The conflict by early March had enormous social and political consequences. It had left close to 200 dead, although both sides agree that it is difficult to produce exact figures. The government did not release separate figures for Christian and Muslim deaths, but it is clear both suffered immense losses in terms of deaths, injuries, and destruction of property, including homes, businesses, and places of worship. In addition, tens of thousands of people had been displaced and were in need of assistance. The divisions between the two communities had become so deep that local politicians were suggesting complete separation of Muslims and Christians as a solution to the conflict, but one that everyone realized was impossible.
Politically, the conflict had polarized Christians and Muslims in other parts of Indonesia, but particularly among the political elite of Jakarta, in a way that could have serious repercussions for the forthcoming June elections.
The number of displaced was constantly shifting as the violence waxed and waned, as migrants take family members home and return to Ambon, and as some families find local resettlement. Moreover, Muslim and Christian sources tend to only collect data on the displaced of their own faith, skewing the data in many local press reports. For example, data collected by the Muslim communications post at al-Fatah mosque noted a total of 14,540 displaced at twenty-six different sites, most of them either military posts or mosques. Data collected a few days later by Tirus (TimRelawan Untuk Kemaniusiaan), a largely Christian organization, listed 7,923 displaced persons at eleven different sites, including military posts, churches, and religious schools. There was overlap on only four of the sites.61 Neither source listed people displaced on other islands, of whom there were many. The eruption of violence in Haruku led to the displacement of 1,243 people from Kariu alone, and after the fighting in Ambon on February 23-25, the number of displaced in the al-Fatah mosque compound doubled to nearly 4,000. (Most had been moved to other locations by early March.)
As of early March, supplies of humanitarian aid, especially food and medicine, were not the problem so much as distribution of that aid after it reached Ambon, especially given road blockades and other security difficulties. International agencies had been discouraged by the local government from providing assistance, and much of the aid coming in was coming from sources linked to one side of the conflict or the other.
Where the displaced from both communities were forced to coexist in shelters, as in an air force barracks that we visited in Suli, Ambon, relations were said to be as good as could be expected. But where large numbers of displaced from one community were gathered in a single site, as with the displaced Muslims in the al-Fatah mosque or the Christians at the nearby Silo church, the concentration of victims of violence appeared to increase their militancy, just as refugee camps often become recruiting grounds for violent groups. That factor may have contributed to the outbreaks of violence in Ambon on February 23-25 and in early March.
The government's efforts to address the displacement issue were undoubtedly well-intentioned but misguided. Human Rights Watch obtained a copy of a questionnaire being distributed to people displaced by the conflict. Distributed to heads of household, it contains twelve questions. The only question relating to children asks about their grade level and thus provides no opportunity to register the number of infants, pre-school, or out-of-school children, in the camps. Respondents are asked, in question 10 relating to property to circle either "Nothing left" or "Some remaining," the analytical value of which is not clear. Most problematic is question 11, "Desire of the head of household." Respondents are asked to choose either "Return to original place" or "Resettle/transmigrate." There is no effort to ascertain the conditions under which a displaced family might be willing to return to their village. Given the fact that the displaced are likely to be still traumatized by their displacement and have no house left to go back to, chances are that given only those two choices, they would opt to transmigrate (move to another island). But without full information as to the conditions in transmigration sites, which are often extremely harsh, or the availability of alternative options, the "choice" may amount to little more than forced resettlement.
Many of the Bugis and Butonese migrants have opted, at least temporarily, to return to Sulawesi, and many of the photographs in the international press of people crowding on boats and inter-island ferries show this. The Ambonese displaced, however, both Christian and Muslim, have no original home to return to.
The violence in Ambon is one more example of the damage done by former President Soehartos destruction of political institutions. Had there been some political outlet for grievances on both sides as they emerged over the last ten years, the explosion of the last three months might have been avoided. As it is, it may take years, even generations, to repair the damage.
The violence has weakened trust in civilian institutions. The deputy head of the provincial parliament has been calling for Ambon to have its own regional military command (KODAM), in order to increase the number of troops permanently assigned to the area. People in areas that have been razed or burned to the ground want protection and security, even as they accuse the military and police of bias, and the beneficiary of that desire may be the army.
The violence is likely to have a deep and lasting impact on Muslim-Christian relations in Indonesia more generally. The shootings near the mosque triggered massive demonstrations around the country by Muslim youth groups, and by March 7, some of the more conservative organizations were signing up volunteers to join a holy war to defend Islam in Ambon.
If that happens, support among Christians for a separate state may grow. The situation in Ambon may also give a boost to hardline Muslim organizations as the national elections approach in June, in turn generating fears of Christians, not only in Ambon but elsewhere, about their place in post-Soeharto Indonesia. More than any other communal incident that has taken place around Indonesia, the civil war in Ambon has ripped apart the notion of Indonesia as a society tolerant of all faiths.
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61 "Pengungsi Korban Musibah Idulfitri 1419 H. Seokotamadya, Data per 1 Februari 1999, jam 12 siang", and Tirus, "Data Sementara Pengungsi di Penampungan Ambon," not dated but produced around February 5.