THE NEW YORK TIMES, Thursday, January 10, 2002
Jihad Seethes, and Grows, on Indonesian Island
By SETH MYDANS
POSO, Indonesia — This lovely seaside town is the sort of place the Bush
administration is talking about when it warns of places that could nurture new terrorist
cells that could be possible targets of United States action.
For the past three years, Muslims and Christians — once friendly neighbors who
shared their religious holidays — have been massacring, torturing and beheading one
another in the most recent and worrying of Indonesia's communal conflicts.
Among the fighters is Noko, a sweet-faced Muslim boy of 20 with floppy black hair,
who is an enthusiastic front-line soldier. He recalled the recent destruction of eight
Christian villages. "We did it to restore our dignity after being oppressed and toyed
with," he said.
In battle, he dresses for death and heaven in a white Arab-style robe, wielding a
cutlass and heavy homemade pistol. His own troops invoke Allah; the enemy, he
says, shouts "Hallelujah."
In this district of Poso, on Sulawesi island, more than 10,000 buildings have been
destroyed. About 80,000 people have been forced to flee. An estimated 500 or more
people have been killed.
The Muslim side has been reinforced by a contingent of perhaps 500 members of a
group called Laskar Jihad, holy warriors from Indonesia's main island, Java, who are
present also in the country's other intractable communal war, in the Maluki islands.
The local wars are a sign of the turbulence and lawlessness that have swept
Indonesia since Suharto, the former strongman, was deposed in 1998. A weak and
divided central government, a restive and demoralized military, a welter of overlapping
power struggles and a rise in militant Islam have made Indonesia, a largely Muslim
nation of 210 million, a more dangerous place than ever.
Since the attacks of Sept. 11, the context has suddenly broadened as the United
States seeks to root out a worldwide terror network and to neutralize sites of conflict
like this one that could serve as refuges and staging grounds for terrorists.
["We see a potential for Muslim extremists and Muslim terrorists to link up with those
Muslim groups in Indonesia and find a little corner for themselves in a country that is
otherwise quite unfriendly to terrorism," the deputy secretary of defense, Paul
Wolfowitz, said in an interview on Monday.
[Of Sulawesi island, he added, "The concern is that there isn't enough military to
protect the local population or to create the kind of stable conditions that keep
A local representative of Laskar Jihad named Roni described his group's mission here
as threefold: social work, Muslim education and defense — by which he meant battle.
Indeed, Laskar Jihad is a full-service religious army, providing medicine, food and help
to refugees, teaching the Koran and giving focus and purpose to the Muslim side.
"I think for Muslims the desire to be peaceful is equal with their desire to go to war,"
said Yahya Almari, an influential Muslim cleric who has served as a peace negotiator.
"In Islam, jihad on the peaceful side is to restrain yourself and not create enemies.
But in a war zone, jihad means to take up arms and kill your enemies."
Mr. Roni denied widespread reports that Laskar Jihad has military training camps
here, although he said it does conduct physical training including calisthenics.
The unchecked fighting here in Poso, and the growing presence of Laskar Jihad, show
how difficult such conflicts are to manage, even when they are blanketed, as here, by
a huge deployment of national police and soldiers.
As the early morning sun grows hot in this small city, columns of bare-chested police
officers jog down the nearly empty main street, chanting in cadence. Gutted buildings
and shuttered shops surround them. In the jungles beyond, the fighting continues.
Since it first broke out following a drunken fight in the marketplace on Christmas Eve,
1998, the violence has continued to flare, subside, then flare again despite five peace
agreements, the latest of them in December.
Almost all the noncombatants here, both Muslims and Christians, nonetheless assert
that this is more complex than a religious war.
It is a local power struggle with clear demographic roots, they say, in which religious
fervor has been turned into a weapon of war. And once that fervor has been unleashed
— once poorly educated young men like Mr. Noko are ready to die for their faith — it
becomes a conflict that could continue for years.
"In Suharto's time, people who act like this would be arrested right away and matters
resolved," said S. Pelima, a Christian community leader who has acted as a peace
negotiator. "Now we are in a transitional period from concentrated power to autonomy,
and there is not good rule from the center. So a fight can grow into a brawl and a
brawl can grow into a massacre."
At the heart of the war is a demographic shift in which Muslim settlers from southern
Sulawesi and Java changed the balance in Poso and its surrounding villages, which
had been largely Christian.
In the newly open politics that followed the tight control of Mr. Suharto, Muslims were
elected to fill the top three political positions here, replacing Christians.
Disenfranchisement led to resentment and then violence.
As in other conflicts around the country, broad national themes are played out in
complex, specific local dynamics.
The recent history of Poso is the history of the "three incidents," each about a year
apart and interspersed with what one police captain called "bubbles" of violence that
have ranged from the slaying of nine Muslims to the razing, just last month, of eight
Both Christians and Muslims recount the same two instances of provocation, each of
which led to a new massacre. In one, a Muslim man slashed himself and said he was
attacked by Christians. In the other, a body was dumped in a Muslim area and
Christian attackers were blamed for the killing.
Although both sides suspect provocateurs, with either a local or national agenda, no
one seems to be able to say who is stoking the conflict.
The government's intelligence chief, A. M. Hendropriyono, recently said foreign
terrorists had engineered the clashes here, but he offered no evidence and his
statement was largely dismissed by analysts and other government figures.
Local officials and fighters on both sides also dispute a widespread view that Laskar
Jihad is leading the Muslim side of the conflict. Mr. Noko, the young Muslim fighter,
seemed affronted at the suggestion that outsiders were leading the attacks.
"They do fight when they are needed," he said. "But the initiative is our own local
Local fighters could easily be mistaken for Laskar Jihad, he said, in their Arab-style
outfits — white robes by day, black by night.
"I dress like this because according to Muslim teachings, we want to be prepared to
die a holy death," he said. Then he smiled an engaging smile. "I think I have already
saved up many good deeds."
In the Christian enclave of Tentena, Rhenaldi Damanik, a Protestant pastor and
fighter, said the Christians had identified at least three training camps run by Laskar
Jihad, although it was not clear what kind of training might go on there.
At the same time, some Muslim leaders say the Christians are running their own
One thing on which both sides seem to be able to agree: the other side started it.
"I want to emphasize that we Muslims are the ones who have been attacked," said
Adnan Arsal, 53, a Muslim community leader in Poso who said he keeps an arsenal
at home and always joins the battles "to encourage the young ones."
On the other side of town, Ronald Hanny Ticoalu, a Pentecostal pastor, echoed his
words as chickens pecked and clucked around his feet. "Christians never attack first,"
he asserted. "They only fight in self defense."
Today, Poso presents a demoralizing landscape of hatred and destruction in which
both sides have retreated into armed and terrified enclaves.
Country roads lined with gently bending palm trees are scenes of devastation, mile
after mile of burned and empty villages marked only by crumbling walls and gutted
churches and mosques.
The town of Poso itself, once home to about 40,000 people, is now a place of fear and
furtiveness where only about 5,000 people remain, along with an occupying force of
hundreds of heavily armed police.
Christian refugees have fled mostly to the nearby town of Tentena. Muslims have fled
as far away as Palu, the mostly Muslim provincial capital, where bombs exploded
recently at three churches.
The countryside presents a chronology of the destruction. Lush foliage already covers
the houses that were burned in the early attacks. In the Christian villages that were
most recently attacked, only dogs wander among the charred and broken walls.
The hatred is explicit here. As the houses burned, attackers seized chunks of
charcoal and left their mark.
"God has no son. Jesus could not help you," they wrote.
"Until doomsday, Muslims will not make peace with Christians."
"Death to all Christians."
And, tauntingly, "See you in Tentena."
Copyright © 2001 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.