Joking killers show off enemy's severed head

Renewed ethnic cleansing flares up against migrants to Borneo
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THE TWO Malay boys on the motorbike raced by too fast. They were shrieking and waving something round and heavy-looking, although it was impossible to be see exactly what. Two miles down the road, though, there was no doubt.

A crowd of men, perhaps 150 of them, milled around outside a mosque, carrying pitchforks, spears and machetes. Many had painted faces and wore bright headbands of yellow or red. Their attention was on a thing balanced on an oil drum, and they smiled and nudged one another, alternately proud and coy, when the foreigners drew up and got out of their cars.

A brief negotiation followed: there could be no photographs, or filming. Even note-taking was frowned upon, although the details are not ones I am ever likely to forget. Then we were led to the oil drum where the thing sat, wrapped in an elegant green cloth. A fat man in a T-shirt and yellow headband unwrapped it delicately. We all knew what would be inside.

It was the head of a man in his 40s or 50s, his eyes half-open, his dark skin turning grey. His end must have been a hideously messy one: there was an open gash on his cheek and a deeper one beneath his lip. Through his nose someone had twisted a cruel metal hook. A laugh went up, as a lighted cigarette was pushed between his lips. The boys tweaked his face, and patted his head; women came up to stare at him with curious expressions. Later I saw a man with a machete carving the head like a roast joint and passing pieces of scalp around as souvenirs.

The wounds were bloodless and clean, and a man who introduced himself in English as the local schoolmaster explained that the victim had died that morning. The dead man was Ali Wafa, and he was a kyai, or local Muslim preacher from the nearby village of Semparu. But there was no religious motive in his murder; his killers were indigenous Dayak Christians and Muslims of the Malay race. Ali Wafa, they said, was "an evil man", "a bastard"; but he died because he was a Madurese, a descendant of settlers from an island a few hundred miles from this corner of Indonesian Borneo.

Thirteen thousand Madurese have fled villages like this one in the past few days. Yesterday in the regional capital, Pontianak, they were arriving by the truck load at makeshift refugee centres quite incapable of feeding them. By the official count, 64 people have died here, but that does not include Ali Wafa and unknown numbers like him whose bodies have never been officially recovered or identified.

The participants refer to this vicious conflict as a war, but it is more like an intense campaign of ethnic cleansing. A few miles out of Singkawang, a seaside town north of Pontianak, is a military checkpoint - bored-looking soldiers wave cars through with scarcely a glance inside. Beyond this, law and order ends. The checkpoints are manned by Dayaks and Malays wearing red and yellow headbands respectively, and columns of smoke rise out of the distant jungle. Where the Madurese once lived are scores of burnt- out buildings. The wooden frames and plaster walls burn easily - for all these people share poor, simple lives, untouched by the timber and mineral wealth extracted by rich corporations in Jakarta. What divides them is culture. Madura, where the victims come from, is something like the Sicily of Indonesia: a dry, barren island close to Bali whose people have a reputation for coarseness, violence, and an uncompromising form of Islam. For decades they have migrated to more fertile islands where they become the neighbours that nobody wants.

The Dayaks are the original inhabitants of Borneo, who became famous in the 19th century as the typical Victorian "savage". For thousands of years, before the arrival of Dutch and British colonists, they dominated Borneo. Violence between the Dayaks and Madurese has simmered for years - in 1997 up to 3,000 people died in similar conflict, many of them Madurese hunted down, beheaded and cannibalised.

What is new this time is the participation of two of west Borneo's other ethnic groups: the Malays and Buginese, who have lived here for centuries, and in relative harmony, as traders, fishermen and sailors. When you see the refugee camps of Pontianak, where the children sit in silent huddles, it is hard to understand the hatred which the Madurese provoke in these people. But it is implacable. "These were once Malay fields," said one Malay boy yesterday, "but the Madurese always take them over. When they use force, our dignity rises up. We take our heart's revenge, and we don't want them back. We don't want them here."

Two years ago, before the other races took up arms, the headhunting and cannibalism expressed itself in magical terms. Dayak war-parties invoked the spirits of war and went into battle in a trance. As borrowed by their Malay comrades, however, the ancient practices have degenerated into pure sadistic butchery.I met a young man carrying a small, bulging plastic bag; "bread" was his answer when I asked what was inside. But the bag dripped blood, and a few moments later I saw him showing off its contents: the chopped, dark, internal organs of a dead Madurese.

So far at least, the Indonesian authorities have appeared indifferent. I saw policemen shaking hands and joking with men who only a few minutes before had been handing out portions of human scalp. Reinforcements from Jakarta were said to be on their way, but they may be too late for the few Madurese who remain in the area.

Yesterday afternoon, as dusk came on, the boys with the head were preparing to put it aside and organise for the night's business: an attack on one of the few remaining Madurese villages, across a river a short distance away. A war-party was being organised, with one aim in mind. If all went to plan they will have fresh heads to play with this morning.