JANUARY 24, 2000 VOL. 155 NO. 3
A Wasteland Called Peace
Indonesia's army sets up a ring of steel around troubled Ambon, but the killing isn't likely to stop
By NISID HAJARI
No one would mistake the calm of Ambon for peace. The capital of Maluku province--epicenter of a yearlong orgy of religious violence--has been carved up into exclusive "sectors" by its Muslim and Christian residents. During the day Indonesian soldiers search neighborhoods for homemade rifles, spear guns and petrol bombs; at night tanks patrol the rubble-strewn streets. The main Muslim sector is a narrow, 4-km corridor lined with refugee camps, fish markets and charred buildings. Taxi drivers loiter on the sidewalks, since driving within the few kilometers would yield only a few cents. "I feel like I'm living in a cage," says Yusnita Tiakoly, a university student who, along with most of her peers, has not been to class in a year.
Greg Girard -- Contact Press Images for TIME
A yearlong orgy of sectarian violence has left Ambon neighborhoods scorched and gutted.
The ring of steel that the Indonesian military has thrown around the Moluccas--the fabled Spice Islands--has restored only the semblance of normalcy to the region. According to the military, the pace has slowed, leaving a death toll of about 600 since Dec. 26, when a bus driven by a Christian allegedly hit a Muslim boy in Ambon. But the quiet owes more to the presence of close to 10,000 troops than to any reconciliation. Across the islands of Maluku and North Maluku, thousands of villagers have withdrawn into their communities, loath to cross religious lines and quick to respond to rumors with mobs and machetes. Many fear that this week's anniversary of the first religious riots to strike Ambon could spark renewed violence. "Since last Jan. 19, there have been so many victims that the feeling of revenge is very deep," says Agus Wattimena, a tattooed Christian militant who carries a Colt .45 pistol and claims to have 60,000 men under his command. "Both sides are at a breaking point."
In fact, no one really knows whether the violence has actually ebbed. In Jakarta an embattled General Wiranto, Coordinating Minister for Political and Security Affairs, used his own military's casualty figures to declare that the situation has stabilized. Yet both Muslim and Christian sources hotly dispute the numbers: by some estimates, more than 3,000 members of both faiths have been killed in North Maluku alone in recent weeks. On the island of Halmahera last week, Muslim aid groups claimed to have found the charred corpses of more than 500 of their co-religionists and buried them in mass graves. Some Christian groups deny any such massacre occurred.
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The facts that all sides agree upon are more foreboding. Some 276,000 refugees have been scattered throughout and beyond the Moluccas, bringing with them little more than their fears and resentments. Areas like North Sulawesi, now home to 13,000 refugees from North Maluku, already suffer from religious tensions that could easily be exacerbated by the newcomers. "I'm very worried that Manado will be the next Maluku," says political commentator Fachry Ali, who recently returned from the North Sulawesi capital. There, local Muslims chafing at what they see as Christian dominance have already asked for their own province. If clashes break out, says Ali, they would likely be supported by their brethren in the predominantly Muslim province of South Sulawesi, which has also accepted thousands of refugees.
Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid has ordered the Navy to intercept any Muslim militants who may try to stoke those fires. But forces far from Maluku continue to wield the bloodshed to their political advantage. "The whole tragedy has become part of a national chess game," complains Maluku Governor Saleh Latuconsina. Parliamentary heavyweights Amien Rais and Akbar Tandjung have rallied Muslim anger in the capital in a show of strength aimed at Wahid and his Vice President, Megawati Sukarnoputri. Locals in Ambon argue that the military, threatened by a civilian administration and the possibility of prosecution for human-rights abuses, has again manipulated the violence to justify an iron hand. Even those who have difficulty pointing to a culprit are unable to shake the feeling that local rivalries alone cannot explain such bloodshed. "Violence of this magnitude would never have spread so quickly without some type of provocation or organization," says Abdurrahman Khouw, vice chairman of the local Council of Indonesian Ulemas, an influential, nation-wide Muslim organization. "Until we can find what or who is at the root of the problem, we can only call for restraint."
Unfortunately, that kind of indecision may only prolong the search for a lasting solution to Maluku's divisions. So far Wahid has treated the problem at a remove: last week he ousted the army spokesman, who had questioned his right to intervene in military affairs. Such moves may protect the President from his enemies in Jakarta, but they hardly address the cloud of mistrust and anger that has poisoned the air throughout Maluku. "What is happening is like a vicious virus tearing through both communities," says Dr. Sudirman Abbas, the only general practitioner left at the only hospital in the Muslim sector of Ambon. "If the right dose and treatment is not applied, the epidemic will spread." What Jakarta found last week was a Band-Aid, not a cure.
Reported by Zamira Loebis/Jakarta and Jason Tedjasukmana/Ambon
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