Jihad Seethes, And Grows, On Indonesian Island

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 terrorism down.'']

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.


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''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.''


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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.

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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 Christian villages.

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 initiative.''

Local fighters could easily be mistaken for Laskar Jihad, he said, in their Arab-style outfits -- white robes by day, black by night.


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''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 training camps.

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.


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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.''

Source : http://www.nytimes.com/2002/01/10/world/jihad-seethes-and-grows-on-indonesian-island.html

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