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Old wounds reopened in Ambon

Indonesia, September 23, 2011

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  • Old wounds reopened in Ambon
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    Photo: ANTARA News Photo: blog2_photo1.jpg
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    Fires burning in Ambon after sectarian violence broke out on September 11th, 2011. Photo: Mercy Corps Photo: blog2_photo2.jpg
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    Mountain community in interior Ambon Island. Photo: Mercy Corps Photo: blog2_photo3.jpg
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    Military response to violent unrest. Photo: Manado Post Photo: blog2_photo4.jpg
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    View from Ambon back roads as we rushed out. Photo: Matt Styslinger/Mercy Corps Photo: blog2_photo5.jpg

“Ambon manise,” (am-bone mah-nee-say) muttered the bewildered project coordinator of Mercy Corps’s Spice Up the Deal Project, as we stood watching midnight fires erupt in Ambon City below us. Ambon manise means "sweet Ambon." The phrase is popularly used by local people to express pride in the beauty of their island — and city by the same name — in the province of Maluku in eastern Indonesia.

As he said it, the project coordinator was part sarcastic, and part really worried about what might happen next. Sectarian violence — between Christians and Muslims — had broken out only 12 hours before, midday on Sunday, September 11th. Already there had been a few bomb explosions, massive riots killing a handful of people and injuring many more, houses and a police station burned down, and large parts of the city blockaded. And the situation was threatening to get much worse.

A couple of hours earlier we had been sleeping in a hotel in town, which we believed to be safe from the troubles. But suddenly we were woken up and evacuated to the Mercy Corps office in the hills above the city in the middle of the night. There had been a warning of an attack on the Christian area where the hotel is located by a mob from an adjacent Muslim area. As we fled, we saw scores of worried people standing outside their homes, waiting. The fires we were watching from the office above seemed to confirm that the threat had
been real.

Tensions resurface

There is a deeper context that was adding to the tensions in Ambon. From 1999-2002, there was protracted conflict in Maluku Province between Christian and Muslim communities that killed some 5,000 people and displaced around half a million. The fighting began in Ambon after a minor dispute between a Muslim and a Christian set it off. Very quickly the conflict spread throughout the province as Christian and Muslim communities internalized it.

Eerily similar events seemed to be unfolding again. A Muslim ojek (motorcycle taxi) driver was rumored to have been tortured and killed by Christians in Ambon. After his September 11th funeral, an angry mob descended on the Indonesian Christian University of Maluku (UKIM). A bomb caused serious damage to the school, cars were burned, rocks were thrown, and shots were fired by police. An official autopsy determined that the ojek driver had been killed in a traffic accident. But the damage was done, and old wounds were reopening fast.

Exploring the Spice Islands

At the time that this all began I was enjoying a Sunday drive around Ambon Island with a few friends. The beautiful, remote beaches with deep blue water and surrounding cliffs, small mountain communities, and lush forest with sago plantations — a traditional starch known locally as sagu — that I saw on the drive were far more beautiful than I had expected. I had already been working in the city for over a month, having no idea what gems lay just over the mountains.

Of course, the Ambonese people are well aware of the beauty of their ‘sweet’ island. Maluku pride runs deep throughout the province, and Ambon — the financial and provincial capital — is the gateway to Maluku. The local dialect still dominates, and there are regular reminders of the province’s unique talents. Malukans are renowned for their exceptional singing and soccer abilities. Several famous Dutch soccer players claim Malukan ancestry, and they have an incredible fan base in Maluku.

The province was once known as the Spice Islands by colonial traders because nutmeg and clove — once incredibly valuable commodities — originate from there. There is a strong sense of the collective colonial history in Maluku. Many locals have Portuguese or Dutch blood in their families. Equally remembered, however, are the national heroes Pattimura and Martha Christina Tiahahu, who were both Malukan freedom fighters against the Dutch.

Restoring unity

Since the conflict ended in 2003, Maluku has struggled to recover. Mercy Corps’ Aid to Uprooted People project, or Matasiri Project, aims to bring unity and prosperity back to Maluku’s post-conflict communities and support internally displaced people (IDPs) to overcome obstacles to their recovery.

The project, which began implementation in early 2011, helps IDPs and ex-IDPs enjoy greater social integration and access government services. Among other activities, Matasiri will facilitate economic development for 5,000 households by supporting improved income generation. Three thousand households will have greater access to locally managed water and sanitation in ex-IDP communities, and 5,000 households will see improved access to maternal and neo-natal care.

Matasiri builds on the strengths of Mercy Corps’ second Maluku Economic Recovery Program. The recently completed project worked to foster peace building among community leaders and rebuild economic strength among 5,695 conflict-affected families.

Evacuating Ambon

Due to a heavy police and military response to the riots, we were unable to reenter Ambon through the main road, which had been blocked. We took the long way though the mountains, and found huge plumes of smoke rising from the far side of the city once we made it in. We decided to lay low in the familiar hotel we had believed to be safe. After being moved to the Mercy Corps office as part of the security procedures, we remained there for a day. But the situation remained tense, and the city below was effectively shut down. Among other troubling signs, we watched young men cutting down street sign posts with saws — presumably to make pipe bombs, a popular weapon from the previous Maluku conflict.

The Maluku staff has remained on duty and is assessing the current situation. But the decision was made for a colleague and I to be evacuated from Ambon all together.

We stayed in a hotel in a safe area for the night, and headed to the airport early the next morning. A Christian driver picked us up and took us about half way, as he was either unable or unwilling to get through the Muslim areas closer to the airport. We stopped in front of a church with a brightly lit cross, directly next to an equally conspicuous mosque blaring the morning call to prayer. It was still dark as we waited. A Muslim driver pulled up to the borderline, and we were passed off like contraband to be driven the rest of the way — a dramatic, but probably unnecessary, measure.

Just as we boarded the plane, I received a text message, which was apparently sent to everyone in Maluku. It was from the Community Empowerment Squad of Maluku's Police Force. It read, “Let’s preserve the peace and brotherhood in Ambon manise. Do not listen to those who intend to tear us apart.”