Island at war with home-made arms

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The Independent Online
THE neighbourhood where Theo Besulima lives, on the slopes of a jungly hill on the outskirts of Ambon, is the Spice Islands' equivalent of Acacia Gardens: a trim, middle-class area inhabited by civil servants, teachers and white-collar workers. Teenagers slouch on the verandas, and little children play in front of the wood-and-plaster houses. There is a small Protestant church and a neat graveyard, and goats munch the grass at the sides of the roads.

But these are remarkable times in Ambon, the latest corner of the vast Indonesian archipelago to erupt in violence; and in Theo's area, as in neighbourhoods all over the island, all is not as it seems. Behind their whitewashed walls many of the houses are miniature armouries of blades, spikes and firearms.

Theo (not his real name) displays his own collection, in a front room decorated with a portrait of Jesus and vases of flowers. The parang, or long machete, made by Dayak tribesmen on the island of Borneo, is nonchalantly propped in the umbrella rack. Then there is the home-made catapult with metal darts, and the two home-made spears, one for throwing, one for jabbing. But pride of place goes to the home-made shotgun, a fearful assemblage of wood, wires and metal.

"Everybody is preparing, all over the island," says Theo, a university student. "In every house you will find at least a parang, and probably a spear or bows and arrows, maybe home-made guns and bombs. They are all waiting for the next war."

This is a Christian area, but Ambon's Muslims are amassing similar armouries, and the hospitals as well as the mortuaries are busy processing the victims. At the Protestant Church of Maluku Hospital, nurses have treated patients wounded by parangs, pitchforks and arrows, as well as by bullets - yesterday morning alone, one man was killed and a dozen others injured when the occupants of two cars opened fire on a Christian crowd with automatic rifles.

But, outside the military, guns are hard to come by in Indonesia, and in the six weeks since Ambon's Christians and Muslims began killing one another without warning, the warring sides have had to rely on more traditional weapons. Theo's spears are simple enough: aluminium poles filed or welded to sharp points. The darts he made with metalworking equipment. The tips bear green traces of a poisonous paste. The darts are propelled by a catapult made from a piece of wood and a rubber inner tube. But the most elaborate preparations go into the manufacture of firearms.

The people of Maluku province, formerly the Moluccas or Spice Islands, are famous as bomb fishers; many of the coral reefs have been ruined by the explosions which stun the fish so they can be harvested from the surface. Theo's gun, borrowed from a neighbour, uses the same kind of home-made gunpowder: a mixture of broken glass, lumps of metal and the heads of many matches.

These are compacted into a metal tube, open at one end, and with a light- bulb filament buried at the other. The tube is inserted into another mounted on a stock carved from tropical ironwood with a wired-up AA battery in one side. The trigger is an electrical contact: with everything wired up, the current from the battery heats the filaments in the firing tube, igniting the contents which flare forth in a hail of glass, metal and heat.

Use a bigger tube - such as part of a metal telegraph pole - and you have a bazooka. By sealing both ends of the tube you create powerful bombs, which have started fires in houses, churches, and mosques all over Ambon.

"A friend of mine was killed when they were making a bomb," says Theo. "They were pressing down the sulphur from the matches too hard - he was holding it in front of his face and it exploded."

Everyone you talk to on both sides in this war says they are not looking for trouble. "If there is an attack I will use this," says Theo, twanging his catapult, "but Muslims and Christians still live side by side here and we have had no big trouble."

But in other parts of Ambon, the distinction between defence and pre- emptive attack is now blurred. Last week Muslim leaders in Jakarta called for a jihad, or holy war, to defend their brethren in Ambon.

A few weeks ago, in Theo's neighbourhood, the local priest held an unusual ceremony, blessing a large font of holy water. Thousands of local men passed through the church, carrying their arms. Theo brought his parang and his spear, and sprinkled the holy water over them, just in case.