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Saturday, 29 July, 2000, 18:01 GMT 19:01 UK
Short journey from heaven to hell
Moluccas residents have been fleeing the violence
By Richard Galpin in the northern Moluccan islands

We touched down in paradise, but soon found ourselves in hell. If there is anywhere where heaven and hell have been thrown together, it is in the Moluccan or Spice Islands in the remote eastern corner of Indonesia.

Nature has made these amongst the most beautiful islands in the world.

They have everything in abundance - pristine forests teeming with unique wildlife, perfect cone-shaped volcanoes, and coral reefs which divers from around the world would pay thousands of dollars to explore.

But the Moluccan islands are lacking one essential ingredient - peace.

Just hours after arriving on the northern island of Halmahera, we found ourselves in the jungle near the town of Tobelo. There was a strange sound - almost like animals in distress.

And suddenly they came into view charging right at us - men armed with spears, machetes and bows and arrows in full battle-cry. Almost all were wearing red head-bands and had small strips of red cloth tied around their weapons.

This was the Red Army also known as Laskar Jesus, the Christian militia.

Having expelled the Muslims from Tobelo, the people here now live in constant fear of revenge

This particular unit seemed to include almost all the men from the villages around - there were young and old, strong and weak - some who seemed faintly ridiculous, others who had the cold stare of those who have already killed.

As they ran past us, in this training exercise, they slashed at the ground and trees with their machetes and knives.

These were the same men who just a few months before, had driven an entire community of Muslims from the area. Around 8,000 people were forced to flee from Tobelo as those who had once been their neighbours turned upon them, burning their houses to the ground.

Hundreds died in the fighting. We were later to meet a woman Afa, who said she'd been inside one of the mosques in Tobelo during the attack. She said she'd watched as the Christian militia massacred the men who'd been trying to hide. Some were stabbed, others were decapitated, she said.

Tobelo has now been cleansed - to use the jargon - of Muslims.

Gunman, Moluccas
Violence has been far worse than in East Timor last year
Their neighbourhoods and mosques have been destroyed - all that remain are piles of rubble and rusty metal.

By contrast, the Christian areas and churches tower above the ruins unscathed.

But having expelled the Muslims from Tobelo, the people here now live in constant fear of revenge.

There have already been many rumours that the forces of the Islamic Jihad were converging on the town.

They have good reason to be afraid. Over the past two months, Muslim fighters have carried out brutal attacks on several Christian villages in the neighbouring district.

Scars of war

We found some of the victims of one such attack in the hospital in Tobelo. There were men, women and children with horrific injuries.

One woman showed us a large piece of shrapnel from a home-made bomb which had just been removed from her lower back.

A man, who'd been sitting silently on a mat on the floor, got up just as we were about to leave. He moved very stiffly and could not turn his head. As he walked past us I could see why. He had a huge scar round the back of his head and neck from a machete wound - someone had tried to decapitate him.

Indonesian soldiers
Security forces did not stop the arrival of Laskar Jihad
Almost everywhere we went on Halmahera, it was the same picture - towns and villages burnt to the ground - in one place it was the Christians who'd been driven out, in another the Muslims.

There's been a chain reaction around the islands as news has spread of the brutality shown by communities who'd previously lived in peace.

Trying to make sense of what has happened in this region is not easy. Although this has now become a religious war, it began as a border dispute between two ethnic groups last August.

Since then some politicians and members of the military appear to have manipulated the situation for their own benefit.

Upsurge in violence

Perhaps the most blatant example of outside intervention has been the arrival of thousands of armed fighters from the militant Muslim organisation Laskar Jihad - based hundreds of kilometres away in Java.

The security forces did nothing to stop them travelling to the Moluccan islands.

The dilemma now is what the international community should do to stop the bloodshed in the Moluccan islands

Their arrival has coincided with a massive upsurge in the violence - mostly Muslims attacking Christians.

And the Jihad forces armed with automatic weapons have been seen with Indonesian troops fighting alongside them.

So far no one has been able to find out just who is behind this shady extremist organisation. And yet it is now fuelling a civil and religious war.

It proves just how little control the Indonesian Government has over this massive country.

The dilemma now is what the international community should do to stop the bloodshed in the Moluccan islands which has already been far worse than the violence in East Timor last year.

The fear is that direct foreign military intervention would completely undermine the young democratic government in Jakarta which diplomats still believe should be supported to avoid further catastrophe in Indonesia.

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See also:

25 Jul 00 | Asia-Pacific
Moluccas militants face expulsion
17 Jul 00 | Asia-Pacific
Army accused over Moluccas conflict
29 Jun 00 | Asia-Pacific
Moluccan islanders' desperate flight
20 Jun 00 | Asia-Pacific
Massacre in the Moluccas
10 May 00 | Asia-Pacific
Fears grow over Moluccas jihad
07 Jan 00 | Asia-Pacific
Troubled history of the Moluccas
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