Eyewitnesses provide evidence of mass murders
A Monitor exclusive on the escalating violence in Indonesia's Maluku
On the morning of Dec. 23, a group of Muslims murdered scores of Christians, including women and children, at a plywood factory on the Indonesian island of Buru, according to three Christian employees who offer credible evidence of having survived the attack.Skip to next paragraph
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Christians and Muslims in Indonesia's Maluku islands have been fighting for more than a year, mainly in clashes that have killed hundreds of militants from both sides.
But reports by Islamic aid groups of recent massacres of Muslims on the northern island of Halmahera and the details now emerging about events on Buru island suggest that violence is increasingly being used against defenseless people.
The level of brutality - in the Malukus and other parts of Indonesia - taxes analysts.
"It is difficult to explain why Indonesians are becoming so easy to run amok," says Azyumardi Azra, rector of an Islamic college in Jakarta, the capital. Amid economic crisis, a transition from dictatorship to democracy, and the threat of regions breaking away, he says, "people have lost belief in government ... in law enforcement - probably they have just lost the belief in their leaders."
Yoke Pauno, a factory worker who has taken refuge in Ambon, the Maluku provincial capital, says she saw armed Muslims ask a woman holding a baby if she was obed or achan, the local slang for Christian and Muslim, respectively. The woman answered " 'obed,' " Ms. Pauno says. "Then a man hit her on the right shoulder with a long knife. The baby was also killed."
Although word of the Buru killings has been circulating in Ambon for several weeks, the matter has received scant coverage in the Indonesian media. This article is the first account to appear internationally.
Msgr. Petrus Mandagi, the Roman Catholic bishop in the Malukus, says he believes the killings in Buru constitute the worst single instance of anti-Christian violence in the region so far. But during a visit to Jakarta last week, Monsignor Mandagi says he was unable to persuade the country's media to cover the killings. "They just expose what happened in Halmahera; to me this is unproportional," he says.
Some Indonesian newspapers and television networks have aggressively covered the killings of Muslims, more often portraying Christians as aggressors rather than victims. Independent observers say both sides are responsible for violence and have suffered its consequences.
Military and government officials blame lopsided coverage for inciting further killings, and some militant Muslims have vowed a nationwide campaign of revenge against Christians if the government is unable to stop the violence in the Malukus. Nearly 90 percent of Indonesia's 210 million people call themselves Muslims; Christians make up about 8 percent of the population.
Police say more than 100 people may have been killed at the factory, Waenibe Wood Industry, Inc. Maj. Jekriel Philips, the Maluku police spokesman, says authorities have not visited the site because of a broken bridge and Muslim roadblocks. A "large amount of force" will be needed to enter the factory, he says.
But accounts from the three Christian employees suggest it is important that authorities act quickly. Pauno and two others say bodies were buried on the factory premises, which are on Buru island's north coast, and that the killers quickly began to remove evidence of the crime.
"Definitely the evidence will disappear," concedes Major Philips, but adds that "the people who did [the killing] will be arrested, since we have good information from eyewitnesses." He says he himself lost a relative in the attack.
Although they could not be independently verified, the accounts of Pauno and two other factory employees - whom the police consider eyewitnesses - appear reliable.
In detailed, independent interviews, Pauno and the two other employees provided internally consistent accounts of the events of Dec. 22 to 24. Their names appear on company employee rolls. Other factory workers interviewed in Ambon, also Christians, assert that the massacre occurred and that the three hid in a building where the worst of the killing took place.
Several boat owners in Ambon city, a day's sail from Waenibe, would not take reporters to the scene. Attempts to contact factory officials by radio - the only possibility - from the company's office in Ambon were also unsuccessful. Workers there say they are aware of the reports of killings but would not comment further.