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A handmade gun suffices for a Christian paramilitary.

Fight for Maluku
'I am very sure the designer of the situation is in shock at the results. The security forces can do little'

Bad Times, Worst Times: Recent events

It happened suddenly. A group of men armed with machetes and calling themselves Christians descended upon the small Ambon village in Indonesia's farflung Maluku islands. It was a Muslim village. Without hesitation Kojip, a community leader, stepped forward and offered his life in exchange for those of his family and friends. He asked only to be allowed to pray before he died. The mob agreed and took him to a mosque. Kojip, 41, said his final prayers and surrendered his life to God. Then the Christians held him down, slit his throat and chopped his head off. "His blood splattered all over the walls of the mosque and remains there today," recounts Kojip's younger sister, Samu. "If not for my brother, all of us would be dead. He is a hero." Samu now lives in an overcrowded and underfed refugee camp in Ambon, the southernmost main island of Indonesia's shattered Maluku group. Her brother was murdered almost two years ago, but Samu is not going home soon. Though villagers rebuilt about 200 houses, another mob of destroyers turned up soon after. Samu has nowhere to go.

Over the past 21 months there have been only two constants apart from death in Maluku, the old Spice Islands once lauded as the perfect example of Indonesians' ability to live in religious harmony. One is that despite some sustained lulls in fighting between Christians and Muslims, the partly tribal, partly economic, mostly religious violence keeps flaring. The second constant is the military. Most commentators believe that generals, retired or active, backed youth gangs accused of lighting the original fuse. Reform-minded officers concede that foot soldiers, local or imported, took sides, transforming a communal melee of machetes and spears into a sustained carnage of guns and grenades. The entry to the fray of the paramilitary Islamic Laskar Jihad (holy war army) — which is trying to stir trouble and undermine the presidency of embattled Abdurrahman Wahid — is said to have been both funded and directed by rogue forces. Maluku has become a crucible from which the New Order of old president Suharto is staging its fightback. And Maluku is where they just might win.

Asiaweek Map by Emilio Rivera III.

"We keep on being slaughtered here," says Agus Wattimena, who leads Christian paramilitary forces on the islands. While no one knows for sure, an estimated 10,000 people from the Maluku population of 2 million have died and about 500,000 are now displaced. The casualties on both sides are said to be about equal — at least they were before the Laskar "preachers" arrived, toting guns suspected to have been supplied via the southern Philippines. Adds Agus: "What else can we do but seek help from outside? We cannot rely on the Indonesian security forces."

Four months ago the Christian community formally called on the United Nations to intervene on the islands — a notion quickly rejected by Wahid. Last week a delegation from the European Union arrived to begin its own investigation. From the bloated refugee camps on nearby Sulawesi, the risk of contagion is spreading. "My biggest worry is the disintegration of the country," says the naval commander in Maluku, Brig.-Gen. Djoko Sumaryono. Lt.-Gen. Agus Wirahadikusumah, an outspoken reformist and former chief of the army's elite Kostrad force, thinks the violence was deliberately fostered, but is now out of control: "I am very sure the designer of the situation is in shock at the results. The security forces can do little."

Nobody supposes that the security forces can forge a peace anyway. Notes Human Rights Watch Asia: "The near-universal belief is that the violence in Ambon is one of a number of outbreaks of unrest around the country deliberately instigated by people loyal to former president Suharto, his family, a group of disgruntled army officers, or all of the above." What people really want, then, is for their president to gain control of the "rogues." Wahid speaks of the delicacy of the situation — trying to harness the military without tipping the country over into social disintegration. Trying to rein in the malcontents while maintaining the strong, well-disciplined force that Indonesia needs. Trying to empower those loyal to his reform agenda without further demoralizing and angering those long familiar with being the law. Yet while this sophisticated Javanese shadow play is performed, the Maluku slaughter continues.

"Wahid has to be careful," says a presidential palace source. "He cannot move too much or too soon, otherwise it will backfire." The source estimates that Wahid has the support of 90% of both the navy and the airforce. But from the army, which comprises more than half of Indonesia's military, backing is less than 50%. "A demilitarization which is too fast could lead to remilitarization," the source adds. "When his support in the army passes 50% and he consolidates his power, he will be able to take firm action." Djuanda, a foreign ministry staffer and former naval intelligence officer, bluntly disagrees: "Gus Dur [Wahid] cannot control the violence in Maluku or elsewhere because the military persons in this game are too strong."

Yet Maluku also encapsulates a terrifying truth: Wahid might not have control over the army, but the army also cannot control itself. Suddenly cut loose from their benefactor Suharto, the security forces are as disoriented and insecure as many of their countrymen. Military men say a huge problem in Maluku is that the intelligence network is fractious, untrustworthy and unable to deliver reliable information. Says Djuanda: "In the army, there is no one strong general. The commanders are fighting with each other. As a result, their men are vulnerable to being instigated, influenced or paid to commit crimes or wrongdoings."

The proof of these claims can be found in Ambon, the main flashpoint of the Maluku mess. The eponymous main city has been reduced to a rubble where children amuse themselves with broken guns or mortar shells that were once military property. Snipers, many of them police or military deserters, pick off those who try to breach the patchwork of Christian and Muslim enclaves. And divisions within the islands are hardening to a point almost beyond repair. When security forces first arrived in Ambon to try to separate the warring factions, the result was even more conflict. Predominantly Muslim members of an elite Kostrad unit dispatched from nearby Sulawesi were accused of siding with Muslim vigilantes and using excessive force against Christians. Muslims charged that the police force also was acting with bias. Commanders have been placed and replaced. The present head of security is a Hindu, appointed especially to ensure some neutrality. Former defense minister Juwono Sudarsono confirms that the police and Kostrad men took opposite sides in the beginning, adding that local soldiers also became involved "because they had families who had been killed." Many of those "organic" forces were shipped out. But their replacements are forced to shelter in gutted or partially destroyed shops and offices. They collect water from a community pump and often rely on locals for food. "As such, when a riot breaks out these soldiers take sides with the villagers who fed them," says a senior officer.

There were terrible military mistakes, as well. One unit of troops dispatched to Ambon was a construction battalion, trained to rebuild war-torn areas, not to quell violence. "When the soldiers got here, they were upset to find that they had to fight," says an Ambon military source. "They were also scared. They could not separate the warring parties. One or two of them vented their frustration by shooting at the people."

Officers also must contend with the Laskar Jihad, a largely ad hoc group of Muslim agitators, whose arrival in May merely underlined Wahid's shaky authority. The president gave express orders that the fighters not be allowed to leave Java. Yet they not only succeeded in boarding ships to Ambon, they were allowed to disembark with their weapons once there. Maluku Muslim leader Abdullah Soulissas says the jihad is providing only moral support. But according to former minister Juwono, the funding for the Laskar Jihad came from Jakarta. "It was a mixture — former cabinet ministers, senior officers and generals who served under Suharto," he says. "But the difficulty was getting legal evidence to apprehend them." Juwono believes many of the fighters have been recruited from Indonesia's growing lake of 37 million unemployed. "If you have the money, you can always instigate or foment a demonstration, whether it's for two hours or two days, two weeks or two months," he says. "Money does talk." Christians claim soldiers are switching to the white robes of the Jihad to cover up their activities.

David, a 28-year-old Christian, leads a small band of teenagers who patrol the frontlines near his ruined Ambon village. A mob armed with grenades, mortars and guns descended on his home late last year. He says they called themselves Muslims, yet were soldiers foremost. "I saw them with my own eyes," he recounts. "The soldiers put on white Muslim garbs and then launched the attack using standard military weapons. After that they got Muslims from the local community to loot and set fire to the houses." David says his aunt and uncle were killed as they tried to escape and their bodies were mutilated. He saw a friend hacked to death, then decapitated. "The mobs impaled his head on a stick and paraded it round the village."

Can the war end? Will Wahid win? Agus, the former Kostrad chief, is himself a depressing example of how little control the president maintains. When Agus began exposing corruption in a bid to clear out army rogues, Wahid was apparently forced to appease his generals by relieving him of his post. So does Agus see a solution for Maluku? "If we are able to cut the external influence from Ambon and able to develop the importance of human relationships, I am very sure, some day, there will be peace," he says. Some day.

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