In Maluku Islands, Peace Takes Fragile Hold ; Muslims and Christians in Indonesia's Malukus Must Disarm Sunday under Peace Deal

Article excerpt

After three years of bloody interfaith conflict, a fragile peace is taking hold in the Indonesian province of Maluku.

Word of a recent peace agreement sparked euphoria in the streets of Ambon, the provincial capital, and people are venturing into neighborhoods they were long afraid to enter, crossing battle lines that seemed set in stone. "The borders just collapsed and people started walking all over the city," says a foreign observer.

For Indonesia, a majority-Muslim nation struggling to accommodate religious tolerance and democracy, the fragile peace is seen as a test case of whether Christians and Muslims alike can start trusting public institutions more than communal loyalties.

"The problem in Indonesia is that we can't rely on the formal institutions, whether it's the parliament or police or government in general," says Umar Juoro, a political scientist in Jakarta. "In areas like Maluku where the social institutions can't deal with a crisis, there's always potential for this kind of conflict."

The conflict started with a spat over a bus fare but spread like a brushfire to nearby islands. Since 1999, it has claimed more than 5,000 lives, and created 500,000 refugees - one-quarter of the province's population.

Three years of conflict have divided this city of Christians and Muslims into "ethnically cleansed" neighborhoods with barricades and armed checkpoints that yield little neutral space. Weeds choke the charred skeletons of razed houses along the city's religious fault lines.

In Ambon, people are finally regaining a sense of normal life - one that doesn't feature nightly gun battles and bomb blasts. Street markets in the neutral zone between the two communities are flourishing, and public buses are running across former battle lines.

But a recent incident shows how tenuous the budding trust can be. For Elizabeth Pieters, who lives in a Christian neighborhood, the detente meant an unexpected opportunity to shop in Matahari, a department store that lies only 300 yards from her house in a Muslim neighborhood.

On a recent Saturday morning, she walked to the store for the first time in three years and found it abuzz with Christian and Muslim shoppers.

But trouble was brewing further down the road, where a motorbike convoy of noisy Christian youths, some of them drinking alcohol, disrupted midday prayers at a large mosque.

When a group of Muslim students came out to complain, a fight broke out and a Christian motorbike was set alight. Suddenly, the tentative peace was shattered. Christians scrambled to their own area, and Muslims poured into the streets. …