Eyewitness in Ambon, Indonesia: Christians still suffering, dying

by Russell Rankin 
AMBON, Indonesia (BP)--A banner at the airstrip on Ambon, a 
tiny dot in Indonesia's Maluku island chain, quotes passages from 
both the Christian Bible and the Muslim Koran calling for peace. 
Look into the charred face of Frendy Nunemete, however, and you 
will see that peace is a concept far from being realized here in the 
cradle of the Spice Islands, where Muslim-Christian battles have 
raged for nearly two years. 
The assault on his Christian village happened quickly June 15. The 
village's defenders were immediately overrun by attackers 
wielding automatic weapons, mortar rounds and grenades. 
As his brother fell dead from a gunshot, Frendy climbed onto a 
roof to hide. The attackers searched for him below, then tossed 
grenades into the house and set it afire. To escape the flames, 
Frendy dove into a large container of water, which soon became 
unbearably hot. As he climbed out and tried to lunge through the 
blaze, heat and fire consumed his flesh. 
Three months after the attack, Frendy spoke with Baptist 
representatives in his hospital room -- in a ward also housing 
victims of a Sept. 19 gun battle. 
His burned scalp is wrapped in gauze. Pink, puffy, scarred flesh 
roughly resembles a face, most of which is burned away. Gauze 
covers the cavity, which once was a nose. His ears are charred, his 
eyes swollen and red -- with no eyelids to protect them. He can 
barely speak through a mangled mouth and swollen lips. 
"I don't know why they did this," he rasped. "I don't understand 
why we are being killed. I'm just thankful to God that I am still 
Frendy's response echoes among many in the communities of 
Ambon, where the majority of the population historically has been 
Christian in an overwhelmingly Muslim nation. A battle has raged 
here for two years. Muslim and Christian communities that 
coexisted peacefully for generations now stand divided by 
sandbags and barbed wire barricades in the road -- and blood on 
the ground. 
Explanations are few, and blame is rampant. 
Outwardly, the world hears of Christians being slaughtered by their 
Muslim neighbors. A religious "cleansing," some say. But by 
whose authority? 
In early 1999, a dispute between a Christian and a Muslim sparked 
riots on Ambon. Some allege the incident was a tripwire that 
perhaps was planned. Soon after, Christians charge, militant 
Muslim leaders in Jakarta, Indonesia's capital, issued a call to arms 
for Muslims to "protect their brethren from Christian suppression." 
Muslim jihad (holy war) forces poured into the Malukus by boat, 
ferry and plane with shipments of arms and munitions to fuel their 
cause -- and support from elements of the Indonesian military. 
Attacks on Christian communities commenced, sparking killings 
and retaliation by both sides. Thousands have died and hundreds of 
churches and mosques have been reported destroyed in the islands 
in the months since. 
"The jihad Muslim has gone through special rites and ceremonies 
that supposedly give them protection from harm," explained an 
Ambonese pastor. "Dying in jihad gives them an automatic 
entrance into heaven." 
The influx of armed outsiders has put regional government leaders 
in a difficult position. 
"We've taken a passive approach because these jihad Muslims 
came here to help their Muslim brothers [rebuild]," said Saleh 
Latuconsina, governor of Ambon and the Maluku Islands, in his 
first-ever interview with foreign correspondents. "Only about 10 
percent of them have been militant." 
The governor, a Muslim, said "cracking down on the people who 
are organizing this would be counterproductive and would make 
the situation worse." 
Is the conflict a religious war? "No, no," Latuconsina insisted, 
pointing at his cabinet staff, which includes Vice-governor Paula 
B. Renyaan, a Christian. "I'm asking the religious leaders to look 
inward at the false teaching that has led to this. The easy way out is 
to blame it on religion." 
The governor said change must start with individuals, then spread 
outward to village, city and district. But on the front lines, 
members of the Christian resistance have a different perspective. 
Six militia leaders from Christian communities slipped into Ambon 
City by night to share their views. Self-described "field generals," 
each has hundreds of men and boys ready for battle. 
"Religious leaders from both sides talk reconciliation and peace, 
but then the Muslims go back and organize more attacks," said one 
resistance leader. Out of concern for his safety, he refused to be 
identified for this article. 
"It is true some of the jihad may do social work," one said, 
agreeing with the governor. "But as soon as the call to arms 
sounds, they pick up their guns." 
The people of Ambon, Christians and Muslims, can usher peace 
back into their land, the militia leaders said -- but only "if it's just 
us. The jihad must leave; the government force must leave. Let us 
work it out." If not, they added, then the international community 
must intervene. 
On Sept. 25, the Christian community of Ambon City marched in 
peaceful demonstration to the governor's office, demanding that 
the Indonesian government -- and the world -- acknowledge the 
slaughter of Christians, most recently on the nearby island of 
Saparua Sept. 23. There, 170 homes were reported burned in an 
attack by Muslim jihad warriors, assisted by the military. 
A reporter who witnessed the assault said it was well-planned. 
Navy gunboats lobbed shells onto the beach and sprayed cannon 
fire in the ocean, giving cover fire for craft carrying jihad fighters. 
Other forces, camped for days in the mountains behind, descended 
in a coordinated assault. Destruction was quick and thorough, the 
reporter said. The next night, angry Christians retaliated by 
attacking a Muslim village on a neighboring island, burning 
As Ambon City's Christian community mournfully sang "I 
Surrender All" beneath the governor's office Sept. 25, holding 
signs pleading for a peacekeeping force, Muslim forces attacked 
the village of Suli, killing more civilians. Baptist representatives 
from International Board Indonesia had visited Suli just two days 
Reconciliation must come, said Haji Abdullah Soulissa, president 
of the foundation for Al-Fattah Mosque, the largest mosque in 
"But it's hard," he said. "I've lost two relatives in this situation. My 
house, just 200 meters from the governor's office, was burned. A 
lot of people have 'sakit hati' [wounded hearts]. Because of that, 
reconciliation will be difficult." 
On this small island, once-flourishing communities are now ghost 
towns -- piles of rubble, charred beams and broken glass. Parts of 
Ambon City considered relatively safe are littered with post-mob 
destruction. An uneasy -- and allegedly trigger-happy --
government force patrols the streets of an empty "no man's land" in 
the town. 
In the midst of the destruction and ashes, Baptist relief workers 
investigating avenues for work are putting faces to the conflict: 
Delores, 78, fled as attackers rained artillery and mortar fire on her 
village. With only a crude walking stick, she climbed over a 
mountain to a safe location. She has lived for several months in a 
makeshift refugee camp among hundreds of others displaced by 
the violence. Delores wept as she pleaded for God's mercy. 
"I just want the chance to worship God, like before. I don't 
understand why this has happened," she cried. "Please pray that 
God will give me the strength to face what has happened. We give 
thanks to God because he has not left us, even in our hard times of 
Stevie Pattiwan, 18, found himself defending a university in June 
as government soldiers with automatic weapons and armored 
vehicles arrived to level the campus. A handsome young man with 
a shy smile, Stevie lost both of his legs after a mortar exploded 
near him. 
"I've lost a lot of friends. I'm not sure how many," he said. "I'm 
thankful to be alive." 
Just half a mile away from the governor's residence, a Christian 
community lies in rubble -- mute witness to an attack instigated by 
government troops, followed by jihad warriors who poured out of 
the mountainous forest to torch the homes. 
Standing in the wreckage of his house, a man stated that his life 
was spared because a Muslim friend took a chance to call and warn 
him the mob was approaching. He had time to hide in the jungle 
beyond his community. 
"Others were not so fortunate," he said. 
By the governor's count, more than 20,000 damaged and destroyed 
homes -- both Christian and Muslim -- need to be restored, not 
including schools, hospitals and markets. 
"Some children haven't been to school in nine months," the 
governor said, adding that 78 schools have been destroyed. "We 
only have provisions for about 5,000 new homes. We welcome 
organizations who can come and help Ambon rebuild." 
Southern Baptist representative Charles Cole, who traveled to 
Ambon to assess the needs, assured the governor that Baptists in 
the United States and around the world were ready to lend 
assistance to Muslim and Christian communities alike. 
All sides welcomed the offer for assistance, but offered words of 
"Wait until this is over. If you come and build now, it will be 
burned down again tomorrow," a Christian leader said. "The 
violence and bloodshed must stop." 
To contact the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta, e-mail 
jakconsul@state.gov or fax 62-21-386-2259. 
To contact the Indonesian Embassy in Washington, D.C., e-mail 
poldiv-kbriwash@erols.com or fax (202) 775-5365. 
For information on a postcard drive conducted by Jubilee 
Campaign (http://www.jubileecampaign.demon.co.uk/) on behalf 
of Ambonese Christians, e-mail 100675.670@compuserve.com or 
write Jubilee Campaign, Wilfred Wong c/o Ian Bruce MP, Room 
201, Norman Shaw South, Victoria Embankment, London SW1A 
2HZ, United Kingdom.
A full package of 17 photos can be viewed/downloaded at 

(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at 
www.sbcbaptistpress.org. Photo titles: THANKFUL 

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