is illegal for international trading by PNG law. But this business brings badly-needed kina to the cashless villages, and that is why the villagers here expect the coming of the Indonesians. The Indonesian traders are also known very generous. They like to dispersing fuel, betel nut, cigarettes, rice, noodles, and other daily necessities to the locals like Santa Claus. But at the same time, some locals complained about the unfair trade deals, as they found their products are sold at much higher price in Merauke.
How the business is done? How the traders survive despite of joint border patrol of Papua New Guinea and Australia? Is the Indonesian water not rich enough that they have to do this dangerous trip? Due to the illegal nature of the business, it was very hard for me to catch any of them. I was waiting in Tais for a week for any Indonesian traders (known here as “buyers”) to come. But nobody. In Buzi, Herman simply did not want to talk with me. Later on I knew that Indonesian buyers don’t stop in Buzi anymore, as there was conflict with the local landowners. They usually stopped in Kiwai-speaking villages eastward, like Kadawa or Ture-ture, but I did not plan to visit.
As my days traveling in the border coastal areas almost came to an end, I almost gave up my dreams of meeting any Indonesian buyers. But the opportunity came to me in such an unexpected way.
The next day, our dinghy was floating on the water of Sigabadaru, right between Papua New Guinea and Australia (of which Saibai island is only 3 kilometers away). Then we saw an overloaded dinghy passing slowly eastward. We were waving to the boat, and the passengers of the boat also waved to us.
“They are Indonesians,” said Sisi to me.
“How do you know?”
“They have two engines on their dinghy. The Indonesians always travel with two engines at the same time,” explained her. Their boat was actually quite far, the engines merely were dots seen from where we were, but Sisi could notice them with her sharp eyes. “And also see their bright colorful jackets. PNG people don’t wear such good clothes.”
When we finally left Sigabadaru and traveled eastward, we saw the boat again. The boat was floating on the water with the engines turned off. They were just about 200 meters away east of the Sigabadaru waterfront. Our boat moved closer to their boat. “Hello! Hello!” Sisi screamed.
The passengers of the boat did not answer. They tried hard to turn on their engines but it seemed it would not work. They were attempting to run away from us. Sisi then screamed in Indonesian language to them, “Jangan takut! Kita ingin bantu kau!” Don’t be afraid. We want to help.
One of the five men, with lighter skin and Asiatic face, obviously was relieved hearing this. He replied only in Indonesian language. “Hello! You guys speak our language?”
Sisi jumped to the shallow sea water, walked to their boat. The five people onboard did not speak any English, so they were conversing in Indonesian. They explained their problem. One of the two engines they had was broken, they said, its propeller just did not move.
Sisi gave a solution. Marcella, one of our passengers and Sisi’s best friend, had a brother who is the village chairman of Sigabadaru. They both would go to Sigabadaru to find the chairman brother so they can borrow an engine from the village. While the Indonesians and the rests of us just wait here, on the water.
The Indonesians were excited to see me. They were surprised to meet a fellow countryman in this Papua New Guinean backwater. The leaders of the group were two man brown skin and Asian faces—Faisal and Abdul. They are from Ambon, in the Spice Islands of Moluccas, and thus they are also Melanesians but with a bit fairer skin than the Papuans. They have stayed in Merauke for ten years, and had a sea product export-import company. They brought with them three Papuan Marind men from Merauke. For security reason, most of the Indonesians doing the illegal trade to Papua New Guinea were black Papuan men, so they would not be easily recognized from the local Papua New Guineans. It’s very rare that the Asian-faced bosses come along with the boats, as it is too risky as they are too obvious as illegal foreigners if they get caught by the border patrol guards.
“This is my first time coming here,” said Faisal, “I want to test the water, to see whether it’s sensible to do this business.”
“And what do you see?” I asked.
“I have never see such rich and pristine land like here. This land is really a virgin, with boundless potential. What a wasted potential! If this was Indonesia, this would be totally sucked to dry since long time ago.”
They brought eight drums, or a total of 1 ton of fuel, which would be needed for their dinghy to go from Merauke to the Kiwai villages and back. Thus, the dinghy is overloaded, and they would need two engines of 40 Horse Power to make it move. One engine would not be enough to make the journey.
We had been waiting on the water for three hours. Soon the sun would set. Faisal was restless. Every time a boat was passing by, he shivered. “We have to leave this place as soon as possible,” said him, “It’s very dangerous to stay here.”
We moved our boat closer to Sigabadaru. We screamed to Sisi who was standing on the beach. Sisi came over. I, representing the Indonesians, asked Sisi what would be her plan.
The village chief, Marcella’s brother, was still shopping in Australia. What we needed to do was waiting until he came back so we could borrow his engine. Maybe we would need to stay overnight in Sigabadaru, and continued our journey tomorrow.
Faisal whispered to me. “I prefer to stay in the bush rather than staying in the village. You have been here long time, so please tell me, are the villages safe?”
“So far I found the villagers are honest and hospitable,” I said, “But, well, some villages there are raskol.”
That’s the Pidgin word for rascals, criminals. Faisal knew that word. “No! We have to leave now! We stay overnight anywhere but here! Tell Sisi, we are to stay in the jungles tonight! We are ready with tents and sleeping bags.” After I told him about some murder cases I have heard, Faisal insisted even louder that no matter what, we should move as soon as possible.
But how could we move? The sea eastward after Sigabadaru is known very rough and deadly. Faisal looked at our boat. “Will you do us a favor?” he said, “Can we share the burden on our boats to your boat so we both can move? Please help us, in the name of humanity!” Faisal distributed betel nuts and cigarettes from Merauke to all of the passengers on our boat. We agreed.
They moved one of their big fuel drums to our boat. Our boat was now almost sunk, while their boat started to float. Our boat was now part of their illegal business. The sky was getting dark, we finally started move westward.
The sea was very rough. It seemed that our engine was not even enough to support our dinghy. The place where I sat was much lower than the sea level. The boat was hard to navigate, we bumped into strong waves several times. We were all wet. Tears were on my face, which I was not sure whether it was due to fear or due to the pain from the salty water. I was not sure either whether we would survive this ordeal trip. Sisi told Issaiah the operator that we needed to find place to overnight soon, as the sky was already dark.
It was only three hours, but the torturing journey felt never-ending. We reached the next village from Sigabadaru—Mabudauan—a Kiwai-speaking one. But we would not stop here. Across the sea from Mabudauan there is an uninhabited small island called Marukara. There we would go.
Crossing the sea was more even dangerous, as we were perpendicular to the waves. A strong wave splashed our boat, slapped our face. Sisi started to cry. “Jesus! Jesus!” In total darkness, we were still blessed with the best of luck as we did not crush into any rocks. We finally reached the rocky beach of Marukara. But this island was not empty. There were some dots of lights in front of us.
“People here! Many of them!” said Sisi. “Issaiah, turn off the machine now. Quick!”
“Who are they?”
“Shhh! Don’t make any noise. We don’t know who they are. If they are enemy, they surely will kill us.”
But we were late. From the island, we heard many men were shouting to us.