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A War of Vengeance

A War of Vengeance

Author: Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Publication: Washington Post
Date: June 19, 2000

Armed Indonesian soldiers restrain a man following fresh sectarian violence between Muslims and Christians in which six people were killed in downtown Ambon, Indonesia. (AFP)

AMBON, Indonesia - Diponogoro Street, lined with charred, bullet-pocked buildings that once housed the biggest banks and shops in this sleepy harbor city, has been nicknamed "Sniper Alley." It is bisected by the "Green Line," the avenue that separates the Muslim and Christian business districts. Off in the distance, a no man's land of demolished buildings several blocks wide is called the "Gaza Strip."

To people in the picturesque Indonesian archipelago once known as the Spice Islands, this is the world's latest Beirut or Sarajevo. They now cower in constant fear of getting shot, bombed or hacked to death with a machete in the ferocious war that has erupted between Christian and Muslim gangs.

Muslim and Christian villagers, who lived peacefully side by side for generations, have been attacking each other with lethal homemade guns and bombs packed with nails. They have torched scores of churches and mosques as well as thousands of homes, forcing the population, which is almost evenly split between the faiths, to regroup in religiously divided villages and neighborhoods that are barricaded with sandbags and barbed wire.

The sectarian fighting in this city and elsewhere in the archipelago, now called the Moluccas, is driven not by ideology, but by a fanatical desire to avenge the other side's most recent attack.

It all started with a scuffle between a Muslim bus driver and a Christian passenger in January 1999. Since then, more than 2,500 people have been killed by snipers and in confrontations between warring factions; 200,000 others have been forced from their homes, according to the government.

In the past few weeks, the violence has spread to new corners of the Moluccas, fueled largely by the arrival of 3,000 Muslim fighters from other parts of Indonesia who are committed to waging a holy war against Christians.

The escalating conflict is raising questions about the ability and commitment of Indonesia's new democratic government and civilian-controlled armed forces to contain religious extremism, which threatens to further fracture a nation already being pulled apart by several strong separatist movements. The crisis here also resembles religious and ethnic insurgencies elsewhere in Southeast Asia, from Tamil rebels fighting to carve out an independent nation in northern Sri Lanka to Islamic guerrillas battling for self-rule in the southern Philippines.

In the case of the Moluccas, local officials say that soldiers, perhaps fearful of a crackdown on human rights abuses, have been reluctant to disarm villagers or use force to break up fights. And the military is grappling with sectarian tensions: In a battle on Ambon island last month, Muslim and Christian soldiers briefly turned on each other.

Freed from 32 years of dictatorial rule that enforced a policy of religious coexistence in the predominantly Muslim nation, Indonesia is now facing an eruption of radicalism throughout the country. On the resort island of Lombok, for instance, Muslims destroyed and looted a dozen churches and scores of Christian homes earlier this year.

Churches also have been burned in Yogyakarta, a large city on Java. In Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, a group called the Front for Protectors of Islam has brutally attacked prostitutes and transvestites. And this month, more than 120 people have been killed in Muslim-Christian clashes on the island of Sulawesi.

"The relationship between Muslims and Christians in Indonesia has become very strained," said Azyumardi Azra, a professor at the State Islamic University in Jakarta. "It is creating serious risks for our stability."

In Ambon and the rest of the Moluccas, in the Banda Sea 1,500 miles northeast of Jakarta, government officials, religious leaders and ordinary people are convinced they are pawns in a war that is incited and funded by outside political forces. The locals cannot say with certainty who is responsible, but they have theories.

Some here say it is people close to former president Suharto. Others think it is Muslim fundamentalists. Yet others contend it is disaffected soldiers who are arming and egging on both sides.

"It is obvious that there is an external influence that wants to break us up," said Soleman Drachman, a Muslim leader. "The Ambonese would never justify violence among ourselves."

Indonesia's defense minister, Juwono Sudarsono, said he believes allies of Suharto, who are being investigated for corruption, fraud and other crimes committed during the dictator's reign, have been instigating the fighting.

"It is forces who were in power during the latter half of Suharto's administration, both civilian and military, who face possible prosecution if the investigation into President Suharto's misuse of power eventually goes to the courts," Sudarsono said in an interview. "Because of their own interests, they want to thwart the government's prosecution. They want to create unrest by projecting the image that [President] Abdurrahman Wahid's government is unfocused and unable to cope with social discontent."

Whatever the actions of those outside the Moluccas, history also is playing a role. Arab traders brought Islam to the region in the 15th century. A century later, Ferdinand Magellan visited the archipelago on his around-the-world voyage and carried back to Europe some of the islands' abundant nutmeg and cloves. The spices, which were then worth more than gold, caused scores of European traders to descend on the Moluccas, leading to Dutch colonization and the spread of Christianity. The large Western presence in the area helped to make the Moluccas the most Christian part of Indonesia.

During the colonial era, the Dutch favored the Christians, giving them choice government positions. But after Indonesia achieved independence, things swung the other way. In the 1960s and '70s, the government encouraged tens of thousands of Muslims from other parts of Indonesia to settle in the Moluccas under a policy aimed at diluting the overwhelming Christian majority. Over the years and with incentives from Jakarta, many of the Muslims became prosperous merchants while Christians were relegated to farming and fishing. As the Islamic population grew, local Christian officials were replaced with Muslims loyal to Suharto.

Despite the reversal of fortunes, there always was peace between the religious groups, enforced by Suharto's brutal military. But in May 1998 Suharto was deposed, and since then, old religious and ethnic hatreds have been bubbling to the surface all over Indonesia.

"During the Suharto years, the military put all the problems under the carpet. Nothing was solved in an open or transparent manner," Azra said. "So when he fell, all of these old problems that never were fixed, mixed with economic deprivation and political struggles, started to erupt."

In Ambon, the tensions reached the boiling point in January 1999 when a Muslim bus driver named Salim got into an argument with a Christian passenger named Yopi. Within an hour, buildings all over town were ablaze and bloody fighting had broken out on the streets.

"It all happened so quickly," said the Rev. Max Siahaya, a top Christian leader. "There had to have been a plan for the violence."

But thus far, nobody has presented any evidence of a plan. What more likely happened, others here say, is that a simple altercation flared out of control, fueled by ages-old animosity and a lack of experience in conflict resolution. Then, seeing the chaos, "the outside forces swept in," said the Rev. Janes Jambormias, a Protestant minister. "They took advantage of us."

Today, the young toughs who prowl Ambon's neighborhoods, armed with everything from slingshots and machetes to assault rifles, have little idea what they are fighting for other than to avenge the recent burning of a church or mosque. The attacks, which have occurred with alarming frequency, have turned into a deadly game of tit for tat.

"We're just trying to get revenge," said Jacob Walalago, 34, a rifle-toting fisherman who is part of a Christian gang. "The Muslims have burned hundreds of homes of Christians."

The situation has grown more tense in recent weeks because of the arrival of 3,000 young men who are members of a group called the Laskar Jihad. The youths, who hail from other parts of Indonesia, contend they have come here to rebuild mosques and homes. But government officials say the members have been wielding machetes and guns, not hammers. And some of them have been frequent participants in the clashes.

"The Laskar Jihad has made things worse," said Saleh Latuconsina, governor of the Moluccas and himself a Muslim. "They are not helping the process of peace."

The Indonesian government has come under fire for letting the group travel to Ambon, a move supported by some fundamentalist politicians, including the speaker of the parliament, Amien Rais. President Wahid and top military officials said they did not support the Laskar Jihad mission. Officials in the city of Surabaya, from which the group embarked, said they were powerless to stop the youths because they were unarmed. Military officials now say the group shipped their weapons to Ambon separately.

Local government officials and religious leaders on both sides have criticized the military for not attempting to quell the violence more forcefully. Soldiers rarely attempt to confiscate weapons, and they often retreat when the fighting starts, according to witnesses to the skirmishes.

Defense Minister Sudarsono said recent human rights investigations into the military's tactics in dealing with unrest in other parts of Indonesia may have spooked some of the troops into taking a hands-off approach.

So today, armed gangs rule the streets of Ambon and villages elsewhere in the Moluccas, while local officials watch helplessly as the torching of buildings continues. The provincial parliament no longer meets, because its offices have been taken over by refugees. The recent flare-up in fighting even forced the few international aid organizations working here to flee for a few weeks.

With residents segregated by religion, all sorts of businesses, from banks to airline ticket offices, have had to open two offices, one on each side. Or they have had to search for one of the few neutral locations in the city. Mercy Corps International, an Oregon-based aid organization, for example, has set up shop between two military posts in a border area.

Traveling from one enclave to another has become a harrowing experience. People arriving at the airport, for instance, have to take a rickety speedboat because the road into the city crosses both Muslim and Christian neighborhoods. Ferries that connect the enclaves zigzag along the coast to avoid snipers and have replaced buses as the primary means of transport.

"I haven't seen my Christian friends for a year," said Nurhidayat, 30, a Muslim woman who like many Indonesians uses only one name. "I can't go to their homes anymore. And they can't come to mine."

Nurhidayat, who used to work as a secretary in a Christian neighborhood, now is unemployed. Sitting in her living room on a recent morning, sipping orange juice, she quietly voiced the sentiments of a growing number of people here.

"We don't want to live like this," she said. "We want to live together, like we did before."

Then, pausing for a moment, she added, "But I don't think we'll ever be able to do that again."

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