BOOK REVIEW: The Road: Uprising in West Papua — bringing light to blackout

By Michael R Williams

In his new book, 'The Road: Uprising in West Papua', lauded conflict journalist John Martinkus creates a comprehensive account of the ongoing genocide and subsequent uprising in West Papua, writes Michael R Williams.

DUE TO the media blackout and the banning of non-government organisations (NGOs), writing on the West Papua tragedy has been immensely difficult. However, John Martinkus has managed to flesh out the nuances of the story and take the narrative to places rarely described. It's a unique and harrowing read.

For decades, Martinkus has covered war crimes not only in West Papua but East Timor, Aceh, Iraq and Afghanistan. A four-time Walkley Award nominee, his work in East Timor helped put it on the map for humanitarian aid. The Road is his latest instalment and it is beginning to garner a similar response.

The Road is a tightly woven narrative. It relays the West Papuan crisis from the establishment of the New York Agreement of 1962 to the unrest in the 2000s to the building of the Trans-Papua Highway — now the epicentre of the conflict. Throughout Martinkus manages to keep an eye on truth.

Possibly due to the threat of murder, a full in-depth personalised account of the crisis would be impossible. Because of that, much of the story is written from an outsider's perspective.

In a later chapter, Martinkus describes a fellow journalist dying shortly after returning to Indonesia. The journalist wished to see his Papuan wife after publishing his own account of the genocide. Martinkus speculates he died at the hands of the Indonesian Government. Despite the risk, the book displays a great degree of detail and the writing is still immersive.

Martinkus' style of writing is clean and precise. There is a subtlety in the prose that keeps you engaged, but never distracts from the gravity of the story itself. It doesn't put the author front and centre; it allows the story to carry. EXCERPT:

In 2003, even in the most remote places I could get to, speaking to those who had never had a day of school, who could neither read nor write, I found they could still quote you the entire history of the Indonesian takeover. From the first landings to the UN New York Agreement to the Act of Free Choice in 1969— they knew it all. Dates, events, attacks and the scale of the casualties at the hands of the Indonesian forces were seared into their minds by their own experience or the recollections of their elders. Then another generation came through. Educated, articulate, brave and defiant. It is they who have carried the struggle against the Indonesians to the higher, multi-layered level we see today. At just over 100 pages, you can knock out The Road: Uprising in West Papua in an afternoon. For those who are interested in the plight of the West Papuans or conflict journalism in general, The Road is a must-read.

The Road is an emotionally taxing read at times, but it will leave you wanting more.

Verdict: 4.5/5

The Road: Uprising in West Papua by John Martinkus is published by Black Inc Books, PB, 114 pages, RRP $24.99.

You can follow the Free West Papua Campaign on Facebook here. This review was first published in Independent Australia and is republished under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License