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