You were just a young student. Eighteen years old. You rode a motorcycle, carried a noken, or a woven bag native to your home, a symbol of Papua. And with it, you carried a flag.
A Morning Star.
I sometimes wonder about you, trying to imagine what you must have been like: so young, so brave, so full of radical hope. One afternoon, on June 27th, 2016, you rode your bike, your colorful bag hung around you, and you flew your independence in blue and white stripes and one star in a sea of red.
We all bleed red, Owen.
That afternoon, your blood colored black roadways. They said you had crashed. But I didn’t believe them. Most of us didn’t. You left the world with a hole in your head: chased, shot, and killed for a star. It was your call for freedom, your hope for justice, your prayer for an end to genocide, your insistence in the restoration of human rights and dignity.
It was your song for a Free West Papua.
Two weeks later, I entered a classroom. I imagined what it would have been like to have you as a student, or if I’m being honest, what it would have been like to learn from you, from your courage, your persistence, your story. I was meant to teach a course on framing the Pacific, or a class on challenging the structures, both physical and ideological, that influence the way we view our sea of islands.
I stood before students your age, students like you—eager and motivated. Your story sat on my shoulders, your name hung on my lips, and your flag washed in red fluttered in my gut. I couldn’t let you go. So I introduced them to you.
Since that day, all of my students have heard your name and story. I start every semester by inviting them to challenge the word “pacific,” meaning “peaceful,” and to think critically about their ocean as being far more than the paradise that has been depicted to be. I ask them to come along with me as we confront the troubling reality that the Pacific is filled with both beauty and pain.
You help them to see both, Owen. You embodied both.
For most, the idea that genocide is not something to be spoken of in the past tense alone and the thought that people in our region of the world can be raped, abused, and killed just for being who they are is unbelievable. They question why they didn’t know about you before, why West Papua was a name they never uttered, why you could be chased for a flag, for a star, for a hope. While I watch anger and sadness grow in their bellies, falling from their eyes and quivering in their hands, I give freedom a name.
On the first day of class, we call it Owen.
You do for my students what I never could: you bleed for them, for their awareness, and for their hearts. You make sure that society does not strip them of their right to care, to think beyond themselves, to love. I give freedom your name so that it can have a face and a story, something they can connect to, something they can fight for.
Yesterday one of my students wrote: “I have been thinking […] if humans, at our root are completely self interested. This idea started when I learned about the genocide in West Papua and how not much is being done by [those] who have power to do something and how many people who are informed about the problem still chose to do nothing.”
He questioned our humanity, how we could live in a world where you could be killed, Owen. You were just a student like him: young and eager and motivated. So, he vowed to speak your name, to raise a voice for your country, and to do what he could—no matter how small—to share your story.
However, some of my students get wrapped up in notions of smallness, thinking that their actions are too little or too insignificant to create any real change. They say, “What can I actually do?” Enraged at the injustice suffered by your people, I find them equally frustrated in feeling unable to help. So, I teach them about agency, or about the idea that no one is ever completely powerless. You lived in a country where flying the Morning Star can result in up to 15 years in prison.
And you chose to fly it anyway.
So, I remind them of you, Owen. And I remind them of the impact that your life—your single life—has had on me, on them, and on so many around the world, so many who were unwilling to accept a false story of your death and who choose to honor your memory by raising a voice for freedom.
“Write a poem, share a message, talk to your parents and families, raise a flag,” I tell them.
Raise a Morning Star. And give freedom a name.
“Use your body and your words because sometimes that’s all we have,” I say.
And I tell them to never forget you, to never forget your country, and to never forget your call for justice.
If we remain silent about the things that matter, I explain, our silence can be mistaken as consent. And as I was recently reminded, “our silence serves as the perennial grindstone sharpening the amnesia” of your oppressors (Moraga, 2017, p. 98). Therefore, we will not forget and we will not let them forget you, Owen.
We will lift a voice, raise a flag, sing a song, march, compose, and protest for all you stood for.
FREE WEST PAPUA.
Standing in solidarity,
For more information:
Free West Papua Campaign: https://www.freewestpapua.org/
About the Morning Star Flag: https://westpapuamedia.info/2012/12/02/a-history-of-the-morning-star-flag-of-west-papua/
About Owen Pekei: http://www.radionz.co.nz/international/pacific-news/307624/conflicting-reports-over-papuan-teen-death
Moraga, C. (2017). A “Holla” From the West Side. In C. De Robertis (ed) Radical Hope: letters of love and dissent in dangerous times. (pp. 92-101). New York: Vintage Books.