- Our Town
Islander completes epic journey
After cycling 12 thousand kilometers, visiting eight countries and Abe Pura prison in West Papua, Jeremy Bally made it home to Bowen just in time for Christmas.
His journey began as a student at the University of Victoria, when a friend asked him to help out on a project that involved West Papua. That hooked him into the story of the place and the people, annexed by Indonesia in the 1960s and engaged in rebellion and conflict ever since. It has been called the Palestine of Asia. For Jeremy Bally, it is simply a story of beauty and tragedy.
He started campaigning for the cause a year ago when he biked across Canada the first time to raise money to bring a West Papuan lawyer to the University of Victoria. With this second journey, he hoped to raise the profile of the West Papuan people and their struggle.
He headed east from Victoria last May. Upon arrival in Montreal, he rode South to Washington DC, with a stop in New York to meet with the West Papuan refugees on whose behalf he was riding.
From DC he flew to Dublin, and then travelled - by bike again - to London where he met the "famous" Benny Wenda, who escaped from a West Papuan prison in 2003 and found exile in the UK.
In the Netherlands, Bally stayed with the widow and children of Arnold Oridep, the “Bob Marley” of West Papua.
“Arnold Oridep travelled through all the tribal villages in West Papua, none of which had contact with the others. He collected their music, and broadcasted it on a nationally airing radio station. This brought people together in their common struggle.”
Oridep was imprisoned and killed, his wife fled the country with their children.
“The youngest would have been a toddler when they left,” says Bally. “But for the older ones, who now have kids of their own, communicating the idea of home to their kids and the hope that they might get back their is like their mission.”
From the Netherlands, Bally flew to New Zealand and then to Brisbane, Australia. On December 1st, he arrived in Melbourne accompanied by a group of fellow cyclists and was greeted by a group of West Papuan refugees. They offered him a bowl painted with a Bird of Paradise, and used it to wash his feet - a ceremony symbolizing his honorary citizenship as a West Papuan.
“Through the whole journey, I was considering whether I should got to West Papua and visit the jail, says Bally, explaining that action could lead to his detention for carrying out political activities. “But I figured, I would never have the chance to have the same impact again, as there was so much momentum built up through the campaign.”
So Bally started gathering postcards of support to offer to the prisoners at Abe Pura, and put together a digital video with recordings of West Papuans in exile he’d met on his travels.
A team of organizers in West Papua managed to get a bike for Bally, which he rode, ceremoniously, onto the prison grounds.
“I met people in that jail who I’d been hearing about for years,” says Bally, “And they all knew about what I was doing. So it was great just to shake their hands, and just to be able to ask them in person how they are. The strange thing was that the prison guards actually wanted to partake in the group photos.”
As Bally later learned, many of the guards, who are West Papuan themselves, have mixed loyalties. The absence of the prison warden assured that they could express their loyalties to the inmates, and that all went smoothly during the visit.
Here on Bowen, Jeremy Bally is working on his resume, and considering his next adventure - law school, possibly.
He says he considers his campaign for West Papua a success, because based on media articles and feedback on social media, several thousand people now are now familiar with the West Papuan story and struggle.
Although there are not many West Papuan refugees in Canada, Bally says we have an important role to play in the West Papuan conflict.
“Indonesia is Canada’s fourth largest trading partner, we have a very strong dimplomatic relationship with them. Every four years, we have bi-lateral trade talks, and a human-rights dialogue is part of that. We need to bring this issue up and bring it to the forefront, it is that simple.”
Jeremy Bally’s campaign was supported financially by Lush Cosmetics, and spiritually, he says, by the people who he’s known his whole life on Bowen Island who have stayed in touch throughout his travels.