[Editor’s note: Bert Murib does not speak English and a translator, Suria Lukiman, was present throughout the interview. Some quotes have been amended to reflect they were Murib’s own thoughts.]
It’s quiet in the back room at the Shawnee Regional Airport.
Aside from sniffling, the occasional air motor and a phone ringing, it’s quiet.
Bert Murib, a native of Papua, Indonesia, wipes away his tears as he explains why he traveled about 8,350 miles to Shawnee, Oklahoma.
His tears may have stopped, but his motivation to help his people have a constant flow of food, clothes, resources and independence will never end.
Murib has been on a roller coaster journey trying to help his people stand on their own two feet. He said he was left with guiding words from his father, Chief Nokogi, to do so.
But Murib never met his father, he only knows him from a photo. When Murib’s mother was pregnant with him, his father died. However, he left behind a will instructing Murib to help his people.
“I will do everything, I will give up my life for this responsibility,” Murib said. “I live, I work, to serve my people.”
To start this mission — one Murib feels is his mission from God — Murib began an air charter cargo company, since there’s hardly any land transportation in Papua, the eastern province of Indonesia.
Murib attempted to lease a helicopter from Russia to bring resources to villages in the mountains. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to get the proper permit from the Indonesian government and the plan fell through.
But he didn’t give up.
With the help of Darrin Lofton, president of Pacific Air Holdings, a company that leases aircrafts and that’s based in Shawnee, Murib was able to start anew.
Lofton met Murib on a business trip to Indonesia. A few companies expressed interest in leasing planes, so Lofton went to vet them.
“They’re Indonesians, but they’re not Papuan, they’re not the native people,” Lofton said. “Mr. Bert is a native Papuan and he’s the first Papuan to own, to lease, an aircraft. We’re excited about that.”
As the two talked business, Lofton and Murib became close, learning about each other, their families and their history.
“It’s usually business as usual in these transactions, but in this case, it’s not. It’s more than that,” Lofton said. “We feel that it’s an awesome opportunity at the same time doing business with someone.”
In 2017, Murib and his company leased their first airplane from Pacific Air Holdings. Once they brought it back, the people hosted a huge celebration filled with prayer and dancing.
Now, Murib and Lofton are working on getting a second, and maybe third, aircraft to Indonesia to help take more resources into the mountains.
However, Murib knows flying resources to the villages isn’t a sustainable, or realistic, way of life. Murib said he hopes to be able to train some of his people to work on planes.
“(That way I) can provide education training, skill training for those people, give them good training,” Murib said. “(For) all Papuan people (to) become better men, that’s my dream.”
The second part of Murib’s plan is to get his people education. He said that’s one of the things Papuans lack.
“The first step is to make sure people eat healthy,” Murib said. “After that, I really want to focus on education and make sure people become more independent. Turning them from famine, to livestock, to become more independent.”
Changes in Papua
Leading up to World War II, Papua, not to be conflated with Papua New Guinea, was part of the Dutch East Indies. After the war, the Dutch wanted to hold onto Papua and argued it should be independent — the Indonesian government didn’t agree.
After many conversations and documents through the early 1960s, the Dutch left Papua giving control to the United Nations.
According to John Saltford in “The United Nations and the Indonesian Takeover of West Papua, 1962-1969,” since the Dutch left, “the Indonesian Government (had) done little or nothing until (1963) to develop the country or to give the Papuans any substantial economic development projects or any real degree of political participation.”
The area was annexed by Indonesia and led to The Act of Free Choice — what some Papuans refer to as The Act of No Choice — where Papuans unanimously voted to integrate into Indonesia in 1969. After decades of authoritarian rule, the country transitioned to democracy in 1999. However, the area is still considered among Indonesia's poorest provinces, according to The New York Times.
The Times also reports the area has been subjected to a long list of human rights official abuses including “arbitrary arrests, extrajudicial killings, official corruption” and more.
In the 1950s areas of Papua were mostly pagan. The Dani tribe that lived there didn’t have much in the way of clothes or agriculture and were cannibals, Murib said.
When missionary Gordon Larson visited, though, and began to preach the Gospel, the people changed.
Chief Nokogi was one of the first baptized by Larson and encouraged his people to follow Christ.
“After that preacher came and baptized his father, the whole thing changed,” said Suria Lukiman, who acted as translator for Murib. “They have morals and all those kinds of things.”
This happened again in 1957 when Larson and fellow missionary Don Gibbons spoke with Chief Den and his Damal followers.
According to Operation World, more than 90 percent of Papuans are officially reckoned as Christian.
Although the Dani people are no longer cannibals, they still don’t have a firm grasp on working the land — they also don’t have much in the way of livestock, nor the knowledge on keeping livestock.
However, Murib said the Papuan people are pretty wealthy — they sit on the world’s biggest gold mine as well as large amounts of copper, coal and other natural resources.
“Papua people are not poor at all, they’re very rich,” Murib said. “But they don't have the opportunity, they don’t have the education, they don’t have the training. That’s why it’s my mission to make sure they get well educated, well trained — so they can become independent just standing tall as everybody (else).”