APSN Banner

Descent into madness

Time - December 7, 1998

Terry Mccarthy, Jakarta – When Jimmy Siahae hit the ground, that was the end. The Muslim mob never let him up again. Their weapons were dull – bamboo staves, kitchen knives, metal spikes – but their hatred was sharp. Siahae was 45, a Christian from the eastern Indonesian island of Ambon, suspected of attacking their mosque. As the terrible retribution began, Siahae didn't have a prayer. They started on his head, beating and kicking. One man hacked at his left hand, nearly severing it at the wrist. Knives plunged into his flesh. They had stripped him to the waist so they could see the wounds they were inflicting. They were in no hurry to kill him. At one point a youth – he could not have been 18 – leaned over and quite deliberately stuck an ice pick between two ribs deep into Siahae's right lung. He pulled it out again and looked at the blood on the steel with satisfaction. Siahae was face down on the concrete now, heaving for breath, too battered to cry out, barely conscious. His back was scored with stab wounds. The youth was smiling.

The mob turned its victim over and stomped on his face. It was already beaten beyond recognition. One eyeball was out of its socket. Another of his tormentors sliced his ear with a blade. "Let him die slowly," someone said, and the mob laughed.

The head of the local mosque, Hakim Hasbulla, 48, tried to hold the mob back, and a Time correspondent attempted to plead for the man, but the two dozen attackers were beyond reason. Everyone wanted to get in a kick or a cut; it was a badge of pride to have taken part. "I don't agree with this," said Hasbulla immediately afterward, still shaking.

Within earshot of Siahae's killing, another Christian, Tahan Manahan Simatupang, 22, was being interrogated by his Muslim captors. He stood on the porch of a house belonging to a community leader of the subdivision called Pembangunan I, in northern Jakarta. Tahan's hands were tied behind his back. Blood dripped from his beaten face. He said he was one of 150 Christian security guards who had been paid $5 and trucked in to the area the previous night "to stir up the masses" after a minor dispute over an illegal gambling center. He was not sure who was in ultimate command of the security guards. When they broke a window of the local mosque, the Muslim neighborhood armed itself and began hunting down Christians.

Tahan was taunted by the crowd as the afternoon stretched into evening. When asked whether he would be handed over to the police, the crowd replied loudly that he would not. "We don't trust the police," shouted one man. "We're going to make him into grilled meat," said another. Though several hundred soldiers and policemen were deployed on a road barely 90 m away, they said they had no orders to intervene. Tahan was stabbed to death at about 6pm.

There was no stopping the Muslims of Pembangunan I on Sunday Nov. 22. By the end of the day, six Christians had been hunted down, and the alleyways of the subdivision were spattered with blood. Jimmy Siahae had a fractured skull, lungs punctured in three places and more than 30 open wounds on his body in what Dr. Zulhasmar Syamsul, who did the autopsy, described as a "vicious and sadistic attack."

Indonesia is sliding into darkness. The Nov. 22 killings were a first for Jakarta, but in the past few months there have been more than 250 lynchings across the archipelago. The killings seem to be a product of fear, economic frustration and a breakdown of law and order as security forces are withdrawn from the provinces to cover demonstrations in the cities. In Sumatra recently a man was beaten and burned alive because he couldn't tell suspicious residents the precise address of a relative he was visiting. "The reality principle is breaking down," says Professor Sarlito Wirawan Sarwono of the University of Indonesia. "The more people see that they can murder without facing any consequences, the more it becomes part of the culture."

It is a culture for which Suharto, Indonesia's dictator of 32 years, bears much responsibility. Six months ago Suharto was ousted, leaving behind a weak successor as President – B.J. Habibie – a paralyzed economy, a military discredited for killing student demonstrators and a nation struggling to find some vision of its future. As the lynchings increase, many suspect that some in the military and political establishment are promoting a politics of chaos to turn the clock back, away from the students' demands for greater democracy and a reduction in the power of the army. There is a precedent, and it is horrific: General Suharto came to power in 1966 as a man who reasserted order – but only after 18 months of anarchy and slaughter that left 500,000 Indonesians dead.

President Habibie has further inflamed matters by courting Muslim extremists in an attempt to boost his power for the elections promised for next June. Muslims make up 87% of Indonesia's population of 210 million. Kept in check under Suharto's rule, a number of Muslim groups have now emerged to lay claim to political and economic power. Early last month Muslim youth vigilantes armed with sharpened bamboo spears were positioned around Jakarta to harass pro-democracy student demonstrators. Last week pictures of the former Iranian revolutionary leader Ayatullah Khomeini began to appear in street demonstrations. Though there have always been attacks against Indonesia's small but powerful Chinese community, the new attacks are taking on a dangerous religious character. "It's the most dangerous thing – the abuse of religion for political ends," says Enoch Markum, president of the Indonesian Psychologists Association. "Once people have moved into this irrational territory, it is difficult to bring them back to rationality."

It may have already gone too far. In the bloody alleyways of Pembangunan I, the way back to rationality seemed all but lost.