Frontline: Ambon, Indonesia: Religious strife wakes ghost of Nenek Luhu

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DRIVE UP the mountain above Ambon, and after half an hour you come to the village of Soya Atas where breezes take the edge off the heat, and where nothing seems less likely than the killing and terror in the town below. In Ambon, Christians and Muslims have burnt out one another's places of worship; but in Soya, the old cream-coloured church still sits peacefully in the square beneath its newly restored roof. Down below, people stay indoors and taxi drivers are afraid to work after dark.

Up here though, children play in front of the neat, old wooden houses, and idle along the path up to the peak. But however tranquil it may appear now, Soya is on a frontline of its own - a place of supernatural, rather than physical, confrontation.

Ruben Rehatta, the raja of Soya, is reluctant to discuss it at first, but happy to talk about the history of this ancient area. Centuries ago, before the arrival of Europeans, the small island of Ambon was a kingdom and Soya was its heart. Political power has long leaked away - despite his grandiose title, Raja Rehatta is officially little more than just another village head. But spiritually, and despite the presence of Christianity, this is still the richest, most powerful and most dangerous part of the island, the home of Ambon's most famous and potent ghost, Nenek Luhu.

"Nenek Luhu," says the raja. "How do you know about Nenek Luhu?" I read him the brief passage from my guidebook and he chuckles at its inaccuracy. Long, long ago, he explains, Nenek was the seventh daughter of Soya's then raja, and the most beautiful maiden in the kingdom. Somebody fell in love with her - perhaps a young Dutch official of the colonial government.

Whoever he was, the affair was opposed by Nenek's father. As is the way in such tales, she died of a broken heart. Ever since, locals have seen the ghostly figure of a woman - sometimes young and comely, sometimes old and grief-stricken - wandering the fringes of the village. And people have disappeared.

Max Manuputty, a civil servant in the Culture Ministry, says his father's grandmother met Nenek Luhu and conversed with her as they walked between two villages. Raja Rehatta admits that his own mother had the same experience. "She was looking up at the church, and she had hair like gold." During colonial times, a prominent Dutch official named Limburg Stirum was visiting from the capital, Batavia, and vanished during a stay in Soya. For three days, so the story goes, the population was mobilised in a desperate search. He was found, in an area that had been covered several times before, sunk into a deep trance. Only when the raja of that time gave him water from a sacred well did he return to himself.

Ambonese children are taught to be careful in Soya, or face painful consequences. "You should never throw stones into the jungle," says the raja, "and when you've finished washing you have to be careful where you pour the water." Forty years ago, one visitor from the town was stricken with a hideously swollen scrotum. It seems that he was taken short and relieved himself in the jungle - right on top of the tree where the spirit of Nene Luhu was invisibly resting.

One of the strangest cases happened just last year when an anxious couple approached the raja. They were the parents of a little boy named Maxel who had disappeared. In increasing desperation, the mother had engaged the services of a medium. The man had entered a trance, and become possessed by the spirit and voice of a forceful old woman.

She said she became angry with Maxel after his playing disturbed her, but he was safe and his parents could be reunited with him if they followed a precise set of instructions. The first step was to find a man named Ruben Rehatta, in Soya. "They turned up and said, `You don't know us, but we have a message from Nenek Luhu'," remembers Mr Rehatta. "Well I could hardly believe it. I was scared."

The three of them drove as instructed to the town's naval base. They entered it by a certain gate, and searched out an old wartime pillbox built by the Japanese. They carried with them a broom, tobacco and betelnut. Maxel's mother prayed. They entered the abandoned pillbox. There was no one there.

At exactly that moment, Maxel's aunt was in the bus terminal in town when she felt a tap on the arm. It was the little boy, confused about what had happened to him, but none the worse for the experience. "Except," recalls the raja, "whenever he took a poo, it smelled very bad."

That was more than a year ago. Nenek wasn't seen again until recently, after the religious killings began in the town and two Christian boys from a nearby village died in a fight with Muslims. That night the ghost was seen again, in the guise of an old, old woman, walking in the dark as if seeking something. "What are you doing out so late?" they asked her, not realising who it was. The woman turned to them and said: "I'm looking for my sons."

Richard Lloyd Parry