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JANUARY 24, 2000 VOL. 155 NO. 3

The Mysterious Roots of Mayhem

A twisted pile of scrap metal from buildings gutted during a year of armed conflict lies near one of the many "borders" separating Ambon's warring Muslims and Christians. The mass of corrugated steel, door frames and pipes represents opportunity for scavengers who can sell the metal to traders in East Java. On a recent morning, all hell nearly breaks loose when a Christian resident tries to claim the prize. "This is our territory, and the metal is on our side," says the man, as dozens of Muslims approach. There is a tense standoff until other Christians pull the man back. "We have given him several warnings not to do business in an area that will provoke them," says one of the Christians, his short and stocky frame heaving with anger. "We do not want another war."

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Jakarta feels the reverberations from Ambon

Neither side in Ambon says it wants a fight, and yet the violence seems unstoppable. How far back does one need to go to affix blame, to untangle the emotions? Who's ultimately to blame? Listen to Hasanusi, a local Muslim leader: "We are prepared to defend ourselves, but we have never been the first to attack." Then listen to Christian hard-liner Agus Wattimena, rumored to train young boys on the art of making bombs: "The Christians have never attacked first." The widespread destruction and torching of mosques and churches occurs without explanation. Rooftop snipers who kill citizens on the streets below tend to be identified simply as "mysterious."

Indonesia's media are doing little to clarify things. A report last week in Media Indonesia, a national newspaper, says 52 people were killed and 500 houses torched during three days of violence in the town of Masohi on Seram Island off Ambon's coast. Ambon Governor Saleh Latuconsina scoffs. "The report says the local mayor has fled," he notes in an exasperated voice; he phones the mayor in Masohi, who confirms he never left and doesn't know what the report is based on. "With this kind of reporting it's no wonder people are so emotional." Muslims denounce Christian-owned newspapers as the "voice of provocateurs," while Christians describe the Muslim dailies as full of lies. Indonesia's army is proposing a media blackout to keep all sides--Muslims, Christians, the army--from overreacting. "It hurts me to read what they're saying about us in Suara Maluku," says a soldier, referring to a local paper run by Christians. A recent article accuses the army of being slow to act and reports that some military men have become snipers. "It's not true," the soldier says.

Calm Before the Storm:
Religious differences have turned the Moluccas into a battlefield, filled with hate and the prospect of more violence
It's difficult for a visitor to know for certain what's happening. At the north end of the province, scene of some of the worst reported atrocities, hundreds of Muslims are said to have been massacred in a mosque in the village of Popio. A doctor appeared on national TV describing the carnage and the piles of burned bodies stacked in and around the mosque. Local Christians deny that any such attack took place. "There has not been a massacre here, and there are no mass graves," says Christine Simange, a member of the Tobelo Council of Churches. In Halmahera, reports of mass killings baffle neutral parties struggling to get at the truth. "We doubt some of the reports coming out of Halmahera," says Karin Hergarden, a nurse for Médecins sans Frontières. "Stories from both sides are often exaggerated." It's hard to say anything more with certainty.

I have seen a Muslim graveyard marked with hundreds of thin wooden tombstones. I've surveyed home-made firearms confiscated by police and seen dozens of churches, mosques, homes and buildings reduced to their foundations. I shake my head and wonder how a process of reconciliation can ever begin if no one is found responsible.

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