In Maluku islands, peace takes fragile hold

Muslims and Christians in Indonesia's Malukus must disarm Sunday under peace deal.

After three years of bloody interfaith conflict, a fragile peace is taking hold in the Indonesian province of Maluku.

Word of a recent peace agreement sparked euphoria in the streets of Ambon, the provincial capital, and people are venturing into neighborhoods they were long afraid to enter, crossing battle lines that seemed set in stone. "The borders just collapsed and people started walking all over the city," says a foreign observer.

For Indonesia, a majority-Muslim nation struggling to accommodate religious tolerance and democracy, the fragile peace is seen as a test case of whether Christians and Muslims alike can start trusting public institutions more than communal loyalties.

"The problem in Indonesia is that we can't rely on the formal institutions, whether it's the parliament or police or government in general," says Umar Juoro, a political scientist in Jakarta. "In areas like Maluku where the social institutions can't deal with a crisis, there's always potential for this kind of conflict."

The conflict started with a spat over a bus fare but spread like a brushfire to nearby islands. Since 1999, it has claimed more than 5,000 lives, and created 500,000 refugees – one-quarter of the province's population.

Three years of conflict have divided this city of Christians and Muslims into "ethnically cleansed" neighborhoods with barricades and armed checkpoints that yield little neutral space. Weeds choke the charred skeletons of razed houses along the city's religious fault lines.

In Ambon, people are finally regaining a sense of normal life – one that doesn't feature nightly gun battles and bomb blasts. Street markets in the neutral zone between the two communities are flourishing, and public buses are running across former battle lines.

But a recent incident shows how tenuous the budding trust can be. For Elizabeth Pieters, who lives in a Christian neighborhood, the détente meant an unexpected opportunity to shop in Matahari, a department store that lies only 300 yards from her house in a Muslim neighborhood.

On a recent Saturday morning, she walked to the store for the first time in three years and found it abuzz with Christian and Muslim shoppers.

But trouble was brewing further down the road, where a motorbike convoy of noisy Christian youths, some of them drinking alcohol, disrupted midday prayers at a large mosque.

When a group of Muslim students came out to complain, a fight broke out and a Christian motorbike was set alight. Suddenly, the tentative peace was shattered. Christians scrambled to their own area, and Muslims poured into the streets.

Inside Matahari, Ms. Pieters heard the security doors slam shut as guards rushed to protect the Christians trapped inside. "People were running around in panic," she says. "But the soldiers told us, 'Don't worry, we will save you and evacuate you.' "

As fighting flared outside, soldiers fired warning shots to separate the warring sides. Inside, Pieters and 57 other Christians huddled on the second floor, unable to see what was happening on the street.

After awhile, she heard a cry from outside for all Christians to leave or be burnt alive in the store. The Muslim staff told her to ignore the threat. Later, she heard an explosion – a homemade bomb hurled at troops from a nearby empty house.

Five hours later, Pieters was escorted home in a police truck. "Many people were waiting for us at home, they were angry and some were crying," she recalls.

While the day's violence was a setback for reconciliation in Ambon, officials say it hasn't upset the peace process. "This was a test case," says Gov. Saleh Latuconsina. "We saw a motorbike burnt, but no victims. Before, if a motorbike was burnt, then poof!" he says, raising his arms in the air.

There is still widespread suspicion of Army and police personnel, who have reportedly participated in fighting and aided local Muslim and Christian gangs. This has reinforced theories that the Army is actually trying to perpetuate conflict for political reasons. Aides to ex-President Abdurrahman Wahid, who was replaced last July by Megawati Sukarnoputri, say the chaos was intended to scupper military reforms.

Even if that whiff of conspiracy doesn't prove true, widespread concerns in Ambon over fair and impartial policing could undermine a key plank in the Feb. 12 peace accord: disarming the civilian population.

"If they [the security forces] don't do their work properly, people will not surrender their guns" says Margaretha Hendriks, a Christian theology professor who signed the peace deal. A headmaster at a Muslim school predicts that people won't disarm until they can trust the police to defend them against Christian fighters. "Our people still feel threatened," he says.

Governor Latuconsina says all weapons must be surrendered by Sunday. Hundreds of homemade guns have already been handed in, but police must still capture 800 automatic rifles looted from a police armory two years ago.

Many of those rifles apparently went to Laskar Jihad, a well-funded paramilitary group from Java that rejects the peace deal and wants Indonesia to enforce Islamic law.

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