Adam Perry profiles true warriors of the game – the West Papua rugby league team, hoping to travel to the London 9s.
One of the biggest global festivals of sport, the FIFA World Cup, is about to take place.
Fans from all corners of the world have descended upon Russia to support their nations, and wave their flags.
But imagine if you lived in a country however that is not officially recognised, and waving your nation’s flag could land you in jail for up to 15 years!
This is the reality in West Papua, a place you are unlikely to have heard of.
“Don’t you mean Papua New Guinea?” is usually the question that follows mention of the place, especially from Rugby League fans.
In fact, West Papua covers the western half of the island of New Guinea (with PNG to the east), barely 200 miles north of Australia. Colonized for hundreds of years, in 1961, West Papua was promised independence by its former Dutch colonists.
In 1963 however, West Papua was taken over militarily by Indonesia and illegally occupied, with the UN taking absolutely no action.
A referendum on self-determination for the people of West Papua, called the “Act of Free Choice” did finally take place in 1969. The Indonesian government claimed that West Papuans were too “primitive” to cope with democracy and handpicked just 1,026 West Papuan elders and forced them at gunpoint to vote in favour of integration with Indonesia.
Since 1963, an estimated 500,000 West Papuans have died at the hands of the occupation, accounting for more than 25% of the population. This figure will shock and surprise many of you hearing about this crisis for the first time, but what has this got to do with sport and Rugby League?
As you would expect, West Papua are not allowed to have any representative sporting team. Since 2015, however, a group of people have looked to change that.
The West (Wan) Papua Warriors were founded in 2015 to raise awareness of the desperate situation in West Papua.
The team is a mix of West Papuan refugees, PNG nationals, and a handful of players based in Australia.
Captain Tala Kami, himself from the rugby league crazy capital of PNG, Port Moresby, explains; “The lands are the same, the people are the same, the language is the same, the cultures are the same. We don’t feel like we’re fighting for another country, we feel like we’re fighting for our people,”
The Warriors have never set foot in West Papua, the country they represent.
“It breaks your heart but there’s not much you can do,” says Tala. “There’s not much say at government level so what we’re trying to do is build up a grass roots movement and build it up from there. We’re having a little bit of success and hopefully it will keep on building.”
The Warriors have played In Australia but have never ventured north of the equator. Tala and the Warriors are looking to change all that come July 21st, at the cross-code London rugby 9’s tournament in East London.
“The invitation to the London 9’s his has provided us an incredible opportunity to take the message of Freedom and unity to a global stage” says Tala.
The UK is the home of the global independence leader for West Papua, Benny Wenda who has been living in exile in Oxford since 2003, when he escaped from an Indonesian prison.
“So many people celebrate their national identity through sport” Wenda says. “Unfortunately, the people of West Papua are not allowed to travel to compete in sport internationally.
“The Warriors give hope to so many in the knowledge that their message is spreading across the world.
“To see the Warriors, play in London would be a huge symbolic step towards independence. I call on all people to support our brothers carry the voice of a nation to London this July”.
The Warriors also have the support of many sporting stars across the pacific and beyond, including Super League stars such as Paul Aiton and David Mead who both ply their trade at the Catalan Dragons.
Sadly, it is lack of funds that is currently stopping the Warriors making their mark on the London 9’s and the UK rugby league community at large.
Air fares do not come cheap from PNG to London. The Warriors are only bringing six players across, and plan to link up with more players when they arrive.
Even though they will be sleeping on the sofa of friends and supporters, or at best cramming into an East London backpacker, they are still short of the funds required, despite their best efforts in PNG and Australia.
From a media and public awareness perspective, the presence of the Warriors at the London 9’s, transcends sport and brings hope to a suffering nation.
When it comes to taking the field and proudly wearing the outlawed West Papuan flag (the Morning Star) emblazoned on their jerseys, the Warriors will come out all guns blazing!
The team train every morning before going to work and plan to give any team they face a real battle, as you would expect from any team from that part of the world, where rugby league is a religion.
The Warriors need your help to make this happen. If you would like to contribute, please do so here: https://www.gofundme.com/wpwlondon
You can hear more about the situation in West Papua at: www.freewestpapua.org
To book tickets for the London 9’s https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/ldn9s-the-largest-cross-code-rugby-9s-festival-in-europe-tickets-38742488827?aff=efbeventtix