San Jose Mercury News , February 4, 2002 

Religious War Tears Indonesians Apart 


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 negotiations.

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 his motorbike.

''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 our house.''

Family targeted

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 become Christians.

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 Christians.

''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.''  



Leaders Rally Militant Christians

The counterpart 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.