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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

AsiaweekTimeAsia NowAsiaweek story

JANUARY 21, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 2

R E P O R T E R ' S   N O T E B O O K
In the Middle of a War Zone
Jakarta feels the reverberations from Ambon
By TOM MCCAWLEY Ambon



Ambon is a city divided. Muslims occupy one end of town, Christians the other. Along the middle is a no-man's-land that acts as a line of partition. Armed soldiers keep a tense watch next to the barbed wire and the checkpoints. Around them are the reminders of the religious hatred that has torn Ambon asunder. Most buildings have been razed to the ground; those still standing are little more than burnt-out shells. A graffito on the wall of a ruined department store scrawls out a defiant message: "Muslim power vanquishes the Nazarenes." Another reads: "Christians conquer Muslim pigs." For generations, Ambonese of both faiths practiced pela gandong - peaceful coexistence - under which mosques and churches were built together. But it is clear that the tradition now lies buried underneath the rubble.

In the center of the city, only a charred façade remains of the Silo Church, once the pride of the Maluku islands' 740,000-strong Protestant community. The church was destroyed in an attack by Muslim mobs in late December. The Al-Fatah mosque, Ambon's oldest, is a short walk away. Its green halls are crammed with refugees who have escaped attacks on their villages by mobs. Local hospitals are also crowded, with overworked staff constantly tending to the casualties of Ambon's battles. Doctors complain that they have to deal with the kinds of injuries seen in full-scale wars. A year ago, people fought with knives, spears and bows. Now those being brought in exhibit wounds inflicted by bullets and shrapnel. A platoon commander at a checkpoint says of the marauding gangs: "Those bastards use guns and grenades."

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• Law & Order
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Wahid is caught between the army and the Islamists
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Reporting from the Ground Zero of sectarian violence

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Unfortunately, the vicious cycle of hatred, violence and revenge shows few signs of abating. It is Idul Fitri, the Muslim festival that marks the end of the Ramadan fasting month, but some clerics appear more concerned about exhorting their followers to battle. "The Christian attacks have wounded three generations," says Mohamed Yusuf Ely, a retired naval commander-turned-preacher who leads a militia group called the Jihad Forces. "We will defend ourselves, and it is holy to die in defense of Islam." Having lost a nephew to the violence last year, Ely proudly proclaims that he has taken five heads with his samurai sword in revenge.

In a refugee camp, a 10-year-old Muslim boy shows off his arms cache: knives, homemade explosives, even an automatic assault rifle. He is learning to be a warrior to avenge the death of his father. In another part of town, a Christian gang hides behind a building as evening falls and gathers weapons for an attack. In this kind of climate, there is no place for moderate voices. "I call for peace and I come under fire from my own umat [congregation]," sighs Malik Selang, a member of the Al-Fatah mosque council.

The military, which has been brought in to keep the peace, has been none-too-effective in stemming the violence. Despite an ongoing crackdown on weapons, a reminder of the widespread availability of arms comes in the form of a bomb that goes off in the evening in the Christian quarter. Two weeks ago, snipers were reported to have fired indiscriminately at people from the burnt-out remains of a government building. The military has also been unable to stop the violence from spreading elsewhere, as evidenced by incidents of bloodshed in the neighboring islands of Seram and Sulawesi.

Many accuse the military not just of being ineffectual but of being part of the problem. Military-issue weapons have been ending up in the hands of gangs, while the soldiers themselves are perceived as taking sides in the conflict. Christians say that the Muslim-dominant sectors of the military - the army, the marines and the Kostrad army strategic reserve - are sympathetic toward their own kind. In turn, Muslims claim that a cabal of Christian generals in Jakarta are hatching a sinister nationwide plot to "Christianize" Indonesia. A military commander in Ambon admits: "Some of my men have developed loyalties to one side." When armed forces chief Admiral Widodo flew into Ambon on Jan. 10 for an on-the-ground inspection, he was greeted by demonstrators calling on the military to uphold neutrality and stop the violence.

There remains hope. Despite the partition of the city, despite the rhetoric of militants, despite the swaggering shows of strength by both sides, it is apparent that many in Ambon have not succumbed to the prevailing atmosphere of hatred and suspicion. Rather, they are just confused about how things could have turned out this way. "I had many Christian friends," says Wa Aju, a Muslim grandmother who took refuge in a church after her home was torched. "I don't know who attacked me or why." Taruna Ngatung, a Christian fisherman from Buru island, expresses a similar sentiment: "I don't understand this slaughter." Some Muslim refugees report being attacked by Muslim mobs for trying to protect their Christian neighbors.

At the Halong refugee camp along Ambon's shores, one is greeted by a rare sight: Muslims and Christians mingling with each other. Under the guard of pink-bereted marines, rows of plastic tents have been set up to house refugees of both faiths. In one tent, a Muslim woman attending to Idul Fitri celebrations leaves her baby in the care of her Christian aunt. Mukmin Rinel, a Muslim fisherman, observes drily: "Outside, we'd be killing each other." For the refugees - and for this reporter - it is a welcome haven of tranquillity and common sense.

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