The crowd around him surges in sympathy and many clamor to tell their own stories. But Syamsudin won't be interrupted. "I don't feel that I've committed any sins. We were there according to the laws of the country." He stands up straight, head raised, dignified despite the fact he is wearing only a singlet and the tattered brown trousers he had on when he fled his home. "That's all."
There may have been a time when the law did matter in Indonesia, but it's hard to remember that now. Last week, Indonesia's central Kalimantan province reverted to the law of the jungle when indigenous Dayaks, celebrated in tourism brochures for their tribal customs and picturesque, dormitory-style long-houses, went on a coordinated spree of murder against the province's migrant community from the arid island of Madura. And concepts like rule of law began to seem completely irrelevant when the Dayaks, following their traditional custom, began eating the body parts of their victims to gain spiritual strength. More than 500 Madurese were butchered; 30,000 more were shipped from Borneo to Java by military and civilian boats; 15,000 more, like Syamsudin, are waiting in Sampit, desperate to get out.
The immediate spark to the slaughter can be identified: a murder in Kereng Pangi, a small village near Sampit. A group of Madurese allegedly tortured and then killed a young Dayak in December after a gambling dispute. The murderers, Dayak community leaders say, bribed police and escaped to Madura.
The gruesome quality of the massacre makes it indelible, but also obscures what it says about Indonesia as a whole. Yes, the police couldn't, and often didn't even try, to save the Madurese victims. The center of Sampit is decorated with a plinth commemorating Indonesia's 1948 independence, guarded by a life-size plaster statue of a policeman—an apt symbol of their frozen response to the crisis. Two battalions of soldiers were brought to Sampit a week after the massacres broke out to restore order, but Madurese houses continued to go up in flames long after their arrival. "That's not our job," was the bored comment from a soldier watching a house being torched in the regional capital Palangkaraya. The government of President Abdurrahman Wahid was characteristically supine. Wahid himself went on a religious pilgrimage to Mecca three days after the killing began and has yet to return.
In Wahid's Indonesia, however, that's par for the course. There are bigger, more troubling imponderables. The country seems to be falling apart in so many different ways. Was Kalimantan's carnage an anti-migrant pogrom similar to those in Irian Jaya? Or was it more like the separatist-incited violence in Aceh? Or was it similar to the bloody religious rivalry between Christians and Muslims in Ambon? When the Dayaks carved out the hearts and heads of their victims, was this the kind of tribal blood sport that would have proliferated in Indonesia had former President Suharto not exerted an iron grip on the nation for most of its history? Are all sorts of mad and destructive behaviors ready to rise now that Indonesia's state structures seem to be collapsing? Or how about this for a troubling prospect: Is Indonesia actually carving out its own heart by giving autonomy to the provinces and districts under legislation that took effect on Jan. 1—a legal initiative that was intended, in fact, as a last ditch effort to hold the country together?
Autonomy is Indonesia's big hope these days. In the center of Sampit, it's extolled on a giant billboard urging locals to support officials who assume power under the new scheme. With the autonomy program, much of Jakarta's former power over finance and administration has been passed down to some 360 regencies—what would be called counties in other countries—and municipalities. It's a radical shift in the way Indonesia is governed, decided upon in direct response to restive populations in Aceh, Irian Jaya and Riau. The autonomy program, however, also encourages resentments and jealousies as it disenfranchises some local bureaucrats. Soon after the killing began in Kalimantan, police arrested three men for paying 20 million rupiah ($2,129) to incite violence between Dayaks and Madurese. Two of the men were civil servants appointed by Jakarta who had lost their jobs as part of the autonomy scheme.
To further understand the program's dangers on the ground, listen to Baharudin Isa, the half-Dayak regional secretary for Sampit. Sitting in the relative calm of his office a few hundred yards from the teeming mass of refugees camped around the regional administrative building, a visibly exhausted Baharudin describes what autonomy will mean in Kalimantan.
"There are 80,000 Madurese in our regency," he says in a hushed, almost quavering voice. "The Madurese are tough, a very tough people, and things that are sacred to the Dayaks have been violated. The only answer to this problem is for them all to go. Every single one. That's what the Dayaks want. Please, just go. Before, because we were one country, they used to come here freely without identity cards or anything, they could just come and settle. But now with regional autonomy, we will be our own masters and it will be a different arrangement."
Rather than preserving Indonesia's unity, the effect of the new laws may be widespread social splintering of the sort described in Sampit. According to Hans Vriens, who heads the Jakarta office of the Washington-based consultants Apco, which has completed a study of the autonomy program, the hastily implemented new system will leave a few resource-rich areas better off. But much of the rest of Indonesia will suffer from a precipitous drop in income. The result: economic chaos that could engender "a widespread breakdown in law and order," as well as an intensification of existing conflicts.
No need to tell that to Ma'rus, a dazed looking Madurese refugee cradling her 15-day-old baby beneath a stretched tarpaulin in Sampit. Her fellow refugees are squeezed into every bit of shade they can find within a few hundred meters of the regional government office building. None dare to stray any farther for fear of Dayak patrols conducting what they call "sweeping" exercises: they are searching for Madurese to murder. The hospital around the corner from the refugee camp is almost empty, a health official says, although hundreds of refugees need medical help. It isn't considered safe.
The baby was seven days old when Ma'rus fled into the jungle to escape Dayaks attacking her village, Serambut Besar. She stayed there for three days before gaining the courage to board a boat for a day's journey downriver to Sampit. Now her baby—it is a girl but as yet has no name, a domestic pleasure she can't yet contemplate—has a fever. Ma'rus doesn't have the strength to fight for a place on the government trucks bringing refugees to boats leaving for Java. This Tuesday morning, after five days in Sampit, she didn't even try, ignoring the shouts and sounds of blows as men fought to get away. It's just as well she didn't: she may not have survived the short truck ride. When the convoy rolled out, leaving Ma'rus and her daughter behind, it was escorted by squads from the Mobile Police Brigade, the national force's paramilitary troops. Despite the matte black M-16s they carry, the teenagers who make up the rank and file of the Brimob, as Indonesians call it, have a serious inferiority complex. In their gray and chocolate-colored uniforms, they resemble private security guards more than crack troops, something they are painfully conscious of, especially when they meet up with the real army. And when the trucks finally arrived at the gates of the port 3 km away, they encountered soldiers from Jakarta's elite Kostrad rapid deployment unit, recognizable by their smart green berets and camouflage uniforms.
There is a rivalry between the police and army, a divide deepened when the two were formally split by President Wahid last year. Last Tuesday in Sampit, in the midst of communal slaughter, the army and the mobile police renewed their internecine rivalry. Exactly how the shooting began remains unclear, but after a six-hour, armed standoff, two people had died and 10 were wounded, including the directorate head of Sampit's police, who was shot twice in the back and is still in critical condition. One of those killed was a Madurese refugee. So much for help from Jakarta.
The bloody confrontation between the police and the army—for 30 years the country's dominant institution—is depressingly symbolic of the chaos at the center of the nation. Since Suharto fell in 1998, Indonesia has been governed under a makeshift political system that is neither parliamentary nor presidential and in which the two halves are fighting for dominance. On Feb. 1, the parliament voted overwhelmingly to begin impeachment proceedings, a complex and untried process that is supposed to culminate some time before August.
Those who know the President say there is little likelihood he will resign—and that he might not even accept an impeachment. "He's the kind of person who can do no wrong in his own mind," says Fachry Ali, an old friend of the President and head of a Jakarta think tank, the Institute for Business Ethics. "He's very stubborn." The President, who has suffered three strokes and is blind, is getting stranger by the day, baffling even the likes of Fachry. "Everybody is confused," he says, "his aides, his ministers, everybody."
That attitude is producing a backlash at home. Students, enraged by Wahid's absence during the slaughter of the Madurese, have called for him to fly straight back from Saudi Arabia to Kalimantan. Otherwise, they've taunted, don't come back at all. Vice President Megawati Sukarnoputri made a conspicuous visit to the site of the massacres at Sampit.
It's a harrowing Indonesian truth that what happened in Sampit could be repeated tomorrow in scores of other places in the sprawling archipelago. Most immediately, it could spread to other parts of Kalimantan where the same communal tensions are simmering, notably in the oil-rich region of Balikpapan in the eastern part of the state.
For now, the killing appears to have halted and life is gradually returning to normal in Palangkaraya. Yet fear is still very much in the air. It's almost impossible to find a car in the city that doesn't fly a red ribbon or piece of cloth from its antenna or wing mirror, a sign of loyalty to the Dayak cause. Neighborhoods remain blocked by makeshift barricades of logs and stones.
What lies behind the appalling savagery of the Dayaks? It's a question that Kma Usop, a Dayak cultural leader and a professor at Palangkaraya University, strains to answer, his words pouring out in an emotional stream as he lights an unending series of Pall Mall cigarettes. "The Dayaks are in a panic, they are feeling marginalized. They have been provoked for many years. The Madurese are violent. They fight in the markets and in the farms. We don't have similar problems with the Buginese or Chinese or Javanese."
Economic rivalry is a factor. "The Madurese control all the small businesses, the trishaw drivers, the markets, the porters at the harbor," notes Baharudin, the Sampit official. Many of the Madurese competing for these lower rungs of the economy were recent immigrants, fleeing the poverty of their native Madura, desperate for work. At the site of the largest massacre, Parenggean, the town's main industry was controlled by the Madurese loggers. To make matters worse, a Forestry Department official says, the Madurese had persisted in logging forest that was sacred to the Dayaks. Now the sawmills in the town are quiet and rows of huge logs lie abandoned.
These economic tensions, added to the age-old stereotypes of the Madurese as clannish, threatening and rude, made it easy to roil the Dayaks. Combine that with the Dayak claim that all Madurese men carry knives which they are all too willing to use, and the Madurese become in Dayak eyes a perfect scapegoat for their woes. It is easier, after all, to blame the Madurese next door for Dayak problems than the central government in Jakarta.
But all the analysis in the world won't explain the ferocity that destroyed her world to Sunnayah, who sits in the Sampit refugee camp fingering a string of white plastic pearls around her neck. She is one of the lucky ones. Her husband is next to her along with her three girls, Kirin, Ati and Fitriani. "I just can't understand it. Why they would do this? We were neighbors. I was born here. My parents were born here."
Professor Kma Usop struggles again to explain the beheadings, the cutting out of victim's hearts, the slaughter of children and babies. "They are in a trance, possessed by something. Why did it manifest itself in such a form? They saw something evil and in our culture you must destroy evil, so they take down the swords and spears hanging on the walls and revert to the ways of our grandfathers."
To Sunnayah and the other Madurese, that's not enough. Perhaps there's no other explanation than the simple word mentioned by professor Kma Usop: evil. If Indonesia continues to unravel, that simple word may become all too familiar.