A town emptied by hatred

A town emptied by hatred

Thursday 29 June 2000

Grisly evidence: A man at a roadside massacre site in Poso, Sulawesi, where bodies lie.


Bodies are rotting by the road or floating down rivers. Almost all have had their heads cut off, their hands tied behind their backs.

Mosques and churches are destroyed. Houses and shops are burnt to the ground. Entire villages are packing up or have already left for makeshift refugee camps, their future unknown.

This is the ugly new Indonesia, where Muslims and Christians who have lived in peace for decades are locked in a vicious war that shows no sign of ending. In Jakarta, the enfeebled government fears similar conflicts could erupt in many places across the vast archipelago as the country's demoralised armed forces either refuse or are unable to maintain the level of order they did during the 32-year Suharto dictatorship.

"Welcome to Poso," reads a government billboard on the outskirts of this isolated town in Central Sulawesi, the contorted island that sprawls across the sea between Borneo and the violence-wracked Ambon. But that was before.

Poso is now a ghost town where Indonesian police and soldiers who arrived too late to stop the killings spend long, hot days sitting under trees or patrolling streets where nobody lives any more. Only a few weeks ago this was a busy riverside town of 20,000 people, half of them Christians, the rest Muslims.

Famous for its wild orchards and surrounded by clove-covered hills, the 32,300-hectare Poso lake is one of the most spectacular places in Indonesia. There had been trouble here before, but nothing like this.

In April a local newspaper published a report predicting that riots were about to break out, quoting a local politician. A midnight fight between drunken teenagers then set off a vicious cycle of revenge attacks and rampaging by rival vigilante gangs, red (Christians) versus white (Muslims).

Officially the death toll as of yesterday was 165. But Muslim leaders have recorded 512 of their people either dead or missing while the Christian side say 28 of their supporters have been killed. Hundreds of people have been wounded. At least 4000 houses have been destroyed.

The leaders of both sides agree that blame for the violence can be traced to a campaign two years ago by rival politicians, one Muslim, the other Christian, for the position of town mayor, or bupati. The politicians bankrolled groups of supporters who ended up attacking each other. The terrible things that have happened in the past few weeks have been acts of revenge.

"The problem was political, at first," said a conservative Muslim leader, Yahya Al-Amri. "But it developed into a religious conflict. People with power and money are responsible." Unlike the Ambon islands, less than a 1000 kilometres east from here, where Jihad Muslim fighters have been slaughtering Christians and the government imposed a state of emergency this week, the Christians of Poso appear far more organised and ruthless than the Muslims.

The signature of the red gang is that they behead their Muslim enemies. Christian leaders say there are strict limits. They must not attack women, children or unarmed men. They must not rape, loot or destroy mosques. A Christian man who raped a Muslim women this month was killed by men from his own side.

But it is difficult for outsiders to understand the intense hatred that this conflict has created. Nine kilometres along a road that winds south from Poso, blood splattered on the walls and floor of a mosque shows this was one of the Christians' killing grounds. The charred bones of a man lie outside. Surrounding villages are burnt, empty and eerily silent.

Most of the people who lived here were Muslims who had come to Sulawesi from more densely populated parts of Indonesia in the past couple of decades. According to local leaders, they were more hard-working and prosperous than the traditional villagers, which created jealousy and animosity. The migrants have been the main targets of the Christian vigilantes.

Mrs Warsimurni, 40, a Muslim, spent nine days hiding in the jungle with her husband, Muhdawan, 45, their 18-year-old daughter Dasiyen and 15-year-old son Rahmat after she heard that armed Christians were about to attack Muslims. But Christian men wearing Ninja-style hoods captured them and dozens of others. The men and boys were separated from the women and children. She thinks Muhdawan and Rahmat are dead because she saw headless bodies floating down a river a couple of days later.

Mrs Warsimurni said the women and children were released after they were forced to take off all their clothes and had their genitals inspected by a Christian leader. Now staying with her daughter in a refugee camp, Mrs Warsimurni said she has no money and nowhere to go.

Christians in villages and towns south of Poso fear revenge attacks from Muslims. In the town of Tentena, which nudges the Poso lake, almost every house that still stands has a cross painted on it, signifying it is the home of a Christian. Muslims have fled and their homes and businesses are burnt down.

Asked whether Christians and Muslims of the area will ever again be able to live in peace, Father Rinaldy Damanik, who heads a Christian crisis centre in the town, said: "That is difficult to answer ..." Father Damanik said the Christians were not seeking revenge. "We want the law upheld ... the authorities are against the Christians who are protecting themselves."

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