Iowara is a tough haven for a refugee

Three Girls In Iowa

ADI is delighted to present this occasional series of blog posts from one of our volunteer doctors currently on patrol in remote PNG. This is the third update from Dr. Chris as he is affectionately known.  This blog post is part of Dr Chris’ insights as a volunteer Doctor for Australian Doctors International. Dr Chris has recently returned from an 8 day patrol in Iowara. Bio below.

YapsiRelocationCampIowara is a place where Pidgin, Malay, English and a host of Papuan languages blend into one. It is a set of settlements in Papua New Guinea’s Western Province created more than three decades ago for refugees from the separatist conflict across the border in Indonesia. And life here is hard.

As it was in the 1980s, when it was first cut out of the forest, Iowara today is dominated by mud. The roads are mud, the playing fields are mud, the floors of the buildings are often mud. There are no paved roads here, no real police presence and the main authority is the Catholic church, which runs the local health centre and other services and provides substantial pastoral support. Winding paths of dried mud, sometimes with sticks laid out across the worst bits, link villages, some named after the inhabitants’ original homes in West Papua. In dry weather, it is a tough walk. In wet weather, it all turns into a bog, and the main way in and out is by tractor, pulling a trailor full of passengers. It can be a bumpy ride and the tractor can still get stuck and need a human push.

Few houses have electricity and if they do it comes from solar panels. It is dark at night. Many children born recently have not received their childhood vaccinations, because there is simply no fridge to store them in at the health centre. With the cramped living conditions in traditional homes made of bark and wood, there are many cases of tuberculosis. People grow their own food and sell what they can spare at markets held in the mornings and afternoons on certain weekdays.

It is not an easy life and many inhabitants complain about the poor land and the lack of services, but many fear going back to the separatist conflict across the border. For those who arrived in the first waves in 1984, Iowara has become home, although they still talk wistfully about going back in the future if West Papua should become independent. Some have married Papua New Guinea people.

Much of the population was born here now, but still retains strong links across the border. Many people quietly cross it still to go home and see family, sticking to remote paths which outsiders would not know.

Iowara Market

In Iowara a conversation will switch between Malay, English, Pidgin and local Papuan languages with remarkable ease, even in mid-sentence. Local children with no family links to West Papua pick up Malay from their friends. Church services are held in a combination of Malay, Pidgin and English. The biggest day out of the week is on Saturday, when local leagues play soccer and volleyball matches, often under a blazing sun. In PNG, rugby league is the main sport but in this community they prefer soccer, also more popular across the border.

Iowara has seen wave after wave of refugees come and go. Some have stayed, others have found life here too hard. The best guess of its population now is around 3,000, although it goes up and down. Even now in the village of Yapsi, about 5 kilometres from Iowara, there is a group of West Papuans who crossed the border in 2019. Some visited Iowara in the past, then went back, and some of those who came in 2019 have already gone back, even though they believe there are risks in doing so.

All day you can see people walking through the community, often on the latest stage of a multi-day trek from the central highlands to the main regional city, Kiunga, walking barefoot with heavy loads dangling from their heads. If you are seriously ill in Iowara, this is how you may have to travel to get to the nearest major hospital.


Dr Chris McCallDr. Chris McCall was a foreign correspondent, writing at various times for Reuters, The Economist, Agence France-Presse and few other bits and pieces you might know of. Then something possessed him to re-train as a doctor. Now he finds himself in Papua New Guinea as a volunteer doctor with ADI, based in Kiunga, Western Province. Most of the time these days he is a remote area GP in far-flung parts of Australia.

He likes languages, strange places, taking photos and speaks French, Spanish and Malay/Indonesian in addition to his native English. His patients mostly call him Chris, or if being really formal, ‘Dr. Chris’.


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