Rebuilding Peace by Piece

Indonesia, May 24, 2007

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Kim Johnston/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Families, once displaced by violence, are returning to their home villages on Indonesia's Ambon Island. Photo: Kim Johnston/Mercy Corps

Hunut village, Maluku, Indonesia - Tjak Tohata was getting used to staying in a barn. For almost eight years, the 62-year-old man, his wife and their five children lived in a small shelter that was formerly to house cows.

Today, with help from Mercy Corps, Tjak's family is reconstructing the house they were forced to abandon for life in a barn - and rebuilding the life they lost to conflict.

Tjak and his family were driven from their village of Hunut, on Indonesia's Ambon Island, when sectarian violence broke out between local groups of Christians and Muslims. The violence quickly escalated and spread, forcing more than 500,000 Indonesians from their homes and claiming thousands of lives.

When the conflict swept Maluku in 1999, all of Hunut village was burned down. Tjak's house was totally destroyed and he lost all of his belongings. While flames rapidly engulfed the village, Tjak and his family ran as fast as they could, alongside the members of more than 350 other households.

"It was late at night. We were all asleep," he said. "Suddenly I heard people screaming, and when I looked out the window I saw fire everywhere. I called my family to wake up and we ran in panic without having any chance to take any of our belongings."

Displacement and difficulty

Since 1999, Tjak and his family have stayed away from Hunut and have been living with other displaced families in the nearby village of Passo.

An ex-police officer with no regular income, Tjak grows vegetables to fulfill his family's needs. Before the conflict, he owned land in Hunut where he planted cassava - but during their displacement in Passo, he could not support his family. As a result, they depended on government and humanitarian support to survive.

Tjak and other residents of Hunut village dreamed of returning to their original homes for the past several years. Even though they didn't have houses there anymore and most of the public facilities were destroyed, many villagers decided to return and rebuild their houses. Today, nearly 330 households, both Christian and Muslim, have returned to Hunut.

Tjak and his family returned in January 2007 - and Mercy Corps was a big reason why.

Pitching in to build peace and community

In December 2006, Mercy Corps' Maluku Economic Recovery Program (MERP) team identified villages to receive assistance in rebuilding their economies and restoring peace. An extensive village selection process identified Hunut as one of 10 target communities on Ambon Island.

Mercy Corps works directly with community members to form voluntary village committees called Village Economy Recovery Councils (VERC). These councils, now 28 in number, help Mercy Corps to identify and implement ideas for economic projects and peace-building activities.

"Without these community councils, the program could not be a success. It is the dedication and participation of the councils and their members that makes the program work," said Sophie Forbes, the Maluku Economic Recovery Program's manager.

"The VERC is responsible for mobilizing the community around projects. It exists to provide the community information and guidance on project identification, implementing the project as well as serving as the key partner with Mercy Corps," Forbes added.

Tjak Tohata was selected by his community to become a member of Hunut's VERC. Together with nine others, Tjak assists the community with prioritizing top economic projects, writing and submitting the community's project proposals to Mercy Corps, and implementing and monitoring the projects.

As a member of the council, Tjak realizes that he has a big responsibility to become a mediator between the community and Mercy Corps. It is a challenge for him and the other council members to represent the voice of the community to Mercy Corps.

"I strongly believe that the approach that Mercy Corps is doing now will create a ‘sense of belonging' in the community. And we are grateful that Mercy Corps is coming to support and assist us," Tjak said.

It won't be easy to bring life back to normal in Ambon or other parts of Maluku. But people like Tjak Tohata and his community of Hunut are making sure that they keep taking steps to rebuild economies - and peace - across Maluku.