When most people hear of genocide in far-flung regions of the world they quietly grieve for the victims, but feel powerless to do anything about it.
When Canadian-born Jeremy Bally learned of genocide in remote West Papua, his reaction was the opposite: I can, and must, do something to stop it.
From this thought “Pedalling for Papua” was born, a gruelling five-country bicycle tour to spotlight the plight of West Papuans, whose human rights have been trampled through 50 years of occupation by the Indonesian military.
“It’s necessary for me as an individual to take this on, because somebody has to,” says Bally, taking a break from his 12,000 km journey that started in Victoria, B.C., on May 29 and will end in Brisbane, Australia, on December 1.
“I take a personal stance as a global citizen. We need international advocates to dedicate themselves to this [issue] as much as we need national advocates to dedicate themselves to Canadian issues.”
West Papua is a province covering the western half of New Guinea, the world’s second largest island, which lies a few hundred kilometres north of Australia. Indonesia invaded the region in 1962, and in 1969 ordered West Papuans—largely at gunpoint—to vote for integration.
The answer to why the Indonesian government was so intent on securing control of the area may lie in the vast amount of natural resources West Papua has to offer, including some of the world’s largest copper and gold mines.
An estimated 100,000 – 500,000 West Papuans have been killed since the occupation, though numbers are difficult to confirm due to tight government control and a suffocating media ban. Their crimes? Peacefully advocating for independence through “subversive” activities like raising the West Papuan flag or calling for improved human rights and freedoms.
”Slow-motion genocide,” “world’s most forgotten conflict” and “mass murder” are some of the terms experts have used to describe the situation. Leaked videos posted on YouTube of torture, killing, and abuse of West Papuans by state soldiers show the chilling reality of these terms.
Sense of Urgency
Bally, 25, says travelling to West Papua helped him put a human face on the issue, and reminds him of the urgency of his work—something that spurs him on during the harrowing days he rides up to 200 km.
“I personally struggle with attaching myself to this issue all the time,” he admits.
“But just connecting with the West Papuans that I already know personally, and asking them ‘What’s going on? Have you heard from your family? Is everyone good?’ Trying to bring it down to that personal social level helps me keep the sense of urgency up.”
Since his first bike campaign last year, Bally has attracted Lush Cosmetics as a major sponsor. Lush will fund his six-month journey across Canada, the Northeastern United States, U.K., Netherlands, New Zealand, and Australia. His bike, weighted by supplies in tow, is flanked by both the Canadian and West Papuan flags.
Between marathon riding sessions Bally will stop anywhere that will have him—churches, festivals, coffee shops, living rooms—and set up his presentation equipment to tell the story of the West Papuan people with the aid of his projector, computer, and ukulele. His background in childcare helped him recognize the power of a good story and its universal appeal to all ages and backgrounds.
The presentation features his interviews with West Papuan refugees, activists, and exiles projected through original animation. Bally narrates the story, blending in original spoken-word poetry and his trademark ukulele hip-hop music.
“I feel that’s the only way I can really explain to people how I have come to dedicate myself to this, and maybe give them the opportunity to think about how they can find an entry way into something that is far away,” he says.
“All I need is a space and an audience. I’m not really picky about what that looks like.”