Courtesy Reuters

SEARCHING FOR AN ANSWER

At first glance, the Tagolu village community hall has the look of an American Grange hall. Rough wooden planks line the floor. A worn but sturdy podium sits at the end of a room that can hold 50 farmers. The roof is tin and rusting.

But hanging from a beam in the center of a room typically reserved for celebrations and weddings is a crude, handmade noose fashioned out of three electrical wires. Its maker clearly took pride in his craft: he painstakingly twisted a fourth wire around the main coils to ensure the noose would be strong enough to choke the life out of a human body.

A small section of the floor beneath the noose is stained black. A few feet away, much larger smears cover the floorboards. A soldier guarding the site points out shapes: a bloody handprint near the center, a bloody footprint a few inches away. "They probably tried to run away," he says. Spread across the room in disparate patterns, the stains form a map. Spattered drops mark where a victim was first slashed. A larger stain signals where life seeped out of the body. A long smear traces how the corpse was dragged away for disposal.

The remains of ten people were buried in pits in a schoolteacher's backyard a few hundred yards away. Several had been decapitated. One body was that of a pregnant woman. "I'm sure whoever killed them was really drunk," the soldier offers, trying to explain what happened here. "If not, they wouldn't have had the heart to do it."

The victims were among more than 250 people killed last year during street clashes between Christians and Muslims in the town of Poso in eastern Indonesia. Bordered by turquoise sea, verdant mountains, and emerald rain forests, the bustling harbor town appears an unlikely axis of religious hatred. But over the course of 18 months, what began as a fight between two drunken teenagers -- one Christian, one Muslim -- mutated into open communal warfare. Street battles ravaged 20 towns and villages surrounding Poso, destroyed 3,500 homes, and created 70,000 refugees.

In a once rapidly modernizing nation, groups of Christians used machetes to behead dozens of Muslims. Residents of towns equipped with automatic teller machines and satellite television breathlessly told tales of warriors using black magic to fly through the air and deflect bullets.

Last summer, I went to Poso to try to understand what had happened there. I had covered the war in Bosnia, and the same virus that had ravaged the Balkans -- ethnic and religious conflict -- had now seemingly spread to Indonesia, the world's fourth most populous nation. The stories from Poso and other troubled areas were familiar. Rumor, fear, and extremist propaganda warped average people's perceptions. Neighbor slowly turned on neighbor. The state gradually dissolved.

No one knew the exact course of events in Poso. A petty dispute had somehow sparked savagery. In the single worst incident, Christian attackers descended on the village of Sintuwu Lemba on May 28, 2000. They rounded up its Muslim women and checked each one to see if she had gems embedded in the walls of her vagina -- a sign of the black magic locals believed witches practiced. "They called us in one by one to the room," a victim told me. "They just said 'strip.'"

The village's Muslim men fared worse. After 70 of them retreated into a local school and surrendered, the Christians opened fire with homemade guns, according to survivors. They then moved in with machetes to finish their work. Over the next several days, Christians hunted down Muslims hiding in the area. They marched one group of prisoners to the banks of the Poso River, slashed their throats, and cast their bodies into the muddy water. Others were brought to the meeting hall in nearby Tagolu, where the homemade wire noose awaited them.

The clashes were not inevitable. Although Poso dissolved into street melees, other religiously mixed communities remained calm in the face of extraordinary provocation. In the city of Manado, 400 miles north of Poso, Christians defecated on Muslim prayer rugs and Muslims firebombed churches -- but widespread fighting did not erupt. Why had one community been able to absorb provocation while the other exploded? Why had so many average people in Poso joined the bloodletting? And were the clashes destined to spread across Indonesia, turning this vast, once promising nation into another failed state? There was a logic, I hoped, hidden somewhere amid the brutality.

NEW ORDER

At dawn on a hot August morning, a translator and I set out on the six-hour drive to Poso from Palu, the provincial capital and the nearest town with an airport. We headed east on the Trans-Sulawesi highway, a two-lane, 1,100-mile-long artery that spans the island. Poso and Palu lie near the center of Sulawesi, a sprawling island of 13 million people that lies due south of the Philippines. With four gangling peninsulas extending for hundreds of miles, the island looks like a giant starfish spread across the sea.

The narrow road wound up and down a rugged mountain range covered with thick jungle vegetation and then descended onto a lush coastal plain. Turning south, it passed through prosperous fishing and farming hamlets. The area's beauty was dazzling. A brilliant green mountain range towered above, bordering a clear blue sky. Light green rice paddies and a cobalt sea flanked the road. Coconut trees surrounded the small, white cinder-block homes of local cocoa and rice farmers.

The area had the feel of the American West. Over the previous two decades, Sulawesi had received a massive influx of settlers from other parts of Indonesia. New roads cut through hillsides, connecting bustling frontier settlements filled with Muslim farmers from the island of Java. Hindu farmers from Bali built villages with brilliant blue and red houses set on stilts and radiant statues depicting their gods. The migrants had come to Sulawesi as part of a massive resettlement program mounted by Suharto, Indonesia's long-time dictator. Families had been offered incentives to move from the overcrowded islands of Java and Bali to less populated islands such as Sulawesi. From the early 1970s to the late 1990s, close to 10 million people from across Indonesia participated in the program. Poso received more than 30,000 Balinese Hindus and Javanese Muslims. At the same time, tens of thousands of other Indonesians, most of them Muslims, flocked to the area on their own. The new arrivals transformed the region. An isolated area once dominated by Christian members of the indigenous Pamona ethnic group was now the home of half a dozen large, thriving ethnic groups. The Muslim population grew to equal the Christians.

The prosperous coastal plain was in many ways a testament to the apparent success of Suharto's Indonesia. Through 30 years of iron-fisted rule, Suharto tried to fuse 214 million people from hundreds of different ethnic groups, spread across an archipelago of 17,000 islands, into a secular, multiethnic state. Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms had ruled the area until Islam arrived in the thirteenth century and became the dominant religion. The Dutch seized power in the seventeenth century, launching 300 years of brutal colonial rule and Christian proselytizing that embedded in the culture a deep resentment of outsiders. Indonesia finally won its independence in 1949 after a bloody four-year uprising. The battered new nation was 85 percent Muslim but had large Christian, Buddhist, and Hindu minorities and hundreds of different ethnic groups.

Sukarno, an independence leader and Indonesia's first president, came from Java, the most populous island. He dominated the country, crushing separatist movements on Sulawesi and other islands and creating a national lingua franca -- Bahasa Indonesia -- to unify its people. Amid chaotic political violence in 1968, Suharto, another Javanese leader, seized power and launched the "New Order." Suharto's flagrantly corrupt regime reinforced Jakarta's dominance, building itself on forced economic development and the suppression of discussion of religious and ethnic difference. On outlying islands, resentment of Java simmered.

Hopes for reform soared after a 1998 student uprising forced Suharto's resignation. But the country's new president, Abdurrahman Wahid, has proved weak and erratic. Wahid has struggled to control the military, which carried out a brutal scorched-earth campaign in East Timor after its people voted for independence in 1999. His government, following Suharto's precedent, continues to violently suppress long-running independence movements in the provinces of Aceh and Irian Jaya. And a local political struggle has sparked religious clashes in the Moluccas, a chain of islands 300 miles east of Sulawesi, where more than 3,000 have died. An array of forces is chaotically at work in the vacuum left by Suharto -- a faltering economy, massive corruption, a scramble for power among the elite, and a decline in the rule of law.

But as we closed in on Poso, signs of the New Order's economic achievements abounded. Japanese-built trucks and scooters jammed roads that had been dirt tracks 20 years earlier. Commercial rice and cocoa farming had replaced subsistence agriculture. Satellite dishes linked once isolated farmers to the outside world. Globalization appeared to be busily at work. The most popular television shows were American -- Baywatch, The X-Files, and WWF Smackdown.

SILENT COMPLICITY

The first incinerated home appeared ten miles outside Poso -- a pile of ash, cinder blocks, and charred tin roofing. A few feet away, another darkened shell sat empty. Someone had scrawled graffiti across a nearby wall: "Destroy it. We don't want peace."

For the next ten miles, the wreckage continued. On the outskirts of Poso, a handful of the 1,000 soldiers and special police deployed in the area manned a checkpoint. A young soldier played the guitar as an army officer approached the driver's window. "Don't worry," he said with a smile. "It's quite safe now."

Down the road lay more graffiti. "Greetings from the black bats" was scrawled across one wall. "Never-ending revenge" was emblazoned across another.

Poso itself was devoid of life. A burnt-out gas station sat on one side of the road. A church lay in ashes on the other. A bank, a Suzuki scooter dealership, and Panasonic and Technics electronics stores, all shuttered, lined a mile-long business district. Soldiers and police seemed to outnumber civilians. We sped on, crossing a bridge over the muddy Poso River. At the peak of the clashes, police had stood on the bridge and counted the bodies floating by on their way out to sea.

Our destination was Tentena, a Christian stronghold situated on a huge lake in the highlands above Poso. A Dutch Protestant missionary had settled there in 1892 and began a successful drive to spread Christianity. Under Suharto, Tentena had gradually developed into a small tourist center. But when we entered, the town was devoid of foreigners and instead packed with refugees. On every third or fourth block, a charred ruin marked the remains of a Muslim home or shop. Each structure still standing had a small red cross drawn on it. Some were marked with two words: "Hallelujah. Hallelujah."

The only functioning hotel was a small, two-story structure with an abandoned wooden tour boat rotting half-submerged in the water nearby. Yellowed pictures of smiling Australian backpackers gathered dust in a darkened restaurant down the shore.

At first, practically no one would admit to having participated in the clashes. One Muslim man did acknowledge taking part in the fighting and told a vivid story of how he and his friends used a stick with black magic powers to kill a Christian leader. Asked who looted the church beside his home, he said, "the mob." Asked who he blamed for the clashes, he said, "the youth."

But clear proof of broad participation in the fighting sat in a community hall beside the mayor's official residence. Thousands of homemade spears, bows and arrows, slingshots, shields, bombs, and firearms that police estimated took months, if not years, to make sat in huge piles. The weapons, collected in army sweeps in both Christian and Muslim areas, were physical testaments to a grassroots determination to kill. Hundreds of match heads had been mixed with nails and placed in plastic bottles to make crude bombs. Carefully welded pipes attached to pieces of wood served as guns. Nails and broken glass served as bullets.

In their silence, local officials and residents of Poso did convey a deep sense of shame about what their community had become. Each morning, squads of soldiers jogged down Poso's main street carrying assault rifles and singing martial songs. The sound of their combat boots echoed eerily off buildings, giving the town the feel of an armed camp. Shrubs in front of the town hall that spelled out Poso's motto -- "Unity and togetherness" -- were overgrown with weeds. Communal graves overlooking the town held the bodies of 103 victims whom local officials were unable to identify, because their heads were missing or their bodies had decomposed beyond recognition. Handwritten paper signs identified each cluster of victims. "Group one: 12 people," one sign read. "Group two: 19 people," read another.

BREAKDOWN

Gradually, over the course of several days, residents confirmed the broad outlines of the clashes as described in local news accounts and aid group reports. Police officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, filled in the gaps. The fighting had evolved in three distinct chapters.

In a rare convergence of religious calendars, December 24, 1998, was one of the holiest days of the year for both Christians and Muslims: Christmas Eve for followers of Christ; the first night of Ramadan, Islam's holiest month, for followers of Muhammad. Shortly after midnight shouts erupted in one neighborhood. In the midst of a drunken fight, a teenager, who happened to be Muslim, retreated to a mosque. His pursuer, who happened to be Christian, stabbed him on the terrace and fled.

The wound was not fatal, but word of the attack prompted anger among both Muslims and Christians the following morning. Leaders of the two religious communities prayed together and blamed the same demon, alcohol. Both sides agreed that a rarely enforced national law barring the sale of alcohol during Ramadan would now be strictly enforced.

For two days, police confiscated alcohol from stores, hotels, and restaurants and burned the offending liquid. But some youths carried out raids of their own, looting and damaging stores in the process. A Chinese Christian storeowner gave a group of youths free liquor in exchange for guarding his shop. When another group arrived to check for alcohol, a melee erupted. The store was quickly set ablaze and other Chinese Christian stores were looted.

The attacks quickly took on religious, not ethnic, overtones. Within hours, rumors that churches were aflame in Poso prompted hundreds of Christian farmers to gather just outside Poso in a community hall in Tagolu -- the same building that was later a torture center. The town's Muslim police chief and other officials convinced the crowd that the rumors were untrue and the Christians dispersed. But Herman Parimo, a Christian member of the district parliament, disappeared when it was his turn to calm the throng.

The following morning, several hundred Christians armed with machetes arrived in Poso on trucks. Parimo appeared to be leading them. Hundreds of Muslims, including youths from nearby towns, grouped in another part of town. Gathering Muslim imams and Christian priests together, town officials negotiated a truce that afternoon. But when the religious leaders told the crowds of the agreement, they refused to disperse. As police focused on holding back the Christians, a group of Muslims swarmed into a predominantly Christian neighborhood, looting and burning whole blocks. In all, 387 homes were incinerated.

Christians would bitterly complain when the local government failed to prosecute any Muslims for the house burnings, but they carried out no retaliatory attacks. Calm reigned in the town for the next year. The cycle of revenge seemed to have been broken.

But then on April 15, 2000, a Muslim teenager returned to his predominantly Muslim neighborhood with several cuts on his arm. The boy complained that Christians had attacked him. That night, hundreds of Muslims marched on a Christian neighborhood in search of the boy's attackers. Police managed to contain the crowd but requested reinforcements from the provincial capital. The Muslims again tried to storm the neighborhood the following morning. After the crowd hurled Molotov cocktails and advanced toward the neighborhood's towering church, the police reinforcements fired shots. Three civilians were killed and tensions soared.

The governor of Central Sulawesi visited Poso the following day and urged calm at a public meeting. Aliansah Tompo, a Muslim businessman seen with the crowd the previous day, stood up and demanded that the police reinforcements withdraw. In a move that would prove disastrous, provincial leaders agreed to his request.

The following morning, reports that a Muslim man had been stabbed to death in a Christian neighborhood prompted a Muslim rampage. On the main street, a Christian truck driver and his assistant were pulled from a vehicle and hacked to death with machetes. All told, seven people died, tens of thousands fled, and 687 homes were burned to the ground. The scale of destruction had doubled and Poso was now divided. Muslims remained in the town itself, while Christians fled to inland towns and villages.

Within weeks, Christians began carrying out revenge attacks. In their first raid, a group of Christians got lost in a predominantly Muslim neighborhood, killed an off-duty police officer and another man, and fled into a Catholic church. Enraged Muslims quickly surrounded them. Police arrived and the Christians agreed to surrender. But the officers -- 30 men armed with plastic shields and rattan sticks -- struggled to control the Muslim crowd. After police reinforcements failed to arrive, the mob broke through police lines and the Christians raced out the back of the church. Only three were captured.

The failure to arrest the group was ruinous. Within days, the band's leaders began carrying out a series of well-organized attacks on Muslim villages around Poso. The raids culminated in the attack on Sintuwu Lemba, where Muslim men were taken to the nearby Tagolu community hall and tortured.

LOCAL POLITICS

As people gradually acknowledged what had happened, a logic to the violence emerged. During the final decade of Suharto's rule, municipal leaders were puppets appointed by Jakarta. The strong-armed central government brutally suppressed any hint of religious, ethnic, or political dissent. A Muslim served as Poso's mayor throughout the 1990s without incident.

But once power began to shift from Jakarta to local governments in the wake of Suharto's fall, a political struggle developed in Poso. Local businessmen and politicians were eager to win lucrative local government posts that now controlled public works contracts and other patronage. In municipal elections, a myriad of political factions fiercely jockeyed for power. One group, dominated by ethnic Pamona Christians, grew disgruntled after its candidate for mayor lost an election. Another faction, primarily comprising Muslim members of the Tojo Una ethnic group, was likewise angered when its candidate for deputy mayor lost. During the first two rounds of fighting, members of each of the political groups were seen helping spark clashes. Parimo, the parliament member seen leading the Christian mob, was a member of the Christian Pamona faction; Tompo, the businessman seen leading a Muslim mob, was a backer of the Muslim Tojo Una faction. But the fighting quickly spread beyond each faction's control.

But focusing solely on local political leaders failed to explain the crucial element that made such broad destruction possible: Why had hundreds of average people heeded the calls of extremists and joined in the bloodletting?

HOW THE NOOSE TIGHTENED

On one of my last nights in the Poso area, I walked into the home of Akram Kamaruddin, the speaker of the local parliament, expecting more denials or rambling conspiracy theories. At 48, he was one of the most powerful figures in Poso. His official residence, a spacious home a few hundred yards from the town's municipal complex, had gone untouched during the fighting.

Kamaruddin, a stout man with thick dark hair and a fierce-looking face, strode into the room dressed in a formal gray suit. Up close, he had dark circles under his eyes. As he sat down on his couch, he appeared utterly spent. The town he had helped build lay in ruins. Whether out of despair or exhaustion, the parliament leader was astoundingly open. He said the causes behind the clashes went beyond local leaders and spent the next hour and a half describing how the town's social structure had rotted away at its core.

Many of the people who participated in the first round of fighting were teenagers and young men in their twenties. Kamaruddin and other town officials took to the streets with bullhorns as crowds of young Christians and Muslims hurled stones at each other. "I asked them, 'Go back to your homes. Don't continue what you're doing,'" he said with a plaintive look in his eye. "They said 'Don't preach to us! Go home!'"

He said the area's rapid economic development had undermined traditional social structures. His own family was an example. Kamaruddin worked so many hours that he spent little time with his four children, and their relationship had frayed. Longer work schedules also undermined an Indonesian tradition of neighbors playing a large role raising children. Two things emerged to fill the void, he said: satellite television and alcohol. Sounding like an American parent, he complained bitterly about the media. Television exposed youth to street clashes in other parts of Indonesia and American programs glorifying individualism and violence. Too many teenagers, he lamented, were drinking.

Although Poso had easy access to highly developed global and national media, it suffered from grossly underdeveloped local news services. Despite being the largest community within 150 miles, Poso had no newspapers, no local television, and only three functioning radio stations. In this absence of credible sources for local news, wildly inaccurate rumors fueled the clashes. And reporting by media outlets in Palu, the provincial capital, gave biased accounts of the attacks that only exacerbated tensions.

To make matters worse, the police failed to arrest most of the Muslim perpetrators of the initial attacks. The courts failed to prosecute the few suspects brought before them. And the town's politicians, priests, imams, and even civic organizations had little authority among average people, who viewed most of them as corrupt. "The civil society was not strong," Kamaruddin said. "It's never been that functional."

In other communities, extremist calls for violence might have been ignored. But they found a receptive audience in Poso, Akram said, because of simmering tensions in the town. Over time, Muslim migrants aided by government resettlement programs and other settlers had gained economic and political power, prompting resentment among Christians native to the area. Muslim traders from South Sulawesi, members of the Bugis ethnic group, came to dominate the local market. Muslim farmers from Java prospered in the villages around Poso. Inhabitants of Sintuwu Lemba, the village where Christians carried out their worst attack, were Javanese Muslim farmers who bought up the land of neighboring Christian farmers.

"The provocateurs magnified the whole thing," Kamaruddin said, a despondent look passing across his face. "The mob got carried away."

As we drove out of Poso the next morning, I felt I had a rough sense of the town's dissolution. Some leaders had chosen to play on underlying economic and religious grievances, and the town's fragile political and social structure could not absorb the pressure.

Years of autocratic rule from Jakarta had blocked the emergence of strong and savvy local leaders. Bans on discussing religious and ethnic differences had allowed tensions to fester. Incompetent and corrupt law-enforcement officials had solidified perceptions that justice could be achieved only by taking to the streets. The fighting had not been spontaneous; that crude wire noose had been years in the making.

PERILS AND PROMISE

Indonesia is not yet lost. If Poso is a microcosm of the dynamic that threatens to tear the vast country apart, Manado, the religiously mixed city to the north that has remained calm, may represent its promise.

Last summer, I met Manado's popular Christian mayor, a skilled politician who made a point of publicly preaching tolerance and including Muslim and Christian religious leaders in major events. He and the local police chief quickly responded to hints of trouble with officers in riot gear, a priest, and an imam. A strong local economy, higher education levels, and a long tradition of tolerance helped the city absorb provocation.

The U.S. embassy has launched a series of programs designed to keep the violence in Poso and other flashpoints from spreading. The U.S. Agency for International Development's Office of Transition Initiatives is funding conflict resolution workshops, programs to train and equip local independent journalists, and a study by local university professors of what caused Poso to implode. Similar efforts are underway in Manado and cities across Indonesia.

Rob Watson, a South African consultant who has worked on conflict resolution projects in Poso, said the institutions that can hold a society together -- police, courts, local governments, houses of worship, the media -- had all failed in Poso. Slowly strengthening institutions, training local moderates, and creating channels to vent tensions, he said, would help stem further clashes.

But those efforts will not be enough. Poso is just one small fissure among many. Violence is perilously close to breaking out all across Indonesia. In West Kalimantan (on the island of Borneo) last February, members of the indigenous Dayak ethnic group attacked Madurese settlers, accusing them of unfairly seizing land and taking economic and political control of the area. More than 450 people died. Islamic extremists are actively trying to foment the clashes in the Moluccas, which have already left 3,000 people dead. And Christian-dominated police units and Muslim-dominated army units sent to quell the fighting have openly fought one another.

Across the country, the Indonesian military remains a dangerous and unpredictable force. The country's new leaders have still not gained full civilian control over the armed forces, which have been known to tolerate and even foster violence when it serves their own purposes. The fighting in the separatist province of Aceh has grown so fierce that ExxonMobil has shut down all of its operations there, and the violence continues to escalate. A growing number of people view the military as the only institution that can stabilize the country. President Wahid has been discredited and could soon be impeached after serving only one-third of his five-year term -- an outcome that thousands of his supporters have vowed to protest by rioting. Meanwhile, the country's legislators continue to act more like political opportunists than leaders. Political infighting, graft, and a decline in the rule of law are endemic. There is no penalty for corruption and lawlessness.

A country with centuries of experience with corrupt, oppressive rule and no experience with power-sharing needs far better national leadership and greater international support if it is to successfully enact democratic reforms. In a pattern seen in other failed states such as the former Yugoslavia, the weak central government has been unable to control growing economic and political tensions in the wake of the dictator's fall. Opportunistic leaders have played on repressed ethnic and religious tensions for political gain. Clashes are blamed on ethnic and religious hatred, but economic woes and political jockeying are their root cause.

To prevent the disruptions from spreading further, Indonesian leaders as well as the United States and its allies must take far bolder action to implement political reforms and halt the violence. The government's policy of allowing the creation of new provinces should be discontinued, the decentralization of power slowed, and the influence of the military curbed until the country's police and court systems are strengthened and President Wahid's fate is decided. Most important, large-scale debt relief must be granted and then used effectively to revive the country's moribund economy.

The danger is evident in Sulawesi. Intermittent bomb attacks and house burnings in and around Poso this winter prompted more than 5,000 people to flee the area once again. In April, three Christians accused of leading the attacks were sentenced to death, but no Muslims have been prosecuted for their role in the conflict. Even Manado is struggling. Last summer, leaders of the local ruling party failed to renominate the city's well-liked mayor, prompting residents to accuse them of corruption. This winter, Muslim political leaders in a nearby city demanded greater self-rule and were allowed to break away and create their own province.

Agus Madina, a Muslim college student I met in Manado last summer, expressed the sense of unease in the city. He was an admirable figure who showed the situation was not hopeless. After a group of Christian youths fought with Muslims from his neighborhood, Agus and his friends had called the police instead of retaliating. But the young man warned that refugees from religious fighting in Poso and the Moluccas continued to arrive. The refugees, Agus explained, were dangerous. "They bring their disease here," he said. For now, his city is holding. But his country may be unraveling.

  • David Rohde is an Open Society Institute Individual Project Fellow and a reporter for The New York Times.
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