West Papua- The Guernica of the 21st Century (sans outrage)

West Papua- The Guernica of the 21st Century (sans outrage) Arts, Europe, Germany, History, Indonesia, News, Pacific, spain, The Struggle, West Papua
June 23, 2012

Originally published on Blak and Black.

Trembling all over…

We were about eighteen miles east of Guernica when Anton pulled to the side of the road jammed on the brakes and started shouting. He pointed wildly ahead, and my heart shot into my mouth, when I looked. Over the top of some small hills appeared a flock of planes. A dozen or so bombers were flying high. But down much lower, seeming just to skim the treetops were six Heinkel 52 fighters. The bombers flew on towards Guernica but the Heinkels, out for random plunder, spotted our car, and, wheeling like a flock of homing pigeons, they lined up the road – and our car.

Anton and I flung ourselves into a bomb hole, twenty yards to the side of the road. It was half filed with water, and we sprawled in the mud. We half knelt, half stood, with our heads buried in the muddy side of the carter.

After one good look at the Heinkels, I didn’t look up again until they had gone. That seemed hours later, but it was probably less than twenty minutes. The planes made several runs along the road. Machine-gun bullets plopped into the mud ahead, behind, all around us. I began to shiver from sheer fright. Only the day before Steer, an old hand now, had ‘briefed’ me about being strafed. ‘Lie still and as flat as you can. But don’t get up and start running, or you’ll be bowled over for certain.

When the Heinkels departed, out of ammunition I presumed, Anton and I ran back to our car. Nearby a military car was burning fiercely. All we could do was drag two riddled bodies to the side of the road. I was trembling all over now, in the grip of the first real fear I’d ever experienced.

Noel Monks, Eyewitness (1955)

This morning sitting in my studio, watching the gulls swoop over the waves of the Pacific Ocean while sipping coffee from my Guernica coffee mug, the gift of a Basque comrade from my more radical days, my mind was drawn to both the similarities and differences between what happened in Guernica on that late Spring afternoon in April 1937 and what is currently happening in West Papua.

With Infinite Complacency

At 4pm on the afternoon of Monday 26 April, 1937 60 Italian and German planes appeared in the skies over Guernica and for the next three hours rained incendiary bombs down on the town, reducing it to a burning wreck. Nothing like this had been seen in Europe before. In the wake of the tragedy and carnage that followed, this sleepy Basque market town was transformed into an everlasting symbol of the atrocity of war. “With infinite complacency” the residents of Guernica “went to and fro about their little affairs, serene in their assurance” that life would go on as normal in their quite corner of the Iberian Peninsula.

What they did not, and could not know was that they had been selected by their attackers to become the unwilling human guinea pigs in an experiment designed to determine just what it would take to bomb a city into oblivion.

For almost nine months prior to this faithful April afternoon, Spain had been embroiled in a violent civil war that began in July 1936 when Spanish fascist forces led by Generalissimo Francisco Franco sought to overthrow Spain’s left-wing Republican government.

True to the times and in short order, Spain’s internal quarrel attracted the participation of external forces loyal to both the fascist and communist causes. The fascist bulwarks of Germany and Italy supported Generalissimo Francisco Franco, while a cynical Soviet Union under Stalin backed the Republicans. A number of volunteers made their way to Spain to fight and die under the Republican banner including the Abraham Lincoln Brigade from the United States.

Nazi Germany’s support of Generalissimo Francisco Franco included the Condor Legion, an adjunct of the Luftwaffe. The participation of the Condor Legion in Spain’s internal squabble provided the Luftwaffe with the opportunity to develop and perfect the tactics of aerial warfare that would form the backbone of Germany’s blitzkrieg through Europe in 1939 and 1940. As Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering would later testify at the Nuremburg Trials:

The Spanish Civil War gave me an opportunity to put my young air force to the test, and a means for my men to gain experience.

Some of this experience was gained on that late Spring afternoon in 1937 with devastating results – the town of Guernica was entirely destroyed with a loss of somewhere between 400 and 1,650 lives. The world was shocked and the tragedy immortalised by Pablo Picasso in his painting Guernica.

Guernica– a symbol
that mobilised the world

On 3 November 1998, Kofi Annan, Secretary-General of the United Nations, stood up to address the International Council of New York’s Museum of Modern Art (Moma), a world élite of tastemakers and guardians of culture. Referring to the Guernica tapestry, a copy of Picasso’s original painting, which was hanging in the corridor outside the Security Council chamber room, Annan declared:

The world has changed a great deal since Picasso painted that first political masterpiece, but it has not necessarily grown easier. We are near the end of a tumultuous century that has witnessed both the best and worst of human endeavour. Peace spreads in one region as genocidal fury rages in another. Unprecedented wealth coexists with terrible deprivation, as a quarter of the world’s people remain mired in poverty.

Just over four years later, in the last week of January 2003, in the wake of the twin towers tragedy, a blue shroud was thrown over the Picasso tapestry to hide it from public view.

Why was it hidden from view? According to Fred Eckhard, a UN spokesman who had been given the impossible task of playing down the significance of the action, it was merely that blue was a more appropriate colour as a backdrop for television cameras, in contrast to Picasso’s visually confusing mixture of blacks and whites and greys. Other observers, however, were quick to draw their own conclusions.

It wasn’t colour or shape that was the problem; what the picture showed up was the embarrassing contradiction of presuming to take the moral high ground while simultaneously campaigning for war.

The reality behind the hype was that about a week later on 5 February, the then US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, shadowed by George Tenet, director of the CIA, was scheduled to brief the United Nations Security Council in a last-ditch attempt to win UN approval for war with Iraq, a war that would start, according to military analysts, with a massive aerial bombardment of Baghdad that was to receive the chilling codename “Shock and Awe”.

Guernica had to be covered because on those 30 square meters of canvas that form the original, Picasso had managed to give shape to an arresting and profoundly disturbing image. There was nothing that specifically alluded to Guernica, or the terror that rained down from the skies. Instead, Picasso had resorted to employing images whose simplicity and meaning could travel across every cultural divide. At the base of the painting, decapitated, splintered and crushed, lies the corpse of a dead warrior, strangely reminiscent of a classical bust. Above him the weight of a horse, contorted with pain and clearly in its death throes, threatens to collapse to the ground.

On the right of the picture, three women in various states of distress look in upon the scene. In the background, barely discernible at first, a cockerel is crowing up at the skies from the top of a table. Most poignant of all, at the extreme left edge, the picture is anchored and framed by the tragic image of a mother with the limp body of her dead child held in her arms, who in turn is overshadowed by an impassive bull. Only the ghost of a wind blows across the canvas to lift the beast’s tail.

At first sight, there seems to be no clear relationship between cause and effect. There is no easy way in to read the story or discover exactly at what point we have joined the narrative. But among the shattered walls, blind doorways and roofs, we come to a growing realisation that something terrible has happened here.

When first shown at the Paris Exposition in 1937, the painting’s reception was strangely muted. During the Second World War, however, and particularly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Guernica’s imagery became more recognisable, indeed painfully familiar. City after city in Europe was bombed. Finally the catastrophic lessons of Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought the stark realisation that the world would never be the same again.

With no hint of irony, the President of the United States, Harry S Truman, announced somberly:

I fear that machines are ahead of morals by some centuries, and when morals catch up, there’ll be no need for any of it.

Guernica had been horribly prescient. What it depicts is modern mass slaughter only faintly disguised behind the ancient rituals of death. The mutilated bodies and screaming women of Picasso’s painting became a universal symbol of the horrors of war, but only after the arbiters of taste and guardians of culture in the west were forced to witness the full horrors of Picasso’s depictions first hand during the Axis onslaught of 1939 to 1942.

West Papua a tragedy without poet or painter to immortalise its suffering

Dr Kees Lagerberg, Introduction to Genocide in West Papua, Pacific Concerns Resource Centre Inc. Vol. 4. Issue No.2 reported that an estimated 300,000 West Papuan’s had disappeared without trace since the Indonesian takeover of the area in 1962. This is an awful lot of people in anybody’s language, but it is more horrific if one considers that the estimated population of the territory was about 700,000 in the early 1960s, and about one million in the 1980s, when Dr Lagerberg made the claim. Thus, 30% of the West Papuan population has simply vanished from the face of this earth.

According to Hugh Thomas’ The Spanish Civil War (1977), approximately 365,000 people died during the Spanish Civil War. Thomas estimates the casualties as follows:

Republicans killed in combat: 110,000
Nationalists killed in combat: 90,000
Executed by Nationalists: 75,000
Executed by Republicans: 55,000
Bombs: 10,000
Malnutrition: 25,000

We can add to these figures those civilizations who died as a result of the economic blockade of Republican controlled areas. It is believed that this caused the deaths of around 25,000 people. About 3.3 per cent of the Spanish population died during the war with another 7.5 per cent being injured.

After the war, it is believed that the government of Generalissimo Francisco Franco executed about 100,000 Republican prisoners. It is further estimated that another 35,000 Republicans died in concentration camps in the years that followed the war.

While nobody in their right mind would argue that the loss of 3.3 per cent of a country’s population through civil war is anything but a tragedy, how much more of a tragedy is it when a country loses 30 per cent of its population via a United Nations and United States sanctioned invasion?

This is exactly what has happened in West Papua, yet there is no international outrage, no international condemnation, and most important of all, there is no one to record the sufferings of the people – there is no modern day Pablo Picasso, willing to make a stand for what is right.


According to, “Indonesian Human Rights Abuses in West Papua: Application of the Law of Genocide to the History of Indonesian Control” a publication of the Yale Law School, in 1981, the military launched Operation Clean Sweep, which sought to undermine support for the Papuan resistance by persecuting relatives of OPM members.

Soldiers raped, assaulted and killed the wives of known rebels and sacked villages suspected of lending support to the OPM. Survivors reported brutal murders in the Jayapura district, claiming that whole families had been bayoneted to death and their bodies left to rot.

By the summer of 1981, the campaign had extended into the Central Highlands. In August, the military responded to apparent OPM activity by bombing the village of Madi, in the Paniai basin in the Central Highlands, where a Dutch television team had filmed hundreds of OPM supporters training for the resistance. Troops used napalm and chemical weapons against the villagers and killed at least 2,500; some estimates put the death toll as high as 13,000.

The loss of their land and disruption of their lifestyles placed the West Papuans at severe risk of malnutrition and disease by the mid-1980s. In 1984, an Indonesian doctor suggested that Indonesian intrusions into West Papuan lifestyles led to a high incidence of disease among the West Papuan population. A Dutch doctor interviewed by a Dutch TV company called the health situation of the West Papuans alarming. He described high rates of yaws, measles, whooping cough, small- and large-scale epidemics, and sexually transmitted diseases that impaired the fertility of the Dani people who resided in the fertile Baliem Valley, a major transmigration site. A Dutch missionary working in the mountain regions told the Dutch TV journalists that infant mortality among the West Papuans in that region was above 60 per cent and the average life expectancy only 30 or 31 years.

Similar to the blockade of Republican controlled areas of Spain by the fascists during the Spanish Civil War, the Javanese are economically, politically and culturally blockading the West Papuans and for much the same reasons. West Papua is a restive province, as Generalissimo Francisco Franco demonstrated during the Spanish Civil War; the best way to control a restive province is to exterminate its indigenous population.

In fact, the Javanese are in a much better position than the Spanish Fascists, because in the wake of the Wests victory in the Cold War, greed has become the dominant political and social ideology. Greed unlike Communism or Fascism knows no community or sense of purpose – it’s all about self, all else means naught!

How the esteemed members of the United Nations Security Council can walk past the Guernica tapestry day in and day out and not stop to consider their hypocrisy over West Papua in light of the messages contained within Picasso’s original is beyond my limited ability to reckon.

Indeed Mr Secretary-General may you well say:

The world has changed a great deal since Picasso painted that first political masterpiece, but it has not necessarily grown easier. We are near the end of a tumultuous century that has witnessed both the best and worst of human endeavour. Peace spreads in one region as genocidal fury rages in another. Unprecedented wealth coexists with terrible deprivation, as a quarter of the world’s people remain mired in poverty.

I’ll leave readers with President Truman’s words to ponder:

I fear that machines are ahead of morals by some centuries, and when morals catch up, there’ll be no need for any of it.

Could it be that it has only taken decades rather than centuries for President Truman’s words to become reality?

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