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Papua, 61 children dead and 500 sick because malnourished. The Church’s commitment (Photo)

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Jakarta (AsiNews) – A serious humanitarian crisis in the district of Asmat, a remote territory of the province of Papua, has so far caused the death of 61 newborns, while another 500 have been affected by malnutrition diseases. Msgr. Aloysius Murwito (photo 4), bishop of the diocese of Agats, coordinates the rapid response of the local Church to the emergency, sending groups of health workers to different areas of the region, to minimize the number of victims, dead or sick.

The humanitarian disaster came to light when the Kompas newspaper, based in Jakarta, reported on January 14 that at least 13 people in the village of Asatat have recently died as a result of malnutrition. While the authorities have opened an internal investigation, the bishop explained, in the following days the emergency had also spread to several other villages.

“At least 61 people have died and more than 500 children have been seriously affected by skin diseases such as rubella or measles because of severe malnutrition,” said the bishop in a statement released yesterday. The victims are in 23 districts, or 223 villages, of the diocese of Agats. To counteract the phenomenon, adds Msgr. Murwito, two internal teams created by the diocese were sent to two different districts to provide assistance and distribute essential goods.

The district of Asmat in the diocese of Agats is a very isolated territory, with unique characteristics that are not found anywhere else in the immense Indonesian archipelago. The soil is not solid, as it commonly happens in other regions, but is made up of thick, wet mud that does not allow any vegetation to grow, not even mangroves. Only in some locations, including Atsji and Sagare, the land allows cultivation and other fruit trees.

This is the reason why this area is known throughout Indonesia as the only territory where “the roads are made with wooden planks”. These wooden planks are usually raised from the surface of the mud to minimize the unexpected rise in seawater levels.

The direct flights from Jakarta to the Moses Kilangin Timika Airport take around five hours, with a 30-minute stop in Makassar, in the South Sulawesi province. From Timika, you are forced to fly with an ultralight aircraft with a propeller engine (photo 5) to the landing strip of Ewer, in the remote territory of Asmat. From here it takes 30 minutes by motor to reach the center of Asmat, capital of the district of the same name. The city is a further hour by boat from the surrounding villages (photo 6), reachable only by small motorboats (photo 7-8-9) in crocodiles infested waters.

The navigation on the imposing rivers (500-1,000m width – photo 10) of the region never lasts less than three to five hours and is very dangerous and expensive, from an economic and physical point of view. In 2013, AsiaNews’s correspondent accompanied the bishop of Agats on his journey to the furthest settlements for a pastoral mission.

“The response of the Church to this humanitarian crisis is urgent,” Sister Aloysia told AsiaNews, who has been serving Agats for years. The religious echoed Fr. Bobby Harimapen, canon of the Holy Cross Cathedral.

In Jakarta, some Catholic humanitarian organizations and groups have set up a fundraising program to help the diocese of Agats, which needs enormous financial aid. Yulius Setiarto, head of the Catholic Society Forum of the Archdiocese of Jakarta (Fmki), encourages Catholics to take part in the initiative. It has already been joined by Iska (Indonesian Intellectual Association), the Pmkri (Association of Catholic University Students), the Pemuda Katolik (Catholic Youth), the Ppka Pukat Kaj (Special Committee for the Diocese of Agats of the Archdiocese of Jakarta) and the Wkri (Association of Indonesian Catholic Women).

Meanwhile, the Indonesian government is deploying military paramedics to transport food and vaccines to the rugged region of Papua, the easternmost province of the country, whose population is predominantly Christian. The army sent 53 soldiers with medical equipment and 11 thousand food rations.

Papua is one of the poorest provinces of Indonesia, despite being rich in resources and President Joko Widodo has pledged to support its economic development, when he came to power in 2014. Many Papuans, ethnic and religious minorities in the most populous Islamic country in the world, criticize the government of Jakarta for neglecting Papua, focusing only on the island of Java.

Interviewed by Reuters, Fr. John Jonga, a priest and human rights activist, says the crisis is caused by a lack of vaccinations and the transition from the most nutritious tubers to rice as a staple food for the population. He also raises questions about government policy to send aid to Palestine and to the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar, rather than to Papua. “We lack health facilities”, says Fr.Jonga. “This is why I wonder why the president is involved with Myanmar and the construction of a hospital in Gaza, while in Papua we lack basic medicines and health workers”.

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