Ex-Jetstar pilot Philip Mark Mehrtens, from New Zealand, looks gaunt and pale in the new hostage video – he was kidnapped a year ago by the rebel West Papua National Liberation Army
A pilot has sent a heartbreaking message to his wife and child a year after he was taken captive by rebels in the forests of West Papua.
Ex-Jetstar pilot Philip Mark Mehrtens, from New Zealand, looks gaunt and pale in the new hostage video. The 38-year-old is seen sporting a straggly beard and looking dishevelled in the clip. With a nervous laugh, he tells partner Maria and six-year-old son Jacob: “It’s me.”
He continues: “I’m OK, they are treating me well… I’m trying to stay positive and I hope that you and Jacob are healthy and doing OK and getting support,’ he says, forcing a smile. I love you both lots and miss you both lots and hope to be able to talk with you soon.”
Mr Mehrtens said the video was filmed on December 22 last year but the rebels waited weeks before sharing it. He went on to explain he had met with the “komandant” – likely a reference to Egianus Kogoya, a commander in the rebel West Papua National Liberation Army (TPN-PB). They are fighting the Indonesian annexation of the territory.
Mr Mehrtens said he would also talk to the komandant about making a phone call to his family. In another video he appears to address the New Zealand government and asks for some supplies. “Can you please help to get one or two ventolin inhalers just so that I have them available in case I get some asthma and, if possible, can I please get an e-book reader like a Kindle with as many English books as possible,” he said, adding: “That would be very much appreciated.”
He was working for an Indonesian aviation company when he was snatched on February 7 last year. He had just landed his single-engine Susi Air plane on a remote airstrip in the mountainous province of Nduga, found in Indonesia’s western half of New Guinea.
The following day the group released a video saying he “will die here” like “the rest of us” if the Indonesian army tried to rescue him. They set fire to his plane and released the five local passengers, though kept Mr Mehrtens hostage.
In what appeared to be a gagged statement, the pilot stated the rebel’s demands on the video – voicing the dispute which dates back to Indonesia seizing control of the region in the Sixties. The BBC received the video, which showed Mr Mehrtens wearing dark shorts, a denim jacket and a black t-shirt, while surrounded by gun and bow and arrow-wielding rebels.
The rebels pledged to release the pilot if Papua was granted independence. In another video, the Kiwi addresses the camera in the Indonesian language: “Papua dan OPM ditangkap saya untuk Papua Merdeka,” he said. “The Papuan military have taken me captive in their fight for Papuan independence.”
One photo showed Captain Mehrtens shaking hands with rebel leader Egianus Kogoya. A West Papua National Liberation Army spokesman told BBC Indonesian that Mr Mehrtens had been moved to a stronghold district for the group in a remote area, and he would be used as “leverage” in political negotiations.
Kogoya’s rebels also took 15 construction workers hostage the next day and threatened to kill them, but Indonesian security forces managed to rescue them. Previously a Dutch colony, Papua declared independence in 1961, but Indonesia took control two years later.
Conflicts between indigenous Papuans and the Indonesian authorities are common and since 2018 they have ramped up. In 1996 rebels kept 11 hostages for more than four months, including four Britons and two from the Netherlands.
Two of the Indonesian hostages were eventually killed and nine were freed when Indonesian security forces mounted a rescue operation. New Zealand said it was working with the Indonesian government and other agencies to try to free Mr Mehrtens.
Rebel spokesman Sebby Sambom said at the time that the rebels would “never release” Mr Mehrtens unless Jakarta made the Papua region independent from Indonesia. But the Indonesian government stood firm, saying Papua will “forever remain a legitimate part” of Indonesia.