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Revenge fuels cycle of religious violence
By Lindsay Murdoch - Indonesia Correspondent

The Age (27/01)-Snipers take positions atop charred and bullet-pocked buildings as darkness falls. Fighters in every neighborhood prepare for another night of bombings and possible attack. As a 10pm curfew begins, gunfire erupts in this city of 270,000 people, where Muslims and Christians once lived largely in peace.

Almost every day for two years shocking things have happened in Ambon, capital of Indonesia's Maluku province, the legendary Spice Islands. Up to 8000 people are dead and 500,000 homeless. The trauma of it shows on the faces of the Ambonese. Few people smile. Outsiders are not trusted.

Thamrin Tomagola, a sociologist at the University of Indonesia, describes the conflict as "the most terrible civil war in the world". More people have been killed per head of population than in Bosnia, he says.

A drunk man this week took a wrong turn and walked past the demolished buildings of no-man's-land into a Christian-controlled area. A mob beat him to death simply because he was a Muslim. Muslim Udin, 32, lost his left hand when a bomb exploded during a brawl with Christians last year. "I don't hate Christians," he said. "But in order to uphold the solidarity of Muslims we must eradicate the Christians."

Christian Agus Wattimena claims he heads a vigilante force of 20,000 in Ambon City. His Christian Boys are feared by Muslims even though most of their weapons are homemade and include bows and arrows. "Ambonese are traditionally strong fighters," he said. "If we are attacked, and the enemy are not strong, we counterattack. This is a real war. We have to protect ourselves."

Once called the Queen of the East, Ambon City was a bustling, prosperous regional hub serving countless picturesque islands. Now heavily armed combat troops and police separate the two communities. They have often taken sides, greatly escalating what has become known as a religious war but which has gone beyond that.

Now each side has a fanatic desire to avenge the other's latest attack, creating a cycle of violence that appears impossible to end. Signs outside a Muslim refugee camp call for Christians to be wiped out. Mosques in the Christian part of town are blackened, empty shells.

Churches in Muslim areas have been destroyed. Attempts at reconciliation have failed. When government officials recently arranged for women's groups from both sides to set up stalls in a sports ground, youths disrupted the event by throwing stones at each other.

The Maluku Governor, Saleh Latuconsina, plans a conference in March that will bring the leaders of the two sides together. Little hope is held that it will be successful. The war is said to have started with a fight between a Muslim bus driver and a Christian

passenger in January 1999. Within hours, Christians and Muslims were attacking neighborhoods all over the city. The fighting quickly spread through the islands.

Even though the violence evolved along religious lines, it is rooted in ethnic, economic and political rivalries. In Ambon, the arrival of migrants from South Sulawesi during the

32-year rule of former dictator Suharto tipped the balance of political power in favor of Muslims, upsetting the Christian elite.

While migration aggravated simmering religious tensions in the islands of north Maluku, especially Halmahera, rivalry between the politically powerful sultans on the islands of Ternate and Todore erupted into violence in 1999. The Sultan of Ternate was forced to flee his waterfront palace in fear of his life. The island was left in control of Muslim extremists, who either killed or forced out tens of thousands of Christians.

The conflict has split families and destroyed life-long friendships. Mathilda Van Harling has not been able to live with her two daughters, Fachriah, 16, and Iwlhaidah, 18, because she is Christian and they are Muslim.

"I dream that one day the girls will convert to Christianity and we can live together," Mrs Van Harling said. The girls have been cared for by the family of her deceased husband, who was a Muslim. Throughout much of last year the violence was fuelled largely by the arrival of several thousand Muslim fighters from Java, who call themselves Laksar Jihad.

The Brussels-based International Crisis Group said in a recent report: "Lacking an effective security force, the Abdurrahman Wahid Government has allowed the killing in the Maluku region to simmer for almost two years without formulating a clear strategy to overcome the violence."

Many of Jakarta's political elite believe that powerful politicians and military officers who have been displaced by the Wahid Government are encouraging violence in Maluku to discredit and destabilise the current administration.

The ICG, headed by former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans, warns in its report that unless the pattern changes, bloodshed will continue and the Christian-Muslim divide will widen. The consequences will extend beyond Maluku, the group says.

Minority Christians in other parts of Indonesia, which has the world's largest Muslim population, are deeply worried that Maluku could be the trigger for widespread rioting and score-settling throughout the country

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