Eyewitness accounts from deadly clashes in Indonesia’s Papua region

Screengrab of the video filmed by our Observer on Sept. 23, 2019.
Screengrab of the video filmed by our Observer on Sept. 23, 2019.

At least 33 people were killed in protests on Sept. 23 in the Indonesian region of Papua, according to police. Most of the dead perished in fires set by protesters during clashes with law enforcement. Our Observers told us what they saw that day.

The deadly protests -- in the provincial capital Jayapura and the town of Wamena -- were reportedly sparked by rumours that a teacher had called a Papuan student a "monkey". While a local church confirmed the incident to rights group Amnesty International, the police said that it had never happened.

The Sept. 23 protests followed weeks of unrest since mid-August when footage emerged of soldiers and militia members calling a group of students “monkeys”. Papuans poured into the streets to protest against the discrimination and racial slurs they say they are subjected to by other Indonesians. The situation became more tense as many protesters showed their support for Papuan independence, which has been a growing movement in the region over the past few decades.

>> READ ON THE OBSERVERS: Papuans turn monkey slur into a revolutionary symbol


Wamena: "Soldiers fired multiple shots in the air to frighten protesters”

One of our Observers in Papua is a 24-year-old activist and engineer who lives in the town of Wamena, which is located in the centre of the impoverished, remote region. She went out and spoke to some of the activists.


I walked alongside the protesters, and asked them how the protests started. They told me it began when a teacher called one of her students a monkey on Sept. 21. This sparked a massive protest at the high school, which then spread to the rest of the town.

The high schoolers started their protest around 7am on Sept. 23. As they marched past other high schools in town, students streamed out to join them.

I was there when the clashes between soldiers and protesters started near the government building [Editor’s note: known as Kantor Bupati, the building is home to the regional administration for the district of Jayawijaya] and I was able to take a few videos. The soldiers fired multiple shots in the air to frighten protesters and disperse them.


This video shows soldiers firing in the air while protesters throw things at them.  Our Observer shot this footage on Sept. 23 on Jalan Yos Sudarso Street in Wamena. We were able to locate the exact spot where she filmed thanks to a 360° image available on Google Maps.

"30 people died in the fires”


Instead of dispersing when the soldiers fired shots in the air, some of the student protesters just got angrier. They were opposite the government building and set fire to shops, cars and motorcycles. Then they set the government building itself on fire.

From what I’ve heard, 30 people died in the fires set by protesters [Editor’s note: the police reported 29 deaths in Wamena]. People told me some of the students were injured by the shots fired by the soldiers, but they were all treated at the hospital.

Jayapura: “The police were waiting for us”

Another protest was organised the same day in Jayapura, the provincial capital. One soldier died while three civilians were injured with rubber bullets, according to police. Activists maintain that the soldiers were using real bullets.

A local 21-year-old activist, who also wished to remain anonymous, was among the protesters in Jayapura that day.


We arrived on the campus of the University of Papua early in the morning, between 5am and 8am. The protest had been called to push for more spots in university housing for students who had returned to Papua from other Indonesian regions where they no longer felt safe or experienced racism.

The protesters reached the Waena Expo cultural center between 9am and 11am. The police were waiting for us there: I saw 17 units and four vans. They started spraying tear gas and firing shots in the air. I ran away toward the museum. I saw protesters that had been wounded by the police, but I didn’t see the police shoot at them. I heard that 10 people were injured by bullets and four people were killed, one of whom was a soldier. I don’t know how he died, since I didn’t see any armed protesters.

Police said that protesters stabbed the soldier.

Following the violence, Amnesty International called for an independent and impartial inquiry into the clashes between protesters and the police. “This is one of the bloodiest days in the past 20 years in Papua,” said Usman Hamid, the executive director of Amnesty International Indonesia.