More than 80 children have died with another 800 affected by malnutrition-related illnesses. The diocese has provided humanitarian relief to the most affected districts. The peculiar characteristics of the remote territory make the work of volunteers difficult and dangerous.
Jakarta (AsiaNews) – Agats, a remote area in Indonesia’s Papua province, has been struck by a serious humanitarian crisis that has left more than 80 children dead with another 800 afflicted by malnutrition-related illnesses.
Speaking to AsiaNews, Mgr Aloysius Murwito (picture 2), bishop of Agats, expressed the solidarity and closeness of Indonesia’s Catholics to the local population. This, despite the ongoing tragedy, is a “blessing”.
For the past two weeks, the health emergency has been in the limelight, covered by national and international media, but Mgr Murwito had recognised it for some time.
During Christmas festivities, the bishop had gone to Kapi, one of the diocese’s isolated parish in Sawaerma District, to celebrate the Vigil Mass. There he saw that many Asmat women who attended the service showed severe signs of malnutrition.
"During that Mass, I was deeply moved by such a serious humanitarian crisis. I mentioned it in various homilies during the Christmas and New Year celebrations, in Asmat," Mgr Murwito noted.
His sermon on 5 January echoed on social media, arousing media interest first in Papua, then across the country.
AsiaNews met the bishop in Jakarta (picture 3), where he was involved in several interviews with national media to draw even more public attention to the emergency in the eight districts of his diocese.
Asked about the unfolding of the crisis, the prelate said that the diocese, working with local authorities, had carried out relief operations in the most affected areas. Two teams were sent some days ago to help against diseases like rubella and measles, and hand out basic necessities.
"We decided to work in two districts, about 20 villages," the bishop explained. However, the volunteers from the diocese and health workers face many difficulties on the ground.
To begin with, they have to contend with the nomadic lifestyle of the indigenous population and the peculiar characteristics of their settlements. "Unlike other indigenous peoples of Indonesia, the Asmat actually practice nomadism. They usually go into the forests for days, before returning to their villages."
In addition to this, technical issues also make it difficult to fight the spread of diseases. Reaching the settlements in fact involves long and costly trips on small motorboats (picture 4), in waters infested with crocodiles.
The coming months will be crucial to reducing the suffering of the local population. The next step will be to increase awareness among the natives about health. "However, spreading the message is very difficult, due to the absence of an adequate communication system".
Since the region is not served by an electricity network, there is no mobile connection. Nevertheless, the bishop is deeply grateful for the quick response of Indonesian Catholics, as well as non-Catholics, to the request for help from the local Church.
"The emotions stirred up in the hearts of people across the country has led to donations and excellent initiatives in favour of the diocese of Agats, so that it can carry forward its humanitarian mission," Mgr Murwito explained.