Chorima and husband, Sudin, thought they'd find safety in proximity to a police station.
But it was a fatal mistake.
When word came that ethnic Dayaks were attacking rival Madurese on Indonesian Borneo, the couple hid in an empty house across from the station.
They cowered there for a day until the police came pounding on the door. "They said, 'run for your lives,' " recalls Chorima, now safe in her father's home on the island of Madura. " 'Go to the forest. The Dayaks are here.' "
Chorima and Sudin ran to the woods. By nightfall, Dayaks carrying torches were on their trail. One attacker threw a spear at Sudin, pinning him to the ground, before they set upon him with machetes. The next spear whizzed past Chorima, missing. "I just ran because if I didn't, I'd be next," she recounts with monotone voice and glazed eyes.
As a teen, Chorima had gone to Borneo in search of work and a better life. But this month she became one of 50,000 to 70,000 people who have fled their homes. Her ordeal offers a disturbing portrait of an Indonesia that, despite its aspirations of democracy, often fails to protect its citizens, and rarely holds accountable the perpetrators of gross human rights violations. And Chorima is just one of many struggling to cope with the upheaval of the lastest refugee crisis on this tumultuous archipelago.
No one argues against the fact that the police, who only recently were separated from the military, are ill-trained and underpaid. The government says it did its best to quell the crisis concentrated in Central Kalimantan province by sending in troops who evacuated tens of thousands of Madurese. Last weekend, Defense Minister Mohammad Mahfud blamed the sluggish response on the US embargo on arms sales to Indonesia. Mr. Mahfud said they could only fly in two of its Air Force 26 Hercules C-130 transport planes, due to a shortage of parts, The Associated Press reported. The US responded that restrictions on commercial sales of C-130 parts were lifted in September.
After Sudin died, Chorima fled the forest and went back to her village. There, she and several others clung to the bars of the police station, hoping that the Dayaks would not kill them directly in front of the officers. But Dayaks weren't the only ones she need to fear. The police beat her and tried to make her let go, she says, and yelled out to passing Dayaks that they should come and get her.
"The police said, 'Why don't you pull her away and kill her too, because her husband is dead anyway,' " Chorima bleats - remote, like a witness reading someone else's testimony. Chorima says that when police pried her from the station and took her 700,000 rupiah savings (about $70), she fled back to the forest again. Later, some fellow Madurese hiding there were coaxed out by announcements over loudspeakers that they should come back to the police station. They were loaded into trucks, she says, that they thought were sent to take them to safety. Instead, Dayaks slaughtered most of them as they drove away.
Chorima is not sure how she survived. Eventually, Indonesian military troops arrived and brought her to the town of Sampit before she was put on a boat back to Madura. At a refugee site where the government officials left them, family members almost didn't recognize Chorima. Eight years older and now a widow, she was filthy and haggard from more than a week in flight.
Interviews with several refugees from Borneo tell similar tales of their escape from the mayhem. They describe police who stood idly by and did nothing to stop the resentful Dayaks. Police demanded bribes from fleeing Madurese to gain access to boats to carry them to safety. Those who had no money to offer were encouraged to proffer their cars and motorbikes instead.
"The police were extremely cruel in that they wouldn't even let us take our cars or other belongings, or they made us trade them for food," says Abdul Haye, a cousin of Chorima's, grasping his baby daughter in his arms.
Indeed, most of the refugees arriving here are coming with little more than the clothes on their backs. And, after a new round of killings last week - fueled by Dayaks who say the Madurese monopolize the local economy - another 7,000 are on their way, according to representatives of an ad-hoc aid group. Supplies are running low. Sifbrih De Giouie, a volunteer with the Forum of Madurese Youth for Sampit, says the government has only provided enough rice to last the refugees two weeks.
"This shows that the government is not serious about helping these people," says Mr. De Giouie, punching numbers into his calculator, showing how food supply figures come up short. He and other volunteers congregate outside the municipal building in Sampang: a beautiful, grandiose edifice with towering columns, left from the Dutch colonial period. Inside, they gripe, little if any government occurs. A large magic-marker board tracks the refugees and where they are taking shelter on this already taxed island of some 3 million. Huge portraits of the country's leaders - President Abdurrahman Wahid and Vice President Megawati Sukarnoputri - loom large overhead, the tops of their frames tilted off the wall at 45-degree angles toward onlookers below.
"It just doesn't make sense that the government says it can't do anything about the situation," says De Giouie.
Across the water on the main island of Java, in Surabaya, Indonesia's second-largest city and a bastion of support for Mr. Wahid, others are alarmed that his government is moving masses of Madurese away from the land they've lived on for generations, handing the Dayaks a victory. Transmigration programs initiated under former President Suharto had brought the Madurese from their crowded island to the Dayaks' home territory, laying the groundwork for conflict between the two groups. "It is unacceptable that the government supports the refugees' evacuation and that they keep coming. This shows the government's basic inability to protect its citizens," says Harun al-Rasyid, the head of the Madurese Society. "Most of these people are not familiar with Madura and this is not home for them."
Indeed, Chorima, who like many Indonesians uses only one name, may be exceptional in that the bulk of the refugees have never lived here. Most were born in and around Borneo. Nur Hayoun, another refugee, is three generations removed from life on this island. Mr. Hayoun says he left behind rubber and rattan plantations in Borneo. He wants to return to them when the tensions subside. That, despite the fact that the Dayaks burned down all the houses in his village. "What are we supposed to do here?" he says. "There's no land ..., no work, and I don't even think there will be enough food."
"They could have stopped the disputes early, when it involved a few people, instead of allowing it to get to the situation it is today," he says. The most distressing part of their escape, he adds, was the way they were dealt with by the police. "They treated us inhumanely and just threw food at us, so we had to fight for it," he says sadly. "Those who fought harder got, and those who couldn't, didn't get."
With Borneo full of scorched earth and fresh casualties, a return to the fertile farmland Hayoun calls home looks unlikely. But he insists it will be safe. Not because he trusts the police, but because, he says, "there are also good Dayaks." He got along well with his neighbors, Dayaks who actually hid him and his family from marauders from other areas.
"The Dayaks who came to attack came from remote areas," he says. "It was my Dayak neighbor who hid me and then smuggled me out to safety. I don't know what made them kill. I just know the ones living near me are good."
Later this week: Indonesia's police struggle against their loss of credibility.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor