Features

All fought out

International | Indonesians have not found a way to the peace table, but they are tired of fighting

Issue: "Balancing act," Sept. 8, 2001

in Ambon, Indonesia-Known simply as Agus, the man with the black ponytail and dark mustache looked more like an aging biker than one of Indonesia's most important Christian militia leaders. During the worst of the conflict between Christians and Muslims on the Moluccas, or Spice Islands, he fought Muslims every day. In February his fighters went by speedboat to nearby islands where the Muslims were attacking. "We don't have a desire for war with Muslims, but only to protect our area," said the 54-year-old Baptist. "If Muslims come for war, we will fight." Muslims came in droves for war to this place, a scattering of islands in eastern Indonesia also known as Maluku. Starting in 1999, Muslim armies attacked Christian villages, and locals say between 5,000-8,000 people died. Half a million became refugees. Today both sides say they are weary of war and some speak of reconciliation. But the two distinct communities remain far apart. The conflict here is similar to those across Indonesia as both the government and economy have collapsed in the last four years. Unlike most of Indonesia, however, these islands have a long-standing Christian majority, which gained preferential access to jobs and other perks under Dutch colonial rule. The Muslim minority, incited by escalating unemployment and poverty, first targeted prosperous businesses in Ambon, customarily run by Christians. Subsequently, Christians struck back, fearing that an influx of Muslim migrants from other islands-and the jihad fighters themselves-would take over the provincial government. The mob scenes that ensued have prompted human rights groups to blame both sides for the fighting and deaths. But only the Muslims have outside support. "We don't want to fight again. Ambonese Muslims and Ambonese Christians are brother and sister," said Agus. "Without the Laskar Jihad we can have reconciliation." The Laskar Jihad, a paramilitary organization promising a holy war against Christians, sent boatloads of fighters to the islands. Casualties included not only dead and wounded, but individuals forced to convert to Islam, and 400 churches destroyed. Residents on one of the islands, Kesui, report forced male and female circumcision. Jaffar Umar Thalib, head of the jihad forces, has called for the imposition of Islamic law in areas cleared of Christians. While the Christian militias struck back, burning mosques and some homes, jihad forces outnumbered them with the assistance of Indonesian security forces. Indonesia is officially 90 percent Muslim; therefore, most soldiers are Muslims. More recent government intervention has been neutral, coinciding with the installation of a new government headed by Megawati Sukarnoputri. Only sporadic fighting continues. Earlier this year 500 Islamic militants attacked the Christian village of Hatu Alang. They burned homes, churches, and schools. Over 800 residents fled into surrounding jungles and later escaped by boat. As a result, both sides continue to prepare for war. Agus's militia relies primarily on homemade weapons, supplemented by imports when possible. He admits to receiving guns from an army source, and is not embarrassed to solicit funds from his three American visitors to purchase weapons. "Only to protect Christians. Not to go to war. We must be ready. We need help, money," he said. Those preparations leave communities, even where fighting has ceased, very divided. Street barricades separate Christian from Muslim sectors of Ambon, the largest city. The border is a no-man's land once populated by Muslims and Christians. Now it is only inhabited by ruined buildings, sewing machine skeletons, torched motorbikes, and bent bed frames. A small supermarket took over the first floor of a nightclub targeted by Muslim mobs. Drapes flap through broken windows, and bullet holes mark the façade. Few venture into enemy territory. Hotel manager Theny Barlola, a Christian, said his recent visit to the Muslim sector was the first time he had been in that area in three years. Those who cross the divide must change into a Muslim cab at the border. Most cabs, particularly the plentiful pedicabs, stick to their own section of town. Speedboats are the preferred mode of transportation for many people to avoid hostile sections of town. "If I go, they will kill me, they will take me away," he said he feared. "If a Christian goes into a Muslim neighborhood, he will get beat up," said C. J. Boehm, a Dutch missionary who has spent more than 30 years in Indonesia. The jihad forces from outside the Moluccas are the biggest obstacle to peace, according to Mr. Boehm. Christians have "no people from outside," he said. The Christian militias are "only local, organized spontaneously to resist." Haddi Soulisa, the 80-year-old head Muslim cleric of Ambon, admitted the divisions, but contends that it is "the same, Christian and Muslim, all the same. Many, many want to make reconciliation. Many groups say no reconciliation because there has been conflict for a long time, with too much damage done." Some Muslims, he said, believe they can gain materially from continuing war. "Because of conflict, they take something, they loot," he said. Muslims may want reconciliation, but "jihad leader says the Muslims 'must stop Christian separatists.'" Would Christians fight again? "I don't think so," answered Mr. Boehm. "I think Christians have sincere aspirations to come to peace. But I don't know what the grassroots think after so much suffering." Grassroots thinking will be key. Agus said he didn't believe government-imposed reconciliation: "If it comes from the grassroots, then it will be okay." Likewise, aid from Western agencies is likely to be resisted. Muslims, said Mr. Boehm, "tell stories that Western military aid is used by Christians." Individual Westerners who work with aid organizations are seen as partisans, aiding Christians. Muslims contend that workers from the French organization Doctors Without Borders are "spies for Christians," he said. The same thinking would prevail concerning an international peacekeeping force, which some have proposed, or direct intervention by U.S. agencies. Many Christians are hoping not so much for Western intervention as for the survival of the Indonesian political system, which has been unraveling since its longtime dictator president, Suharto, fell from power in a deluge of scandal. Political collapse would be bad for the average Muslim but catastrophic for Christians, who, as ten percent of the population, are "only tolerated" now, said Mr. Boehm. And there's all too much reason to fear that the current respite in Ambon is only temporary. "Now we are in round five or maybe round six. We finish one, have reconciliation, then it starts again," observed Mr. Barlola, the hotel manager. The next bout could come at any time, he said, and then there will be more deaths, more destruction, more refugees, more promises from the government, and more hand-wringing from abroad. "Don't forget us," was the final plea from Agus. "We are a brotherhood. Go back to America, and tell Christians that they must help us here." But any help will be too late for Agus. Jihad fighters shot and killed him just three weeks after his interview.

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