By Philip S. Golingai
POSO DISTRICT, Indonesia – A dark sky threatens to unload torrents of rain down on Poso town in central Sulawesi island, but the main street Jalan Sumatera remained bustling with activity as schoolchildren whiz by on their bicycles and office workers look for places to eat.
First, though, there is the call to heed from the mosque marking midday prayer, even as the smell of fish grilling over coals momentarily distract more than a devotee or two from fulfilling religious duties. Indeed, from all angles, it looks like just another day in Poso – save for the fact that highly visible security forces are on full alert, ready to respond to any sign that yet another chapter in the town’s ongoing saga of inter-religious violence is about to start.
Since 1998, Poso has been ripped apart by clashes between Christians and Muslims that have resulted in more than 1,000 people killed, scores injured, and thousands of homes and businesses, as well as mosques and churches, razed to the ground.
Today thousands of people are still living in refugee sites, unable to return to their former villages for fear of renewed violence. After all, sporadic attacks from both sides by those seemingly intent on continuing the bloodshed still happen once in awhile. But unlike in the past, there is no longer large-scale retaliatory carnage taking place here.
“Obviously, some people still harbour ill feeling over the deaths and destruction that have happened in the last eight years,” says Dave McRae, an analyst with International Crisis Group, which works to prevent conflict worldwide. “But the pattern you see now is that over the years people’s reaction to each incident that has occurred has become less and less.”
Indeed, in the past, the October 2005 beheading of three teenaged Christian schoolgirls by three Muslim men would have sparked a fresh round of communal violence. This time around, however, that didn’t happen. A year later, the parents of the slain girls would even forgive the men suspected of killing them.
Observers here say people have come to realise that nothing good would come out of tit-for-tat violence, quoting an Indonesian proverb “Menang jadi arang, kalah jadi abu (The winner becomes coal and the loser becomes ash).”
“People are tired of the conflict,” explains Pastor Rinaldy Damanik, the 47-year-old chairman of Central Sulawesi Christian Church, whose Protestant members make up the majority of Christians in Poso. “They need to worry about their daily life like their children’s studies and food.”
Respected Muslim cleric Abd Gani T Israel also says, “(The) community has realised peace is very important.”
“Poso is aman (peaceful),” Mohd Kilat, Central Sulawesi Police public relations officer, says as well. At the very least, he says, it is aman for government, religious, economic and development activities.
A shaky peace
Before 1998, Muslims and Christians lived in mixed communities in Poso district in relative peace. Muslims made up 57.2 percent of the population while 40.2 percent were Protestants; the rest were mostly Roman Catholics and Hindus.
Poso town’s population of largely civil servants, fisherfolk, and farmers was 60 percent Muslim and 40 percent Christian. Now its Christian population is even lower, with tens of thousands living as internally displaced persons or IDPs outside Poso.
It is said that when Indonesian President Soeharto stepped down in 1998, religious tensions simmering for decades underneath the country’s seemingly unified surface were finally unleashed. In Poso, trouble began with a brawl between two young men, one Protestant, the other Muslim, during a heated political campaign. But the street fight soon escalated into a full-scale battle between two communities divided along religious lines.
Fighting continued for months, with both sides attracting outside “reinforcements” that only created more mayhem and destruction. There did come a lull in the violence, but soon Christians and Muslims were at each other once more. By December 2001, however, both sides were willing to sign a government-sponsored peace pact that became known as the Malino Accord.
The accord seems to have helped the people of Poso cling tightly to peace even when they are being repeatedly provoked to let go and seek revenge. Bombings of a few churches and mosques have taken place since 2001, along with sporadic – yet seemingly planned – attacks, mostly on non-Muslims.
A week after the murder of the three Christian teenagers (whose heads were found several kilometres from their bodies), for example, masked men shot at Ivon Nathalia, an 18-year-old Christian, and her best friend, Siti Nuraini, also 18, but a Muslim.
A bullet pierced through Ivon’s right cheek, exited through the left side of her face, and then hit Siti. Both girls survived. The two friends now stay at a safehouse in Palu, the provincial capital of Central Sulawesi, about 219 kms east of Poso. “I will not go back to Poso as I will be killed,” says Ivon.
“In Poso, a witness to a killing would be killed,” says Arianto Sangaji, director of Yayasan Tanah Merdeka (YTM), a nongovernment organisation based in Palu. “And the witness to the killing of that witness would be killed. And then the witness to the witness of the killing of a witness who witnessed a killing would be killed.”
“Aman aman mencekam (Peaceful but frightening),” is how Soraya Sultan, the secretary general of Central Sulawesi-based Group to Struggle for Women’s Equity, describes the current situation in Poso. Says the 28-year-old Muslim woman: “In Poso whoever is lucky will live, whoever is unlucky will die. This is because mysterious shooting or bombing can happen anytime.”
Provocateurs of violence
But for Dimanik, the Protestant pastor, there is no mystery regarding the 2005 beheading of the three Christian girls. He has not doubt it was an attempt to provoke Christians so that the Poso conflict could be re-ignited. “Certainly we are angry,” he says, “but our anger has made the congregation pray harder for peace.”
“There are certain groups who want the violence to continue,” agrees Arianto. “For example, the Muslim militants still want to avenge the Kilo Sembilan massacre.” (The massacre happened in a predominantly Muslim transmigration site in early 2000, resulting in the slaughter of many men in the village.)
H also theorises that the Indonesian security forces who have been brought in to keep the peace could be involved in the violence because, he says, they want to sustain the conflict. He doesn’t elaborate. Others, meanwhile, say that corrupt officials who are pocketing the funds intended for the victims of the conflict want the violence to continue so they can keep on raking in money for themselves.
“IDPs get Super Mi (instant noodle) and the people managing the refugees’ funds get Super Kijang (a Toyota utility vehicle),” jokes Alex Patombo, head of the Crisis Centre, which the Central Sulawesi Christian Church established to provide aid to IDPs.
McRae of the International Crisis Group says though, “The return of open conflict is unlikely because people have a much greater critical awareness of the cost. And now there is a large deployment of security forces in the area (that) should be able to prevent open conflict between crowds.”
“Poso,” he says, “is now a different place to what it was seven years ago.”
Yet for sure the attacks, however infrequent, have compounded the problems of the people of Poso. Christian Tindjabate, a 48-year-old sociologist from University Tadulako in Palu, has worked on mental and spiritual rehabilitation programs in Poso since 2001. He says it will take time for Christians and Muslims here to see eye to eye and to erase their distrust of each other.
“The victims are still traumatised,” he says. “For example, a Christian victim becomes anxious when he sees a man wearing jubah (a long flowing robe usually worn by Muslims) as he identifies the robe with a Muslim militant group, while many Muslims are still afraid to visit Christian areas.”
In a try towards reconciliation, Tindjabate has organised sports and cultural events in which Christians and Muslims interacted. “Hopefully, their hearts will remember the harmony they used to share,” he says.
Remembering and rebuilding
Kayupa Jumpy, a 44-year-old Protestant, is attempting to do precisely that. Her home in the Christian village of Lombogia was among the hundreds destroyed during the riots of December 1998 and April 2000. These days, Lombogia remains largely empty, except for a few new houses, one of which is Kayupa’s. She returned to the village and rebuilt her home there because “Poso is my birthplace.”
“Since I moved in six months ago there have not been any disturbances. I’m not afraid to return as God is up there,” she says, pointing to the gloomy sky. But she admits that every morning she peeks through a window to see if there is a bomb tied to her front door. She also had an escape plan in the form of a beat-up van if rioting reoccurs.
Kayupa lives 200 metres from a Muslim village. Her relationship with the keluarga sebelah (the local term used to describe Muslim or Christian neighbours) is “aman,” she insists. In the next breath, however, she lowers her voice and says, “But we have to be vigilant.”
“We do see our Muslim neighbours in the market,” she adds. “But unlike in the past, we avoid eye contact.”
Kayupa is still far luckier than Suarni, a 36-year-old Muslim mother who has taken rent-free shelter in the derelict Anugrah Inn. In May 2000, she lost nine family members – including her husband, father, two brothers, and five nephews — in the Kilo Sembilan massacre. The last she saw of them, she says, they were stripped to their underwear and had their hands tied to their back as they were being led to the Poso river. Suarni was then seven months pregnant. She now lives with her two children, including her son, Farik, who was four years old at the time, at Anugrah.
Farik says that he becomes angry whenever he thinks about what he says he witnessed at Kilo Sembilah: people being hacked chopped, chased after, while houses were bombed. Suarni, for her part, admits that six years later, the pain in her heart remains – as does fear.
Recently, Suarni, who still does not know where the bodies of her loved ones are located, witnessed an excavation of a suspected mass grave containing victims of the Kilo Sembilan massacre. Before the authorities started digging, someone struck an electric pole several times. “Teng, teng, teng, teng … it sounded like the ringing of a church bell,” recalls Suarni. “I panicked as I remembered the riots as Christians struck electric poles to announce they were going to attack.”
“But revenge is pointless as the dead will not return,” says Suarni, who keeps on hammering this on the young Farik.
“A man told me he would never stop in his quest to kill Christians because when he was 15 years old when he saw Christians kill his father,” says Abd Gani, the cleric. But those seeking revenge are in the minority, he asserts.
Abd Gani has a three-year-old son who obviously still knows nothing about the bloodshed in Poso. Asked what he would tell his boy years from now about what happened here, he replies, “I will tell him conflict brings difficulties and sufferings. I will not plant revenge in his heart because if we constantly took revenge it would never end.”
(Philip S. Golingai is a staffmember of The Star in Kuala Lumpur.)