Headhunting returns to the

Richard Lloyd Parry witnesses the ethnic horrors in Kalimantan

The jungle makes quick work of flesh, and it is four months since these were human beings. But human they still recognisably are - beneath the encroaching undergrowth, and the artificial fibres of the cheap clothes, are arms, legs and vertebrae.

Here, jutting out of a pair of stained shorts, is a pelvis, and above it, a nest of curved ribs. There are five skeletons and their clothes show that all were women. Only one thing is missing: none of the skeletons have skulls. And, according to the rubber tappers who brought us here, there was something else strange about these bodies, before the jungle gnawed their flesh away. Apart from the absence of heads, each had deep wounds through which their hearts had been removed.

A few minutes of hacking through the jungle leads to a pair of skulls beneath a tree, along with traces of baby clothes. Five minutes further on, just off the road leading into the small town of Salatiga, is the settlement where these people might once have lived. The small tin-roofed mosque is untouched, but around it is a scene of devastation: house after house - simple wood and plaster bungalows, once the homes of migrant farmers, rubber tappers and gold prospectors - has been reduced to charred beams, molten glass and corrugated iron.

The destruction is eerily selective. Further down the road one house stands untouched amid a neighbourhood of ruins. In the centre of Salatiga itself, the town goes peacefully about its business. Customers shelter from the sun at a little restaurant, and a fruit truck is loaded with ripe durians. On the other side of the road, facing this picturesque activity, is a burned black expanse, where some 30 houses must once have stood.

Such incongruous scenes are repeated all along this road which links Pontianak, the capital of Indonesia's West Kalimantan province, with the inner reaches of Borneo, one of the world's biggest and most impenetrable islands. Even now Salatiga, along with dozens of even more obscure settlements, looks like the scene of a recent war. But four months ago, according to local people interviewed last week by The Independent, the situation was even more shocking.

Headless, mutilated bodies of men, women and even children lay alongside the road. Skeletons sprawled in the ruins of the smoking houses. Gangs of local Dayak tribesmen, wearing T-shirts and war paint, carrying spears and swords as well as rifles, patrolled the jungle, hunting down the fugitive remnants of the Madurese settlers whose houses they had torched. Those whom they did catch up with, like the wretched women now lying in the jungle, were shot or stabbed, and then decapitated. Then, according to witnesses, their hearts were pulled from their warm bodies and eaten.

Such accounts, along with these photographs obtained by The Independent from a local amateur photographer, represent the first firm evidence of what until now has been little more than shocking rumour: an ethnic war, of scarcely imaginable savagery, in Indonesia, one of Asia's most powerful economies and the fourth largest nation in the world.

It has claimed hundreds, perhaps thousands of lives, and made thousands more homeless. For the government in Jakarta, which virtually denies its existence, it is a nightmare in a country of 200 million people and 300 ethnic groups, founded on the motto, "Unity in Diversity".

Weirdest of all, it demonstrates the extraordinary survival of tribal traditions which were assumed to have died out generations ago. Apart from its human cost, this is a war terrifying in its atavism, fought according to ancient and merciless traditions of head hunting, cannibalism and witchcraft, just a couple of hours' drive from a modern city of banks, airlines and hotels.

The warring parties are two of Indonesia's diverse ethnic groups: the Dayaks and the Madurese. The Dayaks are the original inhabitants of Borneo, infamous during the 19th century as the archetypal Victorian "savages". For thousands of years, before the arrival of Dutch and British colonists, they dominated Borneo, a scattered collection of tribes who lived in communal longhouses, practised a form of animism, and survived by hunting, and by slash and burn agriculture.

More sensational, to the Victorian mind, was the habitamong Dayak men of driving metal pins through their penises. Dayak warriors increased their prestige, and brought good luck to their villages, by collecting the heads of rival tribes in ritualised, set-piece raids. The victim'sheart, brains, and blood were believed to bestow potency on those who consumed them, and the heads were preserved and worshiped.

The Dayaks' bloodier traditions were outlawed by the Christian colonists and, since the defeat of the Japanese in 1945, they have been full citizens of the Republic of Indonesia. Today Dayaks keep their penis pins hidden beneath jeans and T-shirts. Most longhouses have been replaced by simple homes of wood and plaster. Every community has at least one church, but despite their superficial modernisation, belief in spirits remains widespread, and the key moments in the rice cycle are still marked by shamanistic ceremonies.

Above all, Dayaks remain marginalised, with low standards of health and education, and little representation in politics, local government or business. Their traditional lands have been claimed or forcibly purchased for industrial forestry, rubber and mining projects.

"Day by day, the Dayaks are being driven away," says Stephanus Djueng, director of the Institute of Dayakology Research and Development in Pontianak. "It's more than 50 years since Indonesia became independent but the education of Dayaks is very much less than the average because they can't earn decent incomes. They don't have the chance to study, so they can't enter official positions. They have no opportunities, and they're putting things right in the only way they know how."

Overwhelmingly, West Kalimantan is owned, administered, and profited from by migrants from other parts of south-east Asia, principally Malays, Chinese, Javanese, and a minority of Madurese.

Madura is a dry, barren island off the east coast of Java, whose people have a national reputation for coarseness, armed violence and an uncompromising form of Islam. Like the Dayaks, they are poor, and the government has dealt with this by transplanting them to the more fertile islands of the outer archipelago where they inevitably become the neighbours that nobody wants. Justly or unjustly, Madurese have been blamed for numerous church burnings and for violent incidents during last month's election campaign. Madurese transmigrants are accused of occupying Dayak land, often as part of official government resettlement programmes, but the differences run deeper than that.

The Madurese are proud bearers of curved sickles; Dayak tradition abhors the public flaunting of blades. The Dayaks hunt and rear pigs; the Madurese are strict Muslims. Tension and occasional violence between the two are as old as the first Madurese arrivals in Kalimantan, early this century, but never on the scale of the past few months.

It began on 30 December when a couple of young Dayaks were stabbed, apparently by Madurese, at a concert in the town of Sanggauledo, close to the border with Malaysian Sarawak. News of the attack spread and over the next four days some 5,000 Dayaks attacked and burned Madurese homes. At least 6,000 people fled to the coastal town of Singkawang, but the numbers of dead are unknown.

Andreus, a Catholic priest (like all witnesses of killings, his name has been changed to protect his identity), was in the town of Semelantan on New Year's Day. "The Dayaks started coming into the market square, about 1,000 of them," he says. "They were wailing like Indians in a Western, 'Whoo-woo-woo-woo'. One of them was carrying a head, and another guy came up to me holding something that looked like a piece of wet tongue. He said, 'This is a heart,' and raised it to his mouth and started eating it in front of my face."

Officials from Pontianak and leaders of the two communities hastily beat out a peace agreement, but on 29 January violence blew up again, when a Dayak school was burned down in a predominantly Madurese area of Pontianak. Two Dayak girls were stabbed and cars travelling through towns north of Pontianak were stopped by Madurese and a handful of Dayak motorists were lynched.

Dayak outrage expressed itself in ritual form, as the "Red Bowl" was passed round from village to village. "The Red Bowl is a symbol of communication, used to call people to war in a time of emergency," says Fr Yeremis, a Dutch priest who has lived in the village of Menjalin for 16 years.

"The leaders came up with three conditions. Not to burn down any mosques; not to burn any state-owned buildings; and no looting. They only killed Madurese, not Javanese or Malays. They wanted to emphasise that their grievance was with the people, not with Islam or the government, and that they were not criminals. Apart from that they killed without exception - from chickens to old people to babies. No exceptions at all."

Crowds of Dayaks gathered spontaneously with spears, home-made guns, and a traditional machete called a mandau. Tribal generals, called panglima, addressed the war parties who were observed by onlookers to enter a kind of trance. According to traditional belief, this is explained by the presence in their bodies of chaotic war spirits called teriu. The only thing which will appease the teriu is human blood and heads.

Sabdi, a Dayak teacher from Salatiga, described the spectacle when the war party arrived on the morning of 1 February. "I was watching from my bedroom when about 1,000 Dayaks arrived in town. A lot of the Madurese had already run away, but about 50 stayed behind to defend their houses. Three of them got shot - Sinem, Haji Marsuli, and another man. The Dayaks cut their heads off with swords. Then they cut open their backs and pulled out the hearts, and they ate the hearts and drank the blood."

For four days, Dayaks hunted down Madurese hiding in the jungle. One man, a settler from Java who was spared by the Dayaks, believes that over the course of five days he saw as many as 60 heads and dozens of decapitated bodies.

Stephanus Djueng's research leads him to believe that some 300 Madurese died in Salatiga alone, and perhaps 1,700, including 100 Dayaks, lost their lives in the conflict. Fr Yeremis's estimate is 4,000 dead. The government acknowledges fewer than 300.

Even according to the official figures, some 2,500 houses were destroyed before mid-February, when the local military, reinforced by elite units from other parts of Indonesia, finally brought the situation under control. Road blocks and landmines were deployed to prevent Dayaks reaching the large Madurese community in Pontianak. Journalists who tried to enter the affected area were arrested and sent back. The border with Malaysia was closed (to prevent Dayaks from Sarawak coming to the assistance of their Indonesian brethren), and a news blackout was imposed on hospitals and police stations.

The official line, explained by Captain SW Suhadi of the West Kalimantan police, is that the riots were individual squabbles which got out of hand, with the encouragement of mysterious "third parties". "It is finished," he said last week. "It was based on misunderstanding between the two communities, and it's absolutely finished."

Others are not so sure. Last Tuesday evening on the outskirts of Salatiga, two Dayak men approached carrying torches, rifles, and swords. They laughed when they saw our faces. "We thought you were Madurese," they said. What if we had been Madurese, we asked. "We would have killed you, of course. All the Madurese must leave Kalimantan. Not one of them may stay."

Catalogue of rising bloodshed 1881: Publication of The Head-Hunters of Borneo by the explorer, Carl Bock. 30 December 1996: Two Dayaks stabbed during an argument with Madurese youths in Sanggauledo. Four days of violence follow, during which 5,000 Dayaks burn and kill in Madurese settlements close to the Malaysian border; 6,000 Madurese refugees arrive in th e city of Sinkawang. 1 January 1997: Dayaks in Semelantan flaunt heads of dead Madurese and devour their hearts. 8 January 1997: Dayak and Madurese leaders make a peace agreement. 29 January 1997: A Dayak school in Siantan, a Madurese suburb of Pontianak, is set on fire. Two Dayak girls are stabbed in their beds. 30-31 January: At least three Dayaks are lynched at Madurese checkpoints in Peniraman, 32km north of Pontianak. The Red Bowl of war, a ritual symbol of war, is passed among the Dayaks. 1 February: Madurese burn Dayak houses in Salatiga. Dayaks across the region burn Madurese houses and kill their inhabitants. 1-4 February: Dayak war parties hunt down and kill hundreds of Dayaks in the jungle areas around Salatiga, Mandor, Pahauman and Ngabang, adjoining the road to Pontianak. 3 February: Unconfirmed reports that 17 Dayaks were killed trying to break through an army roadblock at Sungai Pinyuh. 5 February Military reinforcements arrive. Malaysia closes its land border with West Kalimantan. Military roadblocks set up and curfew imposed on Pontianak. 18 February: Dayak officials announce a "peace agreement". 22 February: Dayaks burn 60 Madurese houses in Capkal Mandor, 60km north of Pontianak. 4 April: West Kalimantan governor Aspar Aswin asserts in the Jakarta Post that "there are no problems between the Dayaks and Madurese". 29 May: Indonesia holds a general election. 3 June: Dayaks tell The Independent they will not rest until every Madurese is either dead or gone from Kalimantan.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
Books should be for everyone, says Els, 8. Publisher Scholastic now agrees
booksAn eight-year-old saw a pirate book was ‘for boys’ and took on the publishers
Life and Style
Mary Beard received abuse after speaking positively on 'Question Time' about immigrant workers: 'When people say ridiculous, untrue and hurtful things, then I think you should call them out'
tech
Life and Style
Most mail-order brides are thought to come from Thailand, the Philippines and Romania
life
News
i100
Life and Style
tech
Voices
Margaret Thatcher, with her director of publicity Sir Gordon Reece, who helped her and the Tory Party to victory in 1979
voicesThe subject is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for former PR man DJ Taylor
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Cancer Research UK: Corporate Partnerships Volunteer Events Coordinator – London

Voluntary: Cancer Research UK: We’re looking for someone to support our award ...

Ashdown Group: Head of IT - Hertfordshire - £90,000

£70000 - £90000 per annum + bonus + car allowance + benefits: Ashdown Group: H...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions