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Poso, battleground for devout souls

Jakarta Post - November 13, 2012

After a period of relative peace, Poso, Central Sulawesi, was again rocked by a series of incidents that have occurred in the past three months. The Jakarta Post's Bagus BT Saragih and Ruslan Sangadji explored the root causes of the conflicts in the regency. This is the first in a series of two reports.

It was December 1998, only months after the fall of former president Soeharto's regime, when Poso, a small regency with a population of less than 220,000 (recorded population in 2012), started to gain nationwide notoriety due to violent clashes between Muslim and Christian communities in the regency.

As a consequence, right up to the current day, and much to the frustration of Poso natives, the regency is widely recognized as a conflict zone.

Continued dissonance followed the clashes of 1998 – a period which featured dozens of incidents – and the violence was to come to a bloody climax two years later.

Between April and June 2000, thousands of Muslim combatants, who called themselves white warriors, were involved in "street battles" with Christians – the red warriors – the clashes resulted in hundreds of casualties.

Only one year later the communal violence left hundreds dead, including students and civilians living in the neighborhood, when Christian militants burned the Walisongo Islamic school (pesantren).

In December 2001, former coordinating people's welfare minister Jusuf Kalla led negotiations between leaders of both Islamic and Christian communities that resulted in the Malino Accord.

However, the accord, which was supposed to end the ongoing conflict, failed to please all stakeholders and communal clashes were still widespread until 2002.

There was never an exact number of casualties released officially. However, reports say that the series of incidents from 1998 to 2002 claimed around 1,000 lives and displaced 25,000 Muslim and Christian residents.

The majority of former combatants who talked to The Jakarta Post, last week, said that the 1998-2002 conflicts tended not to be religiously motivated. "It strengthened solidarity when fellow Muslims, even family members, were abominably killed," Rafiq Syamsuddin, a former Islamic combatant, told the Post.

Rafiq was recognized by many as the best producer of weapons and light explosives in Poso during that time.

Sutami Idris, another former Islamic militant, recalled the experience of seeing hundreds of corpses, believed to be fellow Muslims, floating just below his stilt house in Bonesompe in the northern part of Poso city.

Below the house was a place where some Christians and policemen had been executed, Sutami said.

Beginning around 2001, conflicts in Poso, particularly on the Islamic side, were fueled by radical ideology, brought mainly by firebrand clerics from outside Poso, particularly Java.

Radical Islamic organizations, such as the Jamaah Islamiyah (JI) and the Indonesian Mujahidin Council (MMI) led by Abu Bakar Ba'asyir, came to Poso to offer help and assistance to grieving Muslim residents.

Their incitement of the spirit of jihad and radical indoctrination boosted hostility against Christians. According to Rafiq, many – but not all – Islamic combatants were roused by this radical infiltration.

"For example. I did help make numerous weapons and pipe bombs during the sectarian conflicts. I don't know how many people were killed by my weapons. Up to the present day I am not sure if all of my actions in the past were really jihad," he said.

Today, Rafiq is known as the most prominent peace and anticorruption activist in Poso.

Another combatant, Andi Ipong, continued to be a mujahidin (those engaged in jihad) after the Malino accord.

Ipong joined the JI Poso branch in Tanah Runtuh on the southwestern outskirts of Poso city. He became the field commander of the local mujahidin until he was arrested in 2005 for a series of killings in 2001.

"I don't 'play' anymore because of the policy made by my leaders in Tanah Runtuh. We decided to cool down for the time being. But I am ready to 'play' again at anytime if necessary," Ipong told the Post.

By "play" Ipong meant attacking those considered infidels and people considered to be thogut or anti-Islam.

The infiltration of radical Muslims into Poso led to a continuation of violence in the region, until 2007 when the police began crackdown measures, one of which was on Jan. 22 that claimed 14 lives in Tanah Runtuh.

After a period of relative peace, Poso was again rocked by a series of incidents that have occurred in the past three months.

Among the incidents was the burning of a church in Mandale subdistrict in October and the killing of two policemen in Tamanjeka. "Some parties in this republic just don't like to see peace in Poso," Rafiq said.