‘If I say I am Christian, maybe I’ll be murdered. I say I’m Muslim, maybe I’ll be murdered’

Posted March 19, 2019 09:30:03

Martince Baleona was living in the forest with her two infant children, eating nothing but leaves and plants, when she was intercepted by a group of armed men.

They demanded to know her religion.

She froze. The answer could cost her her life.

“In that moment, my only hope was for my children,” Martince, now 48, says.

“I thought, if I say that I am Christian, maybe I’ll be murdered. And if I say I’m Muslim, maybe I’ll be murdered.

“So we kept quiet.”

Violence and vigilantes

It was 2000, and the peak of a nine-year religious conflict in Poso, in the remote Indonesian province of Central Sulawesi.

Conflict had broken out in 1998, as political instability in Jakarta fuelled local political and religious rivalries.

Christians, Muslims and Hindus who had lived side by side for more than a century turned against each other.

Men on all sides became machete-wielding vigilantes. Homemade bombs were detonated in market places. A massacre at a Muslim boarding school left 165 people dead. Entire villages went up in flames.

Like many others, Martince fled to the forest to escape violent vigilante groups hunting down families.

She and her two children had been there for three months when they encountered the militia.

They only narrowly escaped — thanks, Martince believes, to her daughter’s earrings, which were shaped like Christian crosses.

“That’s what saved us,” Martince says.

“I thought, the group must be Christians, because they hadn’t killed us.”

It wasn’t the only conflict of its kind at the time; the resignation of president Suharto after three decades of authoritarian rule had triggered unrest across the archipelago nation.

But Poso was the most protracted conflict; fighting continued until around 2007.

Since then, the area has become known as a hotbed of terrorism.

Poso was the first place an Indonesian pledged allegiance to the Islamic State terrorist group, and extremists still camp in its hills.

Women meeting across religious divide

Now, Martince is helping lead the charge against hatred.

She is a leader at a grassroots women’s school that brings Muslims, Hindus and Christians together to talk.

These difficult conversations have culminated in the establishment of a local market that welcomes women of all faiths.

As the first rays of sun peek over rice paddies, the women stand side by side selling produce from their gardens.

By 5:00am, vegetables sell out and the women chat over cups of sweet coffee, homemade cakes and fried banana.

It’s taken all the courage and forgiveness they can muster to mingle like this — but they are united by their experience of conflict.

“Muslims had their homes burned and property destroyed, and so did Christians,” Martince says.

The Mosintuwu women’s school was established by Poso native Lian Gogali, a researcher who interviewed hundreds of women during the conflict.

She found that women were the first to build bridges across religious lines, in spite of fear, as a matter of survival.

Meanwhile, she says, “men are just thinking ‘how can we kill each other, how can we fight'”.

Since it was first established in 2009, more than 500 women from 80 local villages have attended the school.

Two-hundred of them have gone on to assume leadership positions that are usually reserved for men.

Martince is now involved in regional governance.

“In the women’s school, I just ask them to question,” she explains, “and to be curious.”

Stopping history from repeating

The women’s school is fostering forgiveness, but peace in Poso is fragile and wounds are still close to the surface.

“People outside always think the only problem we are dealing with is terrorism, or imagine that Muslims and Christians here are killing each other,” Lian says.

“The real problem here is natural resources.

“They need to worry [about] how our land is taken over by companies, and religion is manipulated to make us fight each other.”

The mountains of Poso are rich in deposits of gold, nickel and gas.

According to Poso-based historian Asyer Tandapai, the conflict was triggered by political rivalries, but was then fuelled by economic interests.

“The conflict was maintained to put pressure on the community to move away from mining areas,” he says.

Lian believes there’s a risk that history may repeat itself.

Like many Poso people, she lives on the edge of the vast Lake Poso, a culturally significant site that is home to 11 endemic fish species, and supports local livelihoods.

Current plans to excavate the lake for hydroelectric power put that at risk.

PT Poso Energy argues that “the country’s power needs are insatiable, and unfortunately, scarcely fulfilled” by existing government infrastructure.

It says the hydropower project will drive economic growth in the region.

But not everyone agrees.

Fishers, farmers, religious and community leaders have united against the plan, but they face a serious challenge: PT Poso Energy is owned by the family of Indonesia’s Vice-President.

“The real fight for us now, for peace and justice, is how can we have our rights for land, for water, and for human rights,” Lian says.

The women’s school sits on the edge of the lake.

While its first priority is healing the wounds of the past, the second is to create female leaders and economic independence.

And with their influence growing, the women hope to help communities resist division into the future.

Topics: religion-and-beliefs, community-and-society, women, women-religious, government-and-politics, unrest-conflict-and-war, sulawesi, indonesia, asia

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