Why local conflict becomes Indonesia's national war

Yesterday, a joyful reconciliation between Muslims and Christians was rocked by two bomb blasts.

Sift through the rubble of Waai, a once-vibrant seaside town famous for its sacred eels and emerald waters, and clues to why Indonesia's two Maluku provinces have descended into chaos start to come to hand.

Search a little further, and you begin to understand why the violence is starting again. In the past few days, sectarian attacks have resumed in Maluku after a month of calm.

Yesterday, joyful reunions of Muslims and Christians at the opening of a government-sponsored market for both communities in Ambon city were disrupted by two bombs. As hundreds of shoppers stampeded away, government soldiers added to the panic by firing wildly into the air.

It was the latest failed reconciliation attempt. At least no one was killed this time. But since January 1999, some 5,000 have been killed, and 250,000 driven from their homes.

On June 27, Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid declared a civil emergency, giving special powers to the military and civil authorities to stop the violence. The immediate results in Waai, a town with at least a thousand soldiers within an hour's drive, 22 miles from the provincial capital of Ambon city, were otherwise.

At dawn on July 6, shortly after government soldiers withdrew from town, mortar rounds began pounding Waai. Armed men, many either in Army uniforms or the flowing white robes of Maluku's Jihad fighters, stormed in behind the bombing. Joining them were the Muslim residents of Tulehu and Liang, two predominantly Muslim towns that have bracketed Waai for 500 years.

"We got out of bed, and suddenly we were in the middle of a war zone,'' said Bob Maspaitella, a Waai refugee. "They wanted to clean the Christians off that coast, and they did.'' By nightfall on July 7, the Christian town of Waai had been emptied, its citizens cowering in the hills above town. Frantic calls to a nearby Army base were ignored.

For weeks they lived in a makeshift camp, eating what could be foraged and waiting for help. Soldiers eventually came, promising they would be protected. Meanwhile, every structure in Waai - from the churches to the pond holding the sacred eels - was destroyed. Its banana and mango groves were cut down.

Then on July 30, men with rifles and military fatigues came hunting through the coconut and sago trees, killing 15 more and driving the terrified survivors to Paso, a Christian enclave. Gov. Saleh Latuconsina later said the second massacre occurred because the Army was misinformed about the location of the refugees, though he denied Waai survivors' allegations that a large number of their attackers were from Army Battalion 733.

"Maybe some soldiers'' were involved, Governor Latuconsina concedes. "But don't say the military was responsible." The governor said he didn't know how many, if any, soldiers have been arrested for criminal acts in Maluku. The case of Waai provides plenty of blame to go around.

In January of last year, a riot between Muslims and Christians in Ambon touched off a long-lasting wave of battles in the two provinces - once known as the Spice Islands and now referred to as Maluku and North Maluku. What began as a local conflict became a proxy war for national political battles. Everyone either knows a refugee or is a refugee. It is hard to find a resident who believes the government can provide justice for their losses. Moreover, the process has nearly totally divided the Muslim and Christian populations, who had lived side by side for centuries, into religiously cleansed territories.

Islam was introduced to Maluku by Arab traders in the 14th century, Christianity two centuries later by European colonialists drawn by the lucrative spice trade. About 55 percent of the area's 2 million people are Muslim today, the remainder Christian. Both versions of the world religions were traditionally imbued with local mystical beliefs, which cut down on religious conflict.

But in this century, purer versions of the religions have supplanted traditional ways, stripping away common culture and emphasizing the differences between people, which increased the likelihood of conflict. That a large number of Ambonese Christians backed a brief rebellion against Jakarta in the 1950s, also raised tensions between the communities. Though there is little separatist sentiment anymore, it remains a hot-button issue for both sides.

"What is this nation if they can let people be slaughtered like this, with the help of the military," thunders Sammy Titaley, a leader of the Protestant Church of Maluku. "Of course there's no trust in the nation anymore," says Tetuhey Jusuf Idrus, the Maluku chairman of Mohamidiyah, one of Indonesia's largest Muslim organizations: "Why is this still happening? Because politicians are using us to play a game."

Though the separation of the Muslims and Christians has meant a tenuous peace, it is unlikely to hold. Take Waai, for instance. Today it is a blasted place where to the victors are going the very meager spoils. Villagers from Tulehu and Liang comb the town for anything of value.

Two youths with machetes are scavenging nails from pavilions built to shade the dead in Waai's graveyard. A gang of rifle-toting men in a flatbed are salvaging copper telephone cable for sale in the Muslim quarter of Ambon; others haul away bricks and metal roofing. On the outskirts of this lawless scene, soldiers at a checkpoint lazily wave looters on past.

In nearby Tulehu, a group of shirtless men are unapologetic about what happened to Waai. "They kept provoking us, they shot at our boats, so they had to be wiped out,'' says Hussein, a muscular young man who refused to give his last name. He says he ate one of Waai's sacred eels. The people of Waai believed their fortunes were tied to the safety of the eels.

Maluku is an extreme case of the breakdown in institutions that can be seen from the troubled Aceh and Papua provinces, where independence movements are gaining strength, to the Indonesian portion of Borneo, where military and civilian officials are increasingly engaging in illegal mining and logging. Maluku's chaos is beginning to look like a harbinger of what could happen in the rest of Indonesia if the rule of law is allowed to slip further.

And the longer the communities are kept apart, the harder it will be to bring them together again. Though the seeds of Maluku's violence lay in communal conflicts over land and political power, the rhetoric has solidified into that of a religious war, complete with claims of miracles and martyrdom from both sides.

A Christian man in the Kao district on Halmahera in North Maluku said Jesus entered his machete and helped him kill Muslims. Mohammad Albar, the Jihad commander in the North Maluku capital of Ternate, said Allah made his fighters invisible when they attacked Christian villages on Halmahera in June.

In Maluku, lawlessness has allowed the most radical voices on both sides of the confessional divide to become dominant, particularly the national Muslim leaders who see in the Maluku conflict a chance to further their political goal of introducing Islamic law to Indonesia. On the Christian side, gangsters have risen to become the de facto leaders and protectors of their communities.

These people need conflict to maintain their positions. In mid-August, two Muslim men were publicly executed in the neighborhood behind the Al-Fatah mosque for "betraying Islam," one stoned, the other hanged. In Ambon city, the military conducts sweeps for weapons, but announces the location of the sweep a day ahead of time, ensuring they are never successful. The courts are not working, and no one, Christian or Muslim, civilian or soldier, has been tried.

Though Christians were the victims in Waai, Muslims have also suffered massive casualties. At Christmas last year, the Christians of Tobelo district drove out their Muslim neighbors, slaughtering more than 500 people in three days and making refugees of thousands more.

The government has yet to get a court system up and running again, though Latuconsina promises that will happen soon, and is even considering having a "floating judiciary" on a warship in Manado Bay. Bob Maspaitella, the Waai refugee now living with his family and 6,000 others in a clove warehouse near Ambon, is skeptical: Before the violence, he was a judge in Ambon's highest court. He's still afraid to go back to work.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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