It is Indonesia's tragedy that such stories of slaughter have become numbingly commonplace since the collapse of the three-decade dictatorship of then President Suharto in 1998. The brutal military repression that kept a dizzying range of religious, cultural and ethnic hatreds in check until then has all but vanished —with sometimes horrifyingly bloody results. But the story of Sulawesi is different, and what happens there in the coming weeks is critical, not just to the future of President Megawati Sukarnoputri and the country's 210 million people but to Indonesia's neighbors. The ramifications might be felt thousands of miles away in London and New York City. For the villagers' agony was not the result of a random explosion of religious resentment and hatred but part of a carefully calculated campaign conducted by trained, disciplined troops—the fighters of Laskar Jihad, Indonesia's most feared militant Islamic group.
With the disintegration of government authority, a handful of radical organizations have changed the face of Indonesia's traditionally varied and tolerant Sunni Islam. While most groups concentrate on fielding noisy demonstrators and grabbing headlines, a few have taken advantage of the new freedoms—and support from high-level officials—to raise well-armed private armies. By far the most successful is Laskar Jihad, which spouts the militant Wahhabi creed followed by Osama bin Laden and the Taliban and claims a force of 10,000 fighters, dedicated to defending its beliefs throughout the island nation.
On Sulawesi a few days after the group's attacks, the road is still heavy with the stink of charred wooden buildings and trees, and is lined on both sides with smashed houses and the odd gutted church. Apart from a few desultory looters—just about everything that could be moved has already been carted away—the only human presence amid the utter destruction is a handful of local Muslim men checking traffic for any Christian foolish enough to return.
The real fighters, the thousand or more troops from the Laskar Jihad, are nowhere in sight, leaving refugees like Rawana Tangalu homeless and bewildered. The 60-year-old farmer fled into the jungle with her daughter and son-in-law and their three-year-old boy and two-month-old girl when the attack came at 10 a.m. on Nov. 28. "I could hear the bombs and nonstop shooting from the village for two days and two nights," Tangalu says. "My daughter had to cover my grandchild's mouth to stop her from crying." The local military commander sent dozens of troops from the nearby base in Poso but they were heavily outnumbered and hastily withdrew. By 2 p.m. three Christian residents lay dead in the village and all of Tangkura—some 300 houses and a church—was burned to the ground.
Tangalu and her family waited in the jungle those two nights, hoping that the Muslims would leave after the attack, as they had a month earlier when they destroyed the nearby village of Patiwunga. But this was no hit-and-run foray by locals bent on revenge. This time, Tangalu soon realized, the attackers had more long-range intentions. So she and her family walked for two more days through the jungle. A police car escorted the family to a Christian rescue group, which then took them to safety in Tentena, where they are staying with some 20 other refugee families in a school building, joining the 40,000 refugees scattered throughout the town. Tangalu is worried about whether they will be safe even in Tentena. And she is worried, too, for her grandson, who wakes up at night, crying, hugging his mother, asking: "Will there be any bombs tonight?"
For the children of Poso and the surrounding villages, both Christian and Muslim, bombs, guns and knives have been an almost daily presence for three long years. A drunken brawl between a Christian and a Muslim youth in 1998 sparked a spate of killings by vigilante groups. Since then, despite the frantic efforts of community leaders, the conflict has been characterized by periods of uneasy quiet, punctuated by explosions of mob violence. Hundreds, mostly Muslim, died in an outbreak in May 2000. But the arrival of the 750 Laskar fighters on July 19 this year decisively tilted the balance on the island and introduced a professional military element in their deliberate campaign to sweep Christians, who make up 60% of the region's population, out of an arc of villages surrounding the disputed town of Poso, where the fighting began.
If the military is unable to prevent Laskar Jihad troops from continuing their attacks, it will constitute a chilling victory for the Islamic extremists. "They've managed to evict the military from Poso: not even Fretilin could do that in East Timor," says Tamrin Tomagola, a Muslim sociologist at the University of Indonesia. "If the situation is not brought under control, Poso could become the peak of all communal conflicts in Indonesia. The whole of Sulawesi could be engulfed and the conflict could then spread as far as the southern Philippines. This is a key fear of the U.S."