They were a middle-aged couple, a few years younger than my own parents. Their ears and lips had been shaved off with machetes, giving them a snarling, sub-human look. The wife's nose had also been removed, and a cigarette had been pressed into the cavity. Her eyes were clenched tight shut, and above them an atrocious wound had been cut deep into her forehead. Why did I take photographs of the heads, knowing perfectly well that no newspaper could ever print them? Was it really in order to document the event and gather evidence? Or were there baser, more prurient motives?
I have never worked in such conditions before, and nor has anyone I know. The experience produces two contradictory reactions. The first is relief, along with secret pride, in finding oneself able to confront horror without being overcome by fear or nausea. The second reaction takes the form of troubling questions which nag at you at odd moments. Why am I not more upset by this? What is wrong with me? I don't know what to call such an emotion, but it is something close to shame.
Two years ago, when a similar war broke out between the Dayaks of Borneo and the hated settlers from the island of Madura, few people outside the island realised the scale of what had happened. I visited Borneo more than three months later and spent a week searching for evidence of cannibalism and headhunting. I found several witnesses, some grisly photographs, and a few skeletons in the jungle, but not the proof that I secretly knew I was looking for.
Afterwards, I wrote two long newspaper articles and a 30-page magazine account - 20,000 words altogether - all about failing to find a severed head. In the past six days I have seen seven of them, along with a severed ear, two arms, numerous pieces of heart and liver, and a dismembered torso being cooked over a fire by the side of the road - and I find myself at a loss over what to say. The most devastating thing about cannibalism and headhunting is not the fear and the blood, but the terrible, profound banality.
There were 2,000 Madurese living in the area around the village of Montrado when the violence erupted after the murder of a Dayak boy last Tuesday. Along the coast, killings had been going on for a month, and more than 10,000 people were evacuated. But, unlike those who lived close to the main road, there was little chance for the inlanders to evacuate, and their only choice was to flee into the jungle in the hope of reaching the town of Singkawang.
This is one of the most isolated parts of Indonesia, but the narrow roads through it are thronging with people, Dayak warriors gathered from scattered parts of West Kalimantan. Every 200 yards you come across another road- block or a patrol, and you have to slow down and hand out cigarettes, and reassure them that there are indeed no fleeing Madurese in this car.
An hour or so after seeing the heads, just after the human barbecue, we are waved down by a group of young warriors on the road. My Dayak friend is nervous. The local leaders and civil servants - Christians, like almost all their people - know that they have lost all control here and are wary of squandering what little authority remains to them. A few minutes earlier, I had found myself parting with a 10,000 rupiah bill (about 75p), a "loan" as it was called, to a tall young man carrying a transparent bag of liver tied to his belt. Now, as our Jeep slows, another warrior opens the door, smiles apologetically and jumps into the back. Great, I think to myself. First, I gave a cannibal a tip - now I am giving them taxi rides.
Our cannibal is a teenager. He is shirtless and wears neat denim jeans and worn trainers. In his hand he carries a sheathed mandau, a hacking machete, with a red-painted handle carved into the shape of a horse. It appears to be brand new, the kind of thing you would buy from a tourist craft shop. When the Dayaks are on the trail of a flagging victim, they wail out "Woo-woo-woo-woo-woo!" like Apaches in a western movie. My new friend looks like nothing so much as the participant in a giant game of cowboys and Indians.
He is chattering with excitement about the things he has seen and done. He tells us that the man whom they are cooking on the road was caught this morning. "We killed it and we ate it," he says, "because we hate the Madurese." He has taken part in four killings himself. "Mostly we shoot them first, and then we chop the body. It tastes just like chicken. Especially the liver - just the same as chicken."
I tell him about the conversation I had earlier with a village chief, who saw the heads of several children, including two babies, but he shakes his head and laughs. "We don't kill babies! If we find a baby we give to other people. In fact we found a kid and a baby and we saved them."
"How old does someone have to be before you will kill them?" I ask.
"Around 13 or 15," he says.
"Why do you kill them? Why don't you just send them all away?"
"Because we hate them."
Twenty minutes down the road, he gets out at his village. He is bubblingly grateful. We have saved him a long walk at the end of a long, exciting day. Our driver, a garrulous Christian from the island of Flores who has lived around here for years and seems to know everyone, speaks up. "You know, I've been all over this country - to Sumatra, to Java, all over eastern Indonesia," he says, "and these people - they're the nicest, the friendliest, the best. There's no one like them."
He is perfectly serious, and what he says is true. There can't be any doubt that this is evil in its most bestial form, a 20th-century heart of darkness. But these are not evil people, and this is not an evil place.
Borneo is the world's second-biggest island. It is a rich, equatorial land of forests, gold mines and plantations, but the people who live here are poor. The Dayaks are its original inhabitants, a scattered collection of different tribes who have lived in Borneo for thousands of years, dwelling in communal houses, practising a form of animism, and surviving by hunting and by slash-and-burn agriculture. Dayak warriors increased their prestige and brought good luck to their villages by collecting the heads of rival tribes in highly ritualised, set-piece raids. Certain of the victims' organs, including the heart, brains and blood, were believed to bestow potency on those who consumed them, and the heads were preserved and worshipped in elaborate rituals.
Borneo's coastal areas are dominated by Muslim people called Malays, although the majority of them are ethnic Dayaks whose conversion to Islam began in the 15th century. Over the centuries, and especially in the 20th, other races have settled to form sizeable communities from all over the vast Republic of Indonesia - Chinese, Javanese, Sudanese, and Bugis from the island of Sulawesi. Then there are the Madurese.
What is it about the Madurese?
They come from a small, dry, barren island off the east coast of Java and, throughout Indonesia, they are frankly reviled. Two beliefs in particular are almost universal. The first is that Madurese women, for reasons too technical to decently explain here, are exceptionally gifted lovers. The second is that the Madurese character makes them impossible to live with. According to this view they are clannish, aggressive and predatory. By tradition, Madurese men carry curved rice-sickles, called cilurit, which they use at the slightest provocation.
"They cannot exist peacefully alongside others," a Chinese friend said to me. "Madurese just love to fight and steal." Hearing this often enough, you begin to believe it. But it also sounds unpleasantly like the kind of consensus that has built up at various times about Romany gypsies, or about Jews.
I have never got to know a Madurese. But Borneo's other people, like most Indonesians, are indeed kind and welcoming folk. All over the island, and for decades, mining and plantation companies from Jakarta have seized land which, for thousands of years, they have regarded as their own. Under Indonesian law, any land for which there is no written title belongs by default to the government. The Indonesian word that you hear over and over again is "adat", usually translated as "traditional law". It is adat which is violated when somebody steals durians from the tree that has always belonged to your ancestors, or waves a sickle at you when you remonstrate with him. "In the eyes of Dayaks," a Catholic Dayak teacher said, "when people do not respect our adat, they become enemies, and we don't consider our enemies to be human any more. They become animals in our eyes. And the Dayaks eat animals."
But who would do this, even to an animal? Decapitation and cannibalism are deeply symbolic practices, the ultimate humiliation of a defeated enemy. Cut someone's head off and you reduce him to a pantomime mask. This is the point about severed heads - they don't look fearful so much as comical, like Hallowe'en pumpkins. After dropping off my cannibal, I drove back to the town's hotel where a number of journalists sat in the bar - cameramen who had spent the day taking pictures that will never be printed, and reporters with notebooks full of events they will never properly be able to explain.Reuse content