Brutality of Borneo's smiling killers

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EVEN FROM 50 miles away, it was obvious that something awful was happening in Sambas. Our driver had heard the rumours early in the morning, and refused to leave the hotel. In the town of Sinkawang, where we were staying, the shops were closed and shuttered up, although Sambas was more than an hour's drive away. People we met fell into two categories: those who would never be induced to go near the place, and those who could not get there fast enough.

The former were drivers, shopkeepers, the women working in the hotel - they stayed inside, or timidly went about their errands. The latter were all men - armed and dressed for war, piled into trucks, clinging to the roofs of minibuses, and waving at us as they drove by, shouting: "Sambas! Sambas!", and pointing up the road - the only road in this remote north-western corner of Indonesian Borneo.

There was almost no other normal traffic, and it thinned out completely the further north we drove. Just as on the previous day, there were fires burning in the abandoned villages, and 10 minutes from Sambas we could see great billows of smoke rising up a few miles away.

The town itself was deserted, although a fire burnt in the market place. At a T-junction we came upon a massed group of men, perhaps from one of the trucks that had passed us earlier. They wore yellow and red bandannas and T-shirts, and carried spears, guns and machetes. They waved down our four-wheel-drive, and the morning's horrors began.

From the direction of the smoke, a man rode up on a motorcycle. His jacket and trousers were wet with blood, but when he saw us he spoke words of welcome. "We don't care about your race," he said. "We don't care about your religion. Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Dayak, Malay, Chinese or Bugi - all are welcome here. We just don't want Madurese. All of the Madurese must leave." He held up an object threaded on to a piece of string around his neck. It was a human ear.

There are two things that make this conflict such a baffling and disturbing one, and the first and most striking is its brutal savagery. In the past week at least 73 people have been killed in this area, the Indonesian province of West Kalimantan. A few may have died in their burning houses, but most have been killed in cold blood with blade, spear or bullet. After death (one prays that it was afterwards) their bodies had been viciously mutilated.

But the second mystery is why all this is going on - for, to the unaccustomed foreign eye, there is little difference between the perpetrators of this horrifying violence and its victims.

Unlike the conflict between Christians and Muslims still smouldering on the island of Ambon, this is nothing to do with religion, and it has no obvious political overtones. Apart from West Kalimantan's large ethnic Chinese population, its people have few obvious physical differences. Instead, this is a war about land and culture, and the enormous social and economic tensions that strain against one another beneath the surface of this vast country.

The victims are Muslim settlers from Madura, a dry island off the east coast of Java, whose people are famous for their tough and sometimes brutal code of honour. For decades they have migrated from their barren home to the lush forests of Borneo, and trouble has frequently followed. The island's other inhabitants accused them of thuggishness and the theft of land, although it is hard to know whether the grievance is genuine or whether the Madurese are another victim of ethnic scapegoating. Two years ago, as many as 3,000 Madurese were beheaded and cannibalised by Dayaks living inland from here. Now the sentiment has spread to Borneo's other ethnic groups the Malays, the Buginese from Sulawesi, and the Chinese.

For all the brutality, this is more than just a battle between young thugs. Over the weekend, I met teachers, civil servants and tourist guides, all of them actively in sympathy with the killings. The security forces are playing a role which is, at best, passive, at worst collusive. Yesterday we were waved through three military checkpoints manned by armed soldiers doing nothing to protect the Madurese in Sambas. But the territory is so vast, and their numbers so few, that there is probably very little that they can do.

The attack on Sambas involved at least 1,000 people. By the time we arrived the worst of it was over, and attention was focused on the burning Madurese houses, which cast a fierce heat over the sandy road. Trucks were bringing in bottles of water and packets of noodles for the attackers, who sat around, cheerily waving as we passed by.

Two of the Madurese had been killed, we were told, but the rest had escaped into the jungle. In the distance we could hear gunshots from the hunting parties sent in to track them down.

One laughing man produced a severed human arm and happily posed with it for photographs. You expect to feel afraid on such occasions but actually they are banal. The killers were smiling, pleased to see us and keen to show off their trophies. What do you say when a young man approaches and politely offers you a lump of human heart?

We drove back through the town market where a charred human femur lay on the road among the ambers of a fire. A Dayak man approached, holding a lump of what he said was human meat. He popped it into his mouth and chewed expressionlessly. I asked him the first thing that came into my head, and he said: "Delicious."