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Grisly find reveals Indonesia's fixation with black magic

Sydney Morning Herald - January 14, 2012

Tom Allard – On a Thursday morning last year, Sapari, a cemetery caretaker in Bonasari in East Java, made a disturbing discovery.

Underneath the frangipani trees that stand as sentinels over the graves, he found neatly dug holes. Graves had been robbed. And on closer examination, the 60-year-old discovered the thieves had a particular target. Fifteen places of burial had been pilfered, all of them for children. Their remains had vanished.

"Everyone was very worried when they found out," Sapari said. "The families were very upset."

The villagers hatched a plan to stake out the cemetery the following night to catch the perpetrators red-handed if they returned. But the plot never played out. Word had got around and by afternoon the police had set up a crime scene and TV crews and journalists had descended on Bonasari.

It turned out that Bonasari was not the only victim of the corpse-stealers. Two other burial grounds had been robbed. In all, the graves of 24 children had been exhumed on the same night in a co-ordinated action.

Police have yet to make an arrest and the investigation continues, but few are in doubt about the motivation of the grave robbers. "It was for black magic," Sapari says. "Maybe for immunity, or strength... or maybe to make yourself disappear."

Ki Kusumo, anointed by several magazines as Indonesia's most popular paranormal, says: "There are plenty of cases like this. It's just that they don't always make the media."

He says deceased virgin teenage girls are particularly sought after and "families have to guard the tomb for 40 days" after burial. In Indramayu in West Java, he says he knows of babies born on an auspicious day in the Javanese calendar being kidnapped and beheaded. "The heads are buried in the front of the person's house. They believe, this way, they will become wealthy."

To be sure, the case of the missing child corpses in East Java is especially grisly, but it speaks of the enduring fascination of Indonesians for the supernatural. There are regular reports of schoolchildren and factory workers going into mass trances and millions of Indonesians visit tombs of holy men and nationalist heroes on auspicious dates, meditating long into the night, hoping for benevolent guidance.

Across the archipelago, and especially in Java, dukuns, or shamans, still play a central role in many people's lives. Believed to have special abilities to transcend the material world and communicate with spirits, they are consulted on a vast array of matters.

Some are healers, specialising in massage, herbal remedies or acupuncture, tending to ailments that doctors can't seem to fix. Others provide advice on romance, careers, business opportunities, the best times to plant crops or hold a wedding.

Such benign advice is imparted by dukuns who practise white magic, but there are many others – known as dukun santet – who use black magic, and are hired to bring misfortune to rivals in love, business and politics.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono complained during the 2009 election campaign that nefarious mystical forces were being deployed against him and his staff.

"Many are practising black magic. Indeed, I and my family can feel it," he was quoted as saying by Antara, the official Indonesian news agency. "It's extraordinary. Many kinds of methods are used. I have come to the conclusion that only prayers can defeat black magic attacks."

Yudhoyono's predecessors, Megawati Sukarnoputri and Abdurrahman Wahid were widely known to consult dukuns. Wahid famously rushed off in a helicopter at short notice to meditate at the tomb of one of Indonesia's Islamic saints after being advised his spirit was unhappy. He was said to have abruptly sacked two ministers on his return.

Suharto, Indonesia's former dictator, was also deeply in thrall to the spirit world, famous for his collection of sacred daggers, or kris, and ancient Javanese manuscripts that many believed were the source of his power.

Even so, the relationship between the belief in the supernatural and Islam in Indonesia is complicated. The country's largest Islamic organisation, Nahdlatul Ulama, which has about 30 million members, still endorses the old Javanese mystical traditions – Ilmu Jawa – but the increasing influence of a more austere form of Islam imported from the Middle East means that organisations such as the Majelis Ulama Indonesia, the country's peak clerical body, frowns on such practices.

Consultations with mystics by powerful figures are usually discreet, and lengths are taken to keep them from being publicised.

"When they see a dukun or paranormal, it's like they are seeing their mistress. It's always done in secret," says Ki Joko Bodo, one of Indonesia's most famous and flamboyant dukuns.

With his long hair and eyes accentuated by kohl, Joko Bodo is a paranormal from central casting. Indeed, he has starred in several Indonesian horror movies. His enormous home in East Jakarta and the Mercedes-Benz and Jaguar parked in the garage are testaments to his success. Complete with an 11-storey Javanese temple, his compound is adorned with huge, garish statues, its walls bedecked in reliefs styled on those of the Borobudur temple.

Many of the reliefs depict Joko Bodo himself, including one where the dukun is leading the rallies that led to Suharto's ousting. Another has him imparting blessings on officials from the tax office, attorney-general's department and ministry of industry.

He says he was seven years old when he realised he had a special gift and began to see jin – supernatural figures – his friends could not. "Jins are non-physical creatures," he explains. "They are not ghosts, they are not bad. Many are friendly and they can help improve the lives of people." He leads me through a labyrinth below his house of faux caves where a young woman is waiting. He sits in front of low black altar, a basket of offerings containing fruit and flowers on one side, a child's doll sitting on the other.

Joko Bodo produces a wooden box and places a bottle of water inside it, covering it with a black satin bag. An incantation is made and the box removed from the bag. The water bottle is empty, transformed into energy which has entered the young woman, he says.

He then douses the teenager from a small pool of water covered in petals and money. The young woman, who asked not to be named, is assured she will have a prosperous future. She seems impressed and grateful.

It's all over within 15 minutes, but Joko Bodo insists these rituals can be done quickly if the dukun, like himself, is particularly attuned to the spirit world. No doubt, it helps with turnover too.

Ki Joko Bodo may come off as more charlatan than shaman but he is immensely popular and demand for his services has never been higher. He says senior figures from the government, military and police are among his most loyal clients.

There are thousands of dukuns across Java. Many make a modest living, never demanding payment, although accepting donations. In some villages, Islamic clerics double as dukuns.

Ki Zukud lives in a modest home in Surabaya, where the paint peels off the walls and children run in and out of his living room. He runs an Islamic boarding school but dabbles in paranormal advice. His collection of kris is his pride and joy.

He has 10 adorning his wall and each has a special purpose. One generates prosperity, another repels black magic. "There is so much black magic everywhere," he says solemnly.

He carefully consults the old Javanese calendar, with its complex cycles, to pick the right time for rituals and uses a mix of Koranic verses and Javanese mantras to tap into the supernatural.

He insists a belief in the power of jins is completely in tune with Islamic teachings. The nine saints who brought Islam to Indonesia in the 14th and 15th centuries had used Javanese beliefs and stories to spread the religion. Why should things change?

"Around here, I never have any problems with the other clerics," he says. "In Indonesia, the mystical aura is very thick."