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JANUARY 17, 2000 VOL. 155 NO. 2

Chaos in the Islands
As clashes between Muslims and Christians escalate in the far-flung Moluccas, many wonder if anyone's in charge in Jakarta

Achmad Ibrahim/AP
Soldiers in Ambon sweep the region for weapons.

On the streets of Ambon, people describe what's happening in their homeland as perang--war. What was a bad situation last year has suddenly turned horrific. Hundreds of people have been killed in the past two weeks in Muslim-Christian clashes that have spread across the Moluccas. Mobs, newly armed with automatic weapons, roam the streets of Ambon, the capital city, sometimes dragging the decapitated bodies of their enemies around with them. Snipers have begun picking off civilians from positions atop buildings. Units of the supposedly neutral security forces have been seen firing on crowds and even at each other. Curfew starts at 10 p.m., but the streets are empty long before then. The situation may be even worse in some outlying islands--there are widespread rumors of a massacre in Halmahera, but the army says it simply doesn't know. Christians and Muslims used to live together in relative harmony on the 1,027 islands that make up the Moluccas. The only thing that the two communities have in common now is fear.

"It is terrifying," says Alto, a 24-year-old architecture student who lives in the Christian neighborhood of Galala, about 1 km from the center of Ambon, the focus for much of the violence. "People don't talk about riots any more," he says. "When you can hear shooting and explosions all day long, it doesn't just sound like war. It is war."

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But Ambon is a war without a name. The outside world has barely noticed how the region--once known as the Spice Islands for the cloves, nutmeg and mace that grew only there--has slipped into a self-perpetuating spiral of bloodshed. East Timor attracted the world's press with its struggle for independence, which generated widespread international sympathy. In the Moluccas, where the death toll over the past 12 months is already estimated to be several times higher than in East Timor during the same period, there is no simple issue or cause for the world to latch on to. Some political analysts say the violence is a result of long-simmering tensions between the two religions that exploded in the power vacuum left by the fall of former dictator Suharto in 1998. But there are no obvious heroes or villains: the Moluccas' population of 2 million is split fairly evenly between Christians and Muslims. Each side blames the other for starting the violence. Neither appears to have anything to gain from the conflict. Nobody has any idea how to stop it.

In Jakarta, Muslim fanatics are trying to give the war a name of their own choosing. Last Friday some 100,000 rallied in the city's central Merdeka Square to call for a jihad, or holy war, against Christians in the Moluccas. Some prominent politicians attended, including Amien Rais, the speaker of the country's legislature, who incited the crowd by saying the fighting in the Moluccas was a bid to weaken Islam in Indonesia. "Our patience has limits," said Rais. One protester carried a cross with a dead rabbit smeared in blood; another held a banner that read TOLERANCE IS NONSENSE, SLAUGHTER CHRISTIANS. The protesters also called for the resignation of Vice President Megawati Sukarnoputri, who was given official responsibility for Ambon by President Abdurrahman Wahid but has done little to help solve the conflict. When the latest bout of violence broke out on Dec. 26, Megawati blithely flew off to Hong Kong on a New Year's trip.

The killings in the Moluccas began on Jan. 19 last year when a dispute between a Christian bus driver and a Muslim passenger in Ambon city escalated into riots and the burning of a market. Violence flared again several months later but was calmed when Jakarta sent additional troops to the region. But it broke out with a fury the day after Christmas when a Christian minibus driver was blamed for knocking down a 14-year-old Muslim boy. This led to the burning of Silo Church, the largest Protestant church in Ambon, and an intensified round of killings. Few people now choose to travel by road on Ambon because the two warring sides have set up roadblocks. Jalan Diponegoro, the main business street in Ambon with the largest number of high-rises, has become Sniper's Alley; few dare to cross it. Christians and Muslims patrol their own neighborhoods after dark. Ominously, both sides now have automatic rifles; previously they used spears and crude homemade pistols.

The appearance of such weapons has raised suspicions that the army is deliberately stirring up trouble. "The military is very involved," claims Jan Nanere, a former professor at Pattimura University in Ambon. "They are the ones making the problem worse and spreading the chaos throughout the Moluccas. Perhaps they are planning a coup." Others accuse the army of inaction. "In terms of the military, the difference between East Timor and Ambon is one of collusion versus omission," says Todung Mulya Lubis, vice chairman of the Commission Investigating Violence in East Timor. "In East Timor the military was involved in creating the violence, whereas in Ambon they have simply let it get out of hand." At the end of last week, Ambon residents said the military, perhaps belatedly, was trying to defuse tension by conducting a sweep to round up illegally held guns and dismantling roadblocks.

While few Indonesians these days would entirely rule out a conspiracy theory, there is little evidence of a military provocation. Equally frightening, however, is the chaos theory: that nobody is in control. With the President and Vice President under assault for extensive overseas travel at a time of national crisis, and with the military trying to fend off accusations that it was behind last year's violence in East Timor, it may be that no one in Jakarta's disheveled corridors of power can get a grip on the war in Ambon. "There is no chain of command from the top," says Alto, "just emotional involvement by individual soldiers down in the ranks." But with hundreds already dead, enraged mobs toting powerful automatic weapons and fanatics calling for a holy war to slaughter all Christians, emotional soldiers are the last thing Ambon needs.

With reporting by Zamira Loebis and Jason Tedjasukmana/Jakarta

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