Soldiers bewitched by army of spirits

Dayaks moved as one, like a swarm of bees

"I didn't believe it myself," says the schoolmaster, "but I saw it with my own eyes. There were just three soldiers in Salatiga, and when the Dayaks first arrived they fired into the air. But they were completely outnumbered, and they soon began shooting straight into them. There was one Dayak, he was 30 yards away. The soldier aimed the gun, it went 'Bang- bang!', but it didn't hurt him. They were firing to kill, but none of the Dayaks got shot. I'd heard about it, but until then I never believed it. When they are in that state, when they are filled with the spirits, nothing can harm them."

Of all the strange and terrible things which have taken place in Borneo this year - the burning of houses, the murders of villagers, and the mutilation of their remains - the strangest and most disturbing element of all is the part played by ritual magic. In plenty of ways, this is a conflict with modern and rational causes: two ethnic groups, with very different cultures and religions, both of them poor and politically marginalised, forced to live alongside one another in a country fizzing with tensions and discontent. But if the reasons for it are conventional enough, the form which the unrest has taken is unique.

In terms of the scale of slaughter, there have been far worse and more intractable ethnic conflicts, between Hutus and Tutsis, or Serbs and Croats. But never before in a modern state has one ethnic group set out, not merely to kill and drive away its enemies, but to harvest their heads, eat their hearts, and ritually drink their blood.

West Kalimantan is alive with rumours about the power and effects of Dayak war magic and, for the visitor, it makes a creepy situation creepier still. Invulnerability to modern weapons is the commonest story: in Pontianak, a modern commercial city of some 400,000 people, every waiter and taxi driver has a friend in the military who saw the bullets bouncing off the advancing Dayak hordes. Eyewitnesses, like the teacher from Salatiga, are rare but belief in such phenomena is widespread, even among the best educated.

In a small town outside Pontianak I visited Father Andreus and Father Kristof (not their real names), Dayaks who trained as priests at a Catholic seminary near Jakarta. Both saw the trophy heads, and the mutilated bodies lying on the road, and it was from them that I heard about the mysterious character who leads the war parties - the panglima, meaning "general", or Dayak war magician.

They told me how the panglima summons bees to attack the soldiers, and how he can fly, and behead his enemies with the stroke of a leaf from a certain tree. How a pair of army officers in the north died vomiting blood after a curse was placed upon them, and how the psychiatric wards are filled with soldiers unhinged by what they have seen. "I've talked to soldiers who have served in East Timor, and Irian Jaya," says Father Andreus. "They are tough men. They have killed and been shot at before, but they say that they have never been more scared than they were by the Dayaks."

In Sanggau, a river city deep in the interior (the story goes), a small group of Dayaks was crying for the blood of six Madurese who were under guard in a small military outpost. The soldiers successfully fought them off, until the panglima arrived at the head of an army of thousands of warriors. Hopelessly outnumbered, the soldiers handed over the doomed Muslims and surrendered. But the panglima was alone; there was no Dayak army. The warriors at his side were teriu, spirits of war and killing, made visible in the minds of the soldiers by the panglima's incantation.

Father Kristof showed me a collection of magical and medicinal substances given to him by Dayak parishioners, including a plastic face lotion bottle filled with black poison for arrows and spears, and dried leaves which provide immunity from the blows of the machete. "We don't believe these things," said Father Kristof, "but they happened. You read about it in old accounts from the 19th century. Now it's happening again in 1997."

There is the story of a taxi-driver who watched a group of Madurese attempting to kill a lone Dayak. The man was stab- bed repeatedly, but the blows had no effect. It was only when they held his face under a basin of water that he stopped moving. Almost always, the accounts are second-hand and vague (perhaps the knives were blunt, or the nervous soldiers simply missed their aim), but they are believed.

"When you are accustomed to using scientific means of investigation, your mind shies away from these things," says a Dayak anthropologist. "But I believe there is a supernatural world. I have to believe it, because I have heard about it from military personnel, policemen, Dayak elders, people in the Chinese community, Malays. It is hard not to believe these people, but it is also hard to believe them."

From the very beginning of the conflict, at the end of last December, Dayak outrage with their Madurese neighbours expressed itself in ritual form with the passing among the different towns and villages of a ceremonial object called the Red Bowl.

"The Red Bowl is a means of communication in time of emergency between one group of Dayaks another," says Pak Miden, a timanggong or tribal leader in the Dayak hamlet of Aur Sampuh. "If a timanggong receives the Red Bowl then he is obliged to send at least seven warriors to help his brothers. It passes from village to village - during the Japanese occupation, every village received the Red Bowl, and in 1967 when the government was fighting the communists. Compared to then, this was not a big war; I am very glad that this village did not receive the Red Bowl."

When war does become necessary, the warriors hold secret ceremonies about which there are conflicting reports. Some say that they occur spontaneously, others that they are presided over by local shamen. The teriu, the spirits of war and chaos are summoned from their homes deep within the interior and enter the hearts of the people - special herbs and infusions may be used, or the magic may lie simply in the shaman's words. There is confusion too, about the nature of the panglima. According to some accounts, nobody quite knows who they are - they live as hermits in the mountains and mysteriously appear at just the right moment. According to another tribal leader, however, the spirit of the panglima could settle on anyone.

"The panglima could be a different person every time," he says. "Until the ceremony and the coming of the spirits, you don't know who the panglima is going to be."

One of the mysteries of the killings in January and February is how quickly the Dayaks mobilised, and the co-ordination they displayed across a large area cursed with poor communications. If the war parties did have ring leaders, they have not been publicly identified, and many witnesses described their behaviour as almost like that of a pack or a swarm.

"The Dayak are normal human beings," wrote Stepanus Djueng, the director of the Institute of Dayakology Research and Development in the Jakarta Post. "They will protect themselves if any of their ancestral lands or property rights are violated ... What honey bees would not defend themselves when their honey, nests and community members are threatened?"

The photograph above was taken in Senakin village on 7 February as Dayak members of the regional parliament were attempting to pacify a crowd of Dayaks. The man who took it spent the day driving around the villages photographing severed heads and disembowelled corpses.

"This meeting," he says, "was the first time I felt afraid. They were all ready for war, and they were possessed, they weren't acting normally. They were completely silent, and then someone screamed, and they all screamed together - 'Whoo-woo-wooo-woo!' The one who lead them was the panglima. I have seen politicians speaking to election rallies, and they are nothing compared to the panglima. These people would have done anything he said."

Once in their altered state, the Dayaks behaved with a mixture of restraint and frenzy. Mosques and government buildings were left undamaged (one school was burned, but it is believed that it caught fire from a neighbourinng building).

Apart from the Dayaks, there are many Malays and Javanese living in East Kalimantan, as well as Madurese, dark-skinned people without obvious physical differences. But there have been no reports of any non-Madurese being accidentally killed by Dayaks. "The panglima have the gift of being able to sniff out Madurese," says the tribal leader. "They can smell them, and they are the only ones that they will kill."

With their victims, however, they were ruthless. Many of the victims were shot rather than stabbed, but after that they were treated according to the oldest Dayak traditions. Their heads were chopped off with the mandau, a traditional machete with a bone handle, forged out of local ore. Then their hearts were removed and eaten on the spot.

Possession by the teriu brings remarkable strength and endurance, not just against knives and bullets. "These youngsters walked from here to Salatiga, several hours through the jungle, there and back," says one priest. "They had nothing to eat or drink, not even water. The teriu scream and yell inside them, and when they come back, they have lost their voices. The spirit drinks blood, it has to be fed by blood, and they eat the heart directly with the idea that it gives them power. Lungs and the stomach have their own kind of power too, and if someone possessed by the teriu does not drink human blood, then they have to kill a chicken and use that."

One Catholic priest, who has studied Dayak religion for many years, saw his parishioners returning with at least 20 heads in bags, and believes that there are many more still in his village.

"The heads are brought back and some kind of charm is performed. The head brings supernatural power and pro- tection to the family. Formerly, people kept their heads in a special place in the longhouse, but they can't display them openly now. In some places, they were buried, but here I think that they're hiding them, and continuing to offer prayers."

The local church displays a remarkable tolerance both for the animism of their parishioners, and even for the war on which they have embarked this year.

Among those I interviewed - not just Dayaks, but Malays, Chinese, and Javanese - there was general agreement that Madurese transmigration and government discrimination have pushed Dayak communities further than they can be expected to tolerate.

"It is very difficult to explain," says one priest, "but the people involved in this war did not want it. Anyone will tell you that they are gentle people - even if they killed, they are not killers and murderers.

"They are ignored by the government, they have no positions of political influence in their own country, they have no economic influence. All they have is the land where they have lived for thousands of years - and now the government is trying to expropriate it for transmigration, timber or other commercial purposes."

"If you ask me if this is sin, it is not for me to say. I tell them in church not to murder, and they understand, but this is different somehow. It was not just the panglima. There was no leader. These were not individual choices. It was a spontaneous, collective act of self- defence.

"A man once came to me and said, 'Father, why do you pray so hard for things which never come true? When we pray to the evil spirits, our wishes are fulfilled'."

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