For 10 days in Poso, I stayed with a friend near the Lombogia Urban Village Office. A partially destroyed house with cracked walls, covered with grass and shrubs, stood nearby. There was no roof left. The building had been a witness to communal violence in Poso, a period that has left this coastal city with a reputation for religion conflict.
In December 1998, Lombogia was the site of the flashpoint where a fight between Muslim and Christian men over politics ended brutally, sparking struggles for vengeance. That first phase of violence was described in a Human Rights Watch report as “short and limited to several neighbourhoods in Poso town”, but the violence continued, in separate phases, through to December 2001.
The number of casualties is disputed, but most reports say that hundreds were killed, with thousands of houses and public facilities damaged or destroyed, and hundreds of thousands displaced. Only the lowest-level perpetrators were prosecuted in some cases, others were sentenced to death, but often impunity reigned, as law enforcement remained weak among the chaos.
Now many of the people of Poso choose to remember the violence with humour, as a way to deal with the trauma that it left behind. This is a collection of stories from those on the ground who witnessed, or even participated in, the savage fighting as the death toll rose.
Cici: Watching the conflict with binoculars and tripods
Cici is a Christian who lives in Ranononcu, a village where people have generally been accustomed to mingling without ethnic and religious views clashing. When Cici was born in 1986, a neighbour—a Muslim craftsman—proposed a name for her: Cici Gamelaxi. While Cici’s parents insisted on naming her Yurnaningsih Rambe, they retained Cici as a nickname. “The name [is a gift] from that neighbour, ” she explains.
“I don’t know where that old man is anymore. What his fate was,” she adds.
Cici was in her first year of high school when the riots broke out in 1998. At that time, the violence hadn’t affected Poso’s city centre too much, and she was still able to go to school. But the second phase of the violence in 2000 was much worse; schools were closed and market activities halted.
Christians and Muslims had mostly lived side by side without problems, but when a spontaneous conflict erupted between a small group of Christians and Muslims in 1998, efforts to calm tensions failed. In his book A Few Poorly Organised Men: Interreligious Violence in Poso, Indonesia, researcher Dave McRae points to a complex background: a climate of uncertainty in a period of political transition across the country following the fall of President Suharto, existing fault-lines between the two religious groups, the provocations of small group circulating rumours of violence, and networks of political elites making hay. As close friends began to distance themselves from one another, red became seen as a symbolic colour for the fighting Christians, while white represented the Muslim faction.
Researcher Dave McRae points to a complex background: a climate of uncertainty in a period of political transition, existing fault-lines between the two religious groups, the provocations of small group circulating rumours of violence, and networks of political elites making hay
Following the clashes, the atmosphere in Ranononcu changed, Cici said. The village became one of the defence hubs and a public kitchen for Christians. From 2000 to 2001, Cici worked in the public kitchen. She occasionally delivered food to the troops, even though she could only get to them by crawling on the ground to avoid being shot or attacked.
In the Gunung Potong area, near the bridge that separates the Muslim Tanah Runtuh Village and the Christian Ranononcu Village, I stood on the edge of a cliff. I looked down at a stretch of rice fields below, houses and rows of hills that used to be battlefields. “Here, we [the women] would look down [and] look at people shooting each other,” Cici recalls. “We used binoculars.”
“Binoculars?” I was curious.
“Large binoculars. Using a tripod. They were white and had a zoom. They were really clear.”
“Who brought them?”
“I don’t know. If someone got shot, we’d run and hide. Then the next day we’d come back to watch again.”
In Poso, ruins of houses now stand like war memorials. A local Islamic boarding school complex remains completely charred. Dozens of people had died there in an incident known as the Kilo Nine Massacre. In another spot, someone had been killed by a homemade bomb.
Om Nonge: saved by a Muslim
Following the periods of violence and killing, people now wonder, why did fellow citizens stab, shoot and kill each other?
In everyday life in Poso today, differences in religious beliefs are usually not an issue. Muslims sit and eat with Christians, joking and sharing food. Christmas and Eid are times for homes to be filled with gifts, regardless of the inhabitants’ religion.
“Poso is peaceful. I feel that. But, [sometimes religious] sentiment rises again, and I don’t like it,” David Nonge tells New Naratif. Om Nonge, as he’s known, is a warm middle-aged man, and a survivor of the 1998 riots. His body is covered in scars.
He’d still been student then, and had attended a mediation process in front of the Peniel Church, to reconcile a youth fight. But the mediation failed—some say it was inevitable, given the atmosphere of the time—and the two sides clashed once more. Om Nonge was attacked.
Unable to inch away from the sharp weapons, Om Nonge was convinced he would die. The crowd of onlookers had thought he was already dead. He was doused with gasoline, drenching his entire body, then set ablaze. He screamed. A Muslim friend saved him.
“There’s no use in war. If you don’t die, [instead there’s] pain and regret for the rest of your life,” he says, looking back on those days of horror.
“Are you still looking for revenge?” I ask.
“How can I think about revenge? The one who saved me was a Muslim friend. Even now I feel he’s like a brother.”
“Once you recovered, you didn’t get involved in the riots?”
“No. I stayed at home and didn’t want to get involved. I really don’t like fights. I hate them very much.”
Jimmy: A weapons and bombs tutorial
Jimmy, with his wavy hair under his hat, is a coffee connoisseur and an engaging person to chat to. He was my first contact in Poso, and our interview was the first of many meetings I had with Muslim and Christian residents who recalled the dark events in the region with a dry humour. It’s perhaps a coping mechanism, a way to put the past into context and move forward with their lives.
Jimmy corroborates Om Nonge’s story. He draws on his cigarette, blowing out the smoke as he says that the fighting should have been resolved in 1998. It’s a view echoed by many in my interviews: today, many of them—even those who had been actively involved—wonder why the violence hadn’t just ended in 1998. In his book, McRae argues that it was a small group of combatants, operating with impunity due to the lack of state intervention, that had contributed to the continuing violence and ballooning communal conflict. It was, according to those I’d interviewed, like an “atmosphere of war”.
In 1999, leaflets were scattered around every corner of Poso. They contained tutorials on making firearms and bombs. Until today, no one has been able to confirm who had distributed them. “So, in 1999, all the children quickly learned. It was easy to find homemade weapons,” Jimmy explains.
In his book, McRae writes that the conflict and violence that occurred from December 1998 to April 2000 had not been tightly organised. People had responded to provocation and wanted to defend themselves, and the violence had been limited to the city of Poso.
However, from May 2000 to 2007, the conflict became better coordinated. The Christian faction was known as the Red Army, and they used a red flag and bracelets made from tree roots as their symbols. The Muslims formed the White Army and wore headbands with the Tawhid [the Muslim profession of faith which declares that there is only one true God] on them. After April 2000, “aid forces” for the two camps also began arriving from outside the Poso district.
During this period, Jimmy had led some of the “poorly organised men”. Part of his duties included selecting special forces officers who wore black uniforms and attacked only at night. There were similar command units on the Muslim side. Andi Baso Tahir alias Ateng, a former commander in the White Army in a Muslim-majority village, explains that a daytime attack was considered a show of strength, while night-time attacks were considered more practical. “At night, to burn a village and finish off it off […] needed only around 10 fighters at the most.”
“In the conflict, my uncle disappeared. But I’ve come to terms with it now. If the desire for revenge continues, our Christian brothers and sisters will suffer the same fate. So if you want revenge, this [conflict] will never end,” he adds.
Jimmy and Ateng, who had previously tried to attack each other, are now close friends. They say they’ve found clarity after the violence, and realised that they should only have sought peace and happiness. “After the riots, what did we get? Nothing,” says Ateng.
Ateng: Firearms “for rent”
Ateng’s home is by the sea. He lives in a village not far from Gunung Biru, a small mountain known for its gold minerals. But the mountain has now also made Poso famous as a hotbed of terrorism. The mountain is the reason why Operation Tinombala, a security operation aimed at clearing out terrorist groups, still continues today.
Following the communal conflict, a very small group of terrorists in Indonesia are believed to be still hiding there. Santoso, a suspected East Indonesia Mujahidin terrorist kingpin—once part of the White Army, now part of an active cell affiliated with ISIS—was shot dead in 2017, but that simply meant that a new leader emerged. Ateng says, “I don’t know why there’s always such violence. We should be peaceful and calm. Go to the fields with good intentions. Meet and greet each other.”
On Jembatan Dua, a bridge in Ateng’s village that was used as a boundary between the Red and White forces, the conflict was similar to playing “capture the castle” —a children’s game where you have to capture the other team’s flag as a sign of victory. One side would attack, fire their weapons and take the other side’s flag. Once back across the bridge to their side, the flag would be erected as a taunt. The forces who had been attacked would then retaliate, and so on and so forth. But this feuding would be temporarily put on hold during the Muslims’ prayer times.
On the walls of burnt houses, further taunts would be daubed using markers and charcoal. Ateng bursts out laughing when remembering them.
The Red Troops would write: Poor Muslims having to run to the beach.
The White Troops would retaliate: Poor Christians having to run to the mountains. In case you didn’t know, there are ferries at the beach.
Sometimes the taunts would take on even more foolish tones, making references to pop culture. The Red Troops would write: [Jean-Claude]Van Damme once visited this place.
The White Troops would reply: Feeling the revenge of Jet Li.
The residents of Poso have other anecdotes, such as the time a delegation of the Central Sulawesi Regional Police came to do an inspection. On one of the main roads, they found an Indonesian flag mounted upside down, with the white section above and the red part below. A policeman asked an elderly resident to fix the flag. The old man refused, going as far as to say he was willing to fight for it to be left alone. “[Apparently] the old man’s reasoning was simple: red at the top was wrong. The White Troops had defeated the Red Troops,” says Ateng.
Ateng remembers other instances that demonstrate the absurdity of warfare.
One time, Ateng and five of his friends attacked a village at night. They lurked behind a grove of cocoa trees, waiting for darkness to fall before taking action after the last Muslim prayer of the day. They struggled with the urge to smoke while they waited, but worried that the glow of their cigarettes would be visible from the village. The solution? They inserted the lit tip of the cigarette into the muzzle of an AK 47 rifle and inhaled that way, so as not to be detected.
In the post-riot period of May 2000, automatic weapons were easy to acquire in Poso and its surrounding areas. Prices were affordable, but if you didn’t have the funds you could use a “weapons rental service” from the police and soldiers on duty in the area.
“You just had to give the buyers [intermediaries] cigarettes. The security forces only had one request, which was that the weapons weren’t seized. If you got arrested then it was fine,” says Jimmy.
Iin Brur: From religious conflict to extremism
The Malino Declaration of December 2001 resulted in a 10-point agreement between the White and Red Armies. But while it brought an end to the “war”-like situation, it didn’t dispel the hostility in and around Poso. Some ex-combatants considered the declaration an agreement among the elite, and the violence in Poso actually got worse. Acts of terrorism increased. The issue shifted from “interreligious warfare” between the two sides to “a war of terror” perpetrated by radical Muslims.
At a small shop where the Rumah Katu community group campaigns for peace in Poso through films, I meet Arifuddin Lako, who also goes by the name Iin Brur. He’s a cold man and a former member of the White Army in the Tanah Runtuh area. During that time, Iin Brur attended lectures delivered by people from Java. While he had first joined the White Army out of desire for vengeance for Muslim victims, he later learned that the activities he’d participated in were affiliated with the terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI). Iin was the first JI cadre in Poso.
In 2004, Iin acted on orders to assassinate a prosecutor in Palu, the capital of Central Sulawesi province, where Poso lies. The prosecutor, who’d been involved in the trial of a case involving an attack on a Muslim village, was alleged to have used religious hate speech.
“I got an order that the prosecutor had insulted Islam at the trial and slandered a Muslim suspect,” Iin tells New Naratif. There was no record of what the prosecutor had said, but Iin had believed what he was told at the time.
Iin was imprisoned for six years and three months. He began to reflect on everything that had happened upon his release in 2015, and says he regrets his actions. He’s now on a peace campaign with the Rumah Katu community, producing films educating the public on the importance of reconciliation and peace. One of the films produced by the community is Salamnya Salim, or Salim’s Greeting. The story is about someone who doesn’t want to respond to a greeting from a police officer. “For some [Muslim] friends who are still radical, greetings from the police, the army, and government officials don’t deserve to be answered, because they are considered thogut,” says Iin. Thogut is a slang word for Satan, for people who prioritise earthly concerns over the afterlife, or for those who don’t want Islamic law to be implemented.
Nurlaela Lamasituju: Starting with the grassroots
According to Nurlaela Lamasituju, a human rights activist who’s part of a peace campaign in Poso, rebuilding Poso must start with the grassroots. Until now, peace campaigns have only scratched the surface. The hostile feelings between the different religions may be fading, but extremism can still be a problem. In the context of radical ideology, Nurlaela says that the word thogut can used as an excuse for a wide range of behaviour.
“You know,” Nurlaela says, “I met someone in a village in Poso a few months ago; their child is in a private school where [they must] wear a full face veil. The school costs hundreds of thousands [of rupiah] per month. And the father is willing to pay for it, even though he only works odd jobs. At the same time, near his home there are public schools that are free of charge. ”
“Do you know the reason? He told me that the state school [which takes in students of all religions] is thogut.”
The Malino Declaration of December 2001 resulted in a 10-point agreement between the White and Red Armies. But while it brought an end to the “war”-like situation, it didn’t dispel the hostility in and around Poso
According to Nurlaela, rebuilding Poso is going to need a serious approach from residents. So far, the peace campaign has only targeted the surface. In the present day, the negative sentiments between followers of different religions have begun to disappear, but acts of extremist terror remain a serious concern. “In the end the ‘stamp’ of Poso now is that it’s a place for terrorists,” Nurlaela says.
Terrorists captured in various places across Indonesia are often linked to networks in Poso. As Ateng says, Santoso, the former leader of the East Indonesia Mujahidin terrorist group, had been free to roam before he was finally arrested, even though photos of his face had been displayed in almost every corner of the city on a terrorist search list.
Now that Santoso is dead, the authorities are carrying on with their anti-terrorism operation. Some of Santoso’s peers are still suspected of hiding out on the Blue Mountain. They might even still be roaming about; last month, three suspected terrorists were killed(link in Bahasa Indonesia) in Poso.
Ateng and Iin Brur are two former combatants who have chosen paths of peace. But many other former combatants refuse to be interviewed, choosing to stay silent and not renounce terrorism.
Although religious conflict has quietened down among the general population, in Poso, ideology continues to grow and die according to shifting circumstances.
Text and photos by Eko Rusdianto
Translation by Aisyah Llewellyn
Eko started his career as an announcer at Sindikasi Berita Pantau (Yayasan Pantau Jakarta) in 2008. Now a freelance writer, he has written for a range of publications including Mongabay and Wakil Indonesia. He’s based in Bantimurung in South Sulawesi.
Aisyah Llewellyn is a British freelance writer based in Medan, Indonesia, and New Naratif's Deputy Editor. She is a former diplomat and writes primarily about Indonesian politics, culture, travel and food. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.