A New Zealand pilot who was taken hostage by rebels in the forests of West Papua has sent a heartbreaking message to his wife and daughter – one year after he was taken captive.
Philip Mark Mehrtens, a 38-year-old former Jetstar pilot, appears gaunt and pale in a chilling new hostage video released by the West Papua Liberation Army (TPNPB) fighters, who have previously threatened to execute him.
Sporting a scraggly beard, the dishevelled pilot says: ‘It’s me,’ with a nervous chuckle, before adding a few more words of encouragement to his wife Maria and six-year-old son Jacob.
‘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,’ he adds.
Mr Mehrtens was working for an Indonesian aviation company when he was abducted after landing 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.
He says in the latest video that it was shot on December 22, 2023, with the rebels waiting weeks before sharing it today.
The pilot 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) that is 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. It was not clear if this phone call was ever made.
In a second video also released last week, Mehrtens appears to address the New Zealand government and asks for some supplies to ease his time in captivity.
‘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.
‘That would be very much appreciated,’ he says.
Mr Mehrtens was abducted on February 7 last year.
A day after he was captured, the group said in a video that he ‘will die here’ like ‘the rest of us’ if the Indonesian army tried to rescue him.
Rebel separatists’ spokesperson Sebby Sambom wrote on Facebook that Mr Mehrtens will be held hostage for negotiations with Indonesia – but warned that if Jakarta refused to negotiate or intervened militarily then the pilot ‘will be executed’.
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.
Two months ago, the separatist rebels threatened to execute Mr Mehrtens if their demands were not met, though he appears to remain alive.
TPNPB’s leader, named as Egianus Kogeya by Indonesian outlets and who is described by some as ‘a psychopath’, told the camera at the time that Mehrtens will be shot dead within two months if their demands are not met.
The group has fought a guerrilla war for the withdrawal of Indonesia from the province once known as Irian Jaya, which it has controlled since 1963 when it took over the Dutch occupied colony lucrative for its spices and slave trading.
Papua was incorporated into Indonesia in 1969 after a UN-sponsored referendum widely seen as a sham. Since then, a low-level insurgency has simmered in the mineral-rich region, which is divided into two provinces, Papua and West Papua.
In April last year, TPNPB fighters killed six Indonesian fighters who were part of a force that attempted to rescue Mehrtens from captivity.
Military leaders had narrowed down the New Zealander’s location but were attacked by the rebel group on April 15.
Military reports stated at least six people died, and 21 others fled into the jungle.
It was reported at the time that one soldier fell into a deep ravine and died, while others came under attack trying to rescue him.
Mr Mehrtens met his wife Maria in Indonesia, before the couple moved to New Zealand and settled in Auckland after the pilot began flying for Jetstar.
The couple then returned to live in Indonesia when he recommenced employment with Susi Air, founded in 2004, which operates a fleet of 50 aircraft.
Separatist rebels kidnapped him after they stormed a single-engine Indonesian Susi Airlines plane shortly after it landed on a small runway in February.
He was scheduled to evacuate 15 construction workers building a health centre in the district after the separatist rebels threatened to kill them.
‘Our plan to evacuate the workers angered the rebels, who responded by setting fire to the plane and seizing the pilot,’ said Nduga district chief Namia Gwijangge, who was one of the passengers.
‘We deeply regret this incident.’
The rebels released all five passengers because they were indigenous Papuans, rebel spokesman Sebby Sambom said at the time.
Flying is the only practical way of accessing many parts of the mountainous area.
Papua – which encompasses the western half of New Guinea (with Papua New Guinea making up the eastern half) – was incorporated into Indonesia in 1969 after an UN-sponsored referendum widely seen as problematic.
Since then, a low-level insurgency has simmered in the mineral-rich region, which is divided into two provinces, Papua and West Papua.
Around one million people live in Papua, including some uncontacted people.