Slain for being young and Christian

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The Independent Online
IT WAS curiosity that drove Johannes Pattirane to go to where the bodies had been brought, for at that time he had no idea Marlen had gone missing. It was early yesterday morning, and Johannes was at his office in the town of Ambon when he heard about the deaths, the latest in six weeks of bitter religious conflict. A young man and a young woman - a couple, they said - had been found dumped by the side of a jungle road on the outskirts of town.

"I wondered who it was and I went to have a look," he says. "I couldn't believe it."

Lying in the back of a police car were Marlen Sitanola, Johannes's cousin, and her fiance, Lucas Palioma. Their throats had been cut and their ears severed, but the bodies were not stiff, and the wounds were still bleeding. It was 8.30am.

Marlen was 32 years old, and one of the youngest law lecturers at Ambon's Pattimura University. Now, a few feet from where Johannes sits talking in her parents' village home, her students are arriving to see her for the last time. Her body is covered with a towel; her long hair masks the wounds across her throat and her absent right ear. The air in the room is filled with the pungent smell of the embalming fluid, but it is not this which is making the young women weep.

Their families know everything and nothing about what happened to Marlen and Lucas for, while the terrible details of their deaths will probably never be known, the underlying causes are obvious to everyone. They were last seen on Monday, departing by motorbike from Lucas's home on the other side of the island. They were a couple with no enemies, no risky political or business interests, and no possessions worth killing for. But they were locally born, native Ambonese and that alone told their killers as much as they needed to know.

"Marlen was a typical, dark Ambonese type," says one friend. "You could look at her face and tell what religion she was, and that was why she died. She was a Christian - almost all the Ambonese are Christians - and it was Muslims who killed her."

Six weeks ago, this would have been unthinkable in Ambon, the capital of Maluku province, the archipelago within an archipelago which the Dutch colonists called the Spice Islands. The rebellious provinces of East Timor or Aceh, the campuses of Jakarta - these are Indonesia's pressure valves, where the pain of economic collapse and the frustration of partial freedom from dictatorship find violent release. From the air, Ambon still earns its colonial title, "The Queen of the East" - low mountains covered with jungle, floating on the tropical Banda Sea. It is a short-lived idyll: Ambon's plight becomes obvious almost as soon as you get out of the airport.

Five minutes along the coastal road, burned out houses and cars are visible, the homes of Muslims driven out permanently by their Christian neighbours. As the taxi approaches the town of Ambon itself, the driver refuses to go on without what is referred to as "security". Security comes in a khaki uniform and carries a rifle: in the space of four hours yesterday afternoon, I hired three Indonesian soldiers, armed with combat knives and automatic rifles, to sit in the front seat of hired vehicles. Every other driver on the road seemed to be doing the same, at a price of about pounds 7 per soldier per day.

The origins of Ambon's conflicts are obscure, but everyone agrees when it began: on 19 January, a Tuesday. The most commonly related story tells of an argument between a mini-bus driver - a Christian - and a Muslim passenger. After that everything depends on the religion of the person you are talking to. What is certain is that the rioting which began that day inAmbon town, spread with eerie speed throughout the island, which is only 35 miles long and 10 miles across at its widest point. For nearly a week Ambon was closed to the outside world, as the numbers of reported deaths steadily rose. There was a lull and then the violence flared again in February, and again last weekend. The consensus among local reporters is that more than 200 have died.

During the day, normal life is impossible; and at night, fear guarantees a voluntary curfew. Parties of local people, Muslim and Christian, stop cars at makeshift road blocks. Those of the wrong religion are sent back, or worse. The vigilantes carry pistols, bows and poison-tipped arrows, aluminium poles sharpened to spears, and home-made bombs - a speciality of the islands, whose fishermen use them to stun and collect fish above the coral reefs.

Thousands of people, many of them Muslim immigrants from elsewhere in Indonesia, have fled their homes and jobs to live with relatives on other islands. The frequent, but unpredictable, street disturbances close the island's few roads; shops and businesses are often forced to shut. Economic activity is fitful, and cloves, nutmegs and mace which gave the Spice Islands their name cannot be shifted off the island.

For all the confusion, everyone agrees on one thing: that no blame whatsoever can be attached to members of their own religion. "This is the difference between Christians and Muslims," says Johannes Pattirane. "Christians turn the other cheek: we only react when we are attacked." But a few miles away there are Muslims saying the same thing, with equal grief and conviction.

On Monday, at least three of them were killed, allegedly by Christian policemen, after a riot provoked by Christians stoning a mosque. It was in retaliation for this incident that Marlen and Lucas were butchered.

Whether peace comes fast or slow, it is hard to imagine that Ambon can ever be the same again. "I'm losing and forgiving too much," says another of Marlen's cousins, Nan Maatita. "I lost my house, and I forgave the men who burned it, and now I have lost my cousin. But that is too much to forgive. Too much. This is enough."