Thursday, September 26, 2002

Santi W.E. Soekanto
Contributor, Ternate, Maluku

North Maluku, a greater disaster looming for some

Ridwan Miraj, the chief of Muhajirin district in Ternate City, fought back tears. He was watching the Loloda and Galela refugees sheltering in his neighborhood pack their meager belongings accumulated over the past three years of their displacement. The next day, from Ternate Port, they would crowd into two ferries — Nur Jaya IV and Elite Perkasa — that would take them back to the villages that they abandoned at the height of the Christian-Muslim conflict in North Maluku.

"I am sad to finally see all of them go home, because I don't know what awaits them. These people have been wounded to their core. Their souls have been hurt," said Ridwan, who has been, in essence, caring for more than 1,300 refugees in his district alone.

Many of those refugees have been living in cramped quarters — half-burned buildings and abandoned warehouses — where tuberculosis, malaria, and respiratory tract infections haunted them and poor sanitation and lack of clean water caused repeat outbreaks of diarrhea.

"No, I feel no relief that these people are finally leaving. They have been a responsibility for me," Ridwan said. "But there'll be other responsibilities awaiting me."

This includes the possibility of this particular batch of refugees — sent off home by acting governor Sinyo Harry Sarundayang on Aug. 19 — returning to Ternate for shelter if they find that their homeland is not yet the friendly place they used to know before the outbreak of violence in 1999.

That has happened with earlier attempts at returning refugees to certain areas where conflicts have yet to really die down such as in Tobelo regency.

"Who can guarantee the two most important things for refugees, namely security and adequate living facilities?" asked Ummi Baba, an eloquent 37-year-old refugee from Dufa-dufa who has been sheltering in an abandoned Ternate nightclub. "We know how contractors hired to provide us with living quarters have cut corners and built shelters that crumbled after only one year."

Saadah, 50, looked down at the grave of her son-in-law who died in one of the eruptions of violence in 2000, and asked, "What will happen when we return in large numbers and the 'people next door' refuse to relinquish the barracks that they now occupy?"

Saadah from Tobelo took shelter in Ternate in 2000. She returned to her village recently and fled again to Ternate shortly afterward when armed assailants attacked the Muslim villages and killed three men in August. The quaint expression "people next door" is used by North Maluku Muslims for their erstwhile Christian neighbors.

Following the first eruption of violence in North Maluku in late 1999, thousands have been killed and many more thousands have been scattered in various refugee camps. As of September, more than half of the initial 90,000 refugees sheltering in Ternate City have been returned to their home villages. Thousands more remain, especially those from Tobelo, contributing to a powder-keg situation.

Disease, abuse, drugs, alcoholism and prostitution are on top of social burdens such as street children. Mito, 10, is one among those children begging on the streets of Ternate: He lost not only his parents in a bomb blast but also his right hand while scars marked his limbs.

"Girls as young as 15 years old have become prostitutes, as have some widows of the syuhada (Muslim martyrs) because life as a refugee is unbearable," said Ummi Baba.

"Prostitution and alcohol are being sold blatantly in several spots of the town and some cafes, backed by unscrupulous security officials," said Habib Muhammad, a local Muslim teacher, who leads Amar Ma'ruf Nahyi Munkar, a force of hundreds of Muslim youths ready to fight social vices. The local security, however, sees them as illegal pam swakarsa or independent security forces.

"In September last year we raided one cafe in Bastiong area where there was prostitution and alcohol. We destroyed the place. The owner came out and shot one of the youths. He was later stabbed but survived," Habib said. "But, last February, the cafe was reopened and it is now thriving."

"These refugees must leave soon. All of them," said Abdul Gani Kasuba, another Muslim leader, last August. "This town is simply no longer able to take care of this burden," he said, echoing the determination of the Coordinating Minister for Social Welfare Jusuf Kalla that "the problem of 1.3 million of internally displaced people must be solved by the end of 2002."

The same determination is shown by the administration of acting governor of North Maluku, Sinyo Harry Sarundayang.

However, sending refugees home is no easy matter not only due to the lack of facilities but because there is no guarantee for their security (this, after all, is an administration where a senior official is being accused of embezzling Rp 79 billion of aid for the refugees).

Neither is it an easy matter in a conflict where, it is known, the security authorities are split into two camps. Many people feel that the police elite force Brimob, regardless of the small number posted in North Maluku, are siding with the Muslims while the Indonesian Military (TNI) troops have been suspected of siding with the Christians.

"This creates a situation of 'controlled calm' in Ternate," said a local Muslim fighter. "Anything could go off any time. Fighting could break out again, and we'd have more bloodshed, especially if the government forces the repatriation of Tobelo Muslim refugees because the Tobelo Christians have clearly rejected them."

"They'll start killing us again," said Saadah.

The same could be said for any Christian wishing to return home to Ternate, which is now controlled by the Muslim side and where abandoned churches have became refugee camps. Not many Christians — who fled the unrest to Christian-dominated regions such as North Sulawesi — would dare return to Ternate and reclaim their properties.

"You're dead!" one Muslim youth hissed at a passing Christian man who returned to Ternate because as a civil servant he had to work. Before the unrest, the two were close friends.

In the meantime, a 17-year-old Muslim boy who found the decapitated head of his father and his worn-out jacket, still spends any spare time sharpening his machetes. Hatred in his eyes, he vowed: "I'll be ready this time around."

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Created: September 28, 2002
Last modified: September 28, 2002
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