Jose Mercury News , February 4, 2002
Tears Indonesians Apart
SCHOENBERGER, Mercury News
AMBON, Indonesia –
Three years ago, Kadir
Faizal commanded great respect on the waterfront. Nobody cared that the
Muslim leader of the dockworker's union was married to a Christian and lived
in her neighborhood. But now, Faizal is an infidel in the eyes of his Muslim
colleagues at the harbor.
''They told me that if I didn't move to the Muslim side of the city that
they'd kill me when I showed up for work,'' said Faizal.
Faizal is among
the innocent bystanders trapped in a religious war that ignited on this
island in 1999 and has since raged across eastern Indonesia, leaving
thousands of dead. Now the conflict has come under intense scrutiny in the
war against global terrorism. U.S authorities are investigating possible
links between the global Al-Qaida network and Laskar Jihad, an Indonesian
Islamic militant group that has fanned the flames in Ambon.
The Bush administration believes the Indonesian archipelago's porous border
could be easily penetrated by terrorist cells. That concern was heightened
last month when authorities in Singapore and Malaysia rounded up two rings
of suspected terrorists who were planning to bomb U.S. embassies in the
region. Last week, U.S. troops began to assist the Philippine military in
operations against Muslim guerrillas linked to Al-Qaida.
Poverty-stricken Indonesia is fertile ground for groups like Laskar Jihad,
whose appeal comes not from its radical religious views but from its fight
against social injustice. Jafar Umar Thalib, an Indonesian of Yemenite
ancestry who fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan, started the group in
central Java in January 2000, aiming to defend Muslims in the Moluccas from
Christian attacks. The Moluccas are a group of islands and a province of the
same name in eastern Indonesia.
Filling a vacuum
Laskar Jihad has won Indonesian hearts and minds by offering social welfare
to poor Muslims, operating a medical clinic and a school. Critics, however,
say the charity work is but a front for a militant effort to turn secular
Indonesia into an Islamic state.
There is only sketchy evidence of an international terrorism connection in
the Moluccas. Thalib had contact with Osama bin Laden while in Afghanistan,
but he has repudiated the Al-Qaida terror network and ridiculed its leader
for his interpretation of Islam. Seven long-bearded men, presumed to be
Afghans, landed at Ambon airport in July 2001, eyewitnesses said. Christian
sources suspect that members of the Taliban have been involved in a training
camp atLaskar Jihad's base outside the city.
Ayip Syarifuddin, Laskar Jihad's spokesman in Jakarta, said the group filled
a vacuum when the government failed to protect Muslims in the Moluccas from
Christian attack. ''If there was justice and law enforcement in Indonesia,''
he said, ''Laskar Jihad would not need to exist.''
Regional security officials have also pointed to Indonesian-born cleric
Riduan Isamuddin as the leader of a Malaysian-based Al-Qaida network
operating throughout Southeast Asia. Better known as Hambali, the cleric
recruited and trained Muslims to fight in the Moluccas, the Wall Street
Journal reported last week.
Whether or not the suspicions of Al-Qaida involvement bear out, Ambon is a
test for Indonesia's timid cooperation in the war on terror. The city has
become a tropical Belfast, where a zigzag line divides the downtown area
along streets pocked with burned-out buildings. Occasional bombs explode,
and snipers make the road from the airport so dangerous that visitors must
cross the bay by speedboat to reach the city safely.
Jakarta has been a reluctant partner in the war against terrorism, fearing a
destabilizing backlash if its predominantly Muslim population perceives the
government as anti-Muslim. After three years of central government
indifference, the administration of President Megawati Sukarnoputri last
week dispatched a Cabinet-level task force to Ambon to try to start peace
Ambon residents are skeptical that there can be a negotiated peace in the
Molucca Islands, where the Dutch made Ambon's deep water port the center of
the global spice trade in the 17th century. The length and intensity of the
violence and the astonishing death toll have created a lust for vengeance.
''This is a political game, not just a religious conflict'' Faizal, the
51-year-old dockworker, said at his modest home in a warren of narrow
alleyways. ''We're being manipulated by outsiders, who know that Ambonese
are hot tempered emotionally and easily aroused by baseless rumors. They've
come to destroy this community.''
Estimates of the death toll range from 6,000 to 13,000. Out of some 2
million people, the estimates of refugees driven out of their villages range
as high as 330,000.
Violence began in 1999
It all started with a mundane altercation between a minibus driver and a
passenger on Jan. 19, 1999. It was an Islamic holy day, and crowds quickly
gathered and a melee broke out. False rumors began to swirl that Silo,
Ambon's oldest church, was under Muslim attack and that the landmark Al-Fatah
Mosque was being torched by Christians.
Faizal was at the port that afternoon and knew there would be serious
trouble, so he quickly rounded up Christian dockworkers and told them to
evacuate the Muslim area. Angry throngs at the edge of the predominantly
Christian district allowed him to pass safely as he rode home nervously on
''The Christians of this city know me and like me,'' he said. ''I went to
school with them. My Christian neighbors gave my wife and me land to build
Faizal's family migrated from South Sulawesi to Christian-dominated Ambon in
1957. Faizal and his wife, Christina Renawarin, decided to marry in 1977
against the wishes of her Catholic family and his devout Muslim parents.
Christina converted to Islam, but the couple's three grown children chose to
Faizal's younger brother Uchu converted to Christianity when he married a
Protestant and his home was burned by a Muslim. Another brother, Azis,
remains Muslim and lives on the other side of town; his house was burned by
''It's nothing personal,'' said Faizal, with a shrug. ''It was just because
they were living in the wrong place at the wrong time.''
Azis, 32, the youngest of the Faizal brothers, cares for their widowed
mother in a new home on the Muslim side of town. He makes a living
sellingproduce from the Muslim village to Christian shoppers in the city's
blighted neutral zone.
''I'm not afraid of the Christians who come here, because they know I'm
doing them a service,'' he said. ''But there are a lot of people around here
with hatred in their hearts, because they have suffered for so long.''
to the mujahedeen on the Christian side of the Moluccas conflict is Emang
Nikijuluw, a fiery-eyed jobless man who wears a red headband -- symbolizing
the blood of Christ -- when he goes into battle.
Nikijuluw, 54, is a leader of the vigilante group Cowok Kristen, which
surfaced two years ago to command Christian volunteers in confrontations
with Muslim militants. He boasts of killing scores of Muslims, and scoffs at
the idea of turning the other cheek.
''If you don't
kill your enemy first, he will kill you,'' said Nikijuluw. ''Our only
purpose is to take revenge on those who attack Christians. If I die in
battle with the Muslims, then I die for Christ.''
The mutual paranoia of sectarian violence in the Moluccas escalated notably
in July of 2000 when Alex Manuputty, a Christian physician at Ambon's Red
Cross Hospital, announced the separatist Molucca Sovereignty Front. The
group advocates the revival of the long forgotten Republic of South Molucca
whose original backers fought a doomed war of independence in 1950.
Manuputty claims thousands of silent sympathizers among Christians and even
among locally born Muslims. He also has enthusiastic supporters in the
Ambonese emigre community in Holland, who declared a government in exile
five decades ago. The bearded and shaggy-haired Manuputty advocates a
gradual, non-violent revolution based on traditional Molucca cultural
values. His short-term aims are to rid the Moluccas of Laskar Jihad and the
Indonesian military, and bring in international peacekeeping troops to
disarm the population and restore order.