Published: Sep 11, 2007

The Ambon crisis produced tens of thousands of Muslim refugees. They desperately need help.

Elizabeth Fuller Collins

Mr Laode Kamaluddin calls them the ‘forgotten refugees.’ According to local government figures compiled by the Bupati (Regent) of Buton, Mr H Sahiruddin Udu, 37,000 refugees from Ambon fled to Buton, an island off the southeast arm of Sulawesi, 600 kilometres west-southwest across the Banda Sea from Ambon.

Frustrated that the central government had not provided any assistance to these refugees, Mr Laode Kamaluddin, Inspector General of Development for Backward Regions, decided to personally lead an expedition of reporters from Jakarta to Buton at the end of March. He wanted people elsewhere in Indonesia to know about the problem and provide assistance or pressure the central government to take action. At the last minute, one reporter was unable to join the team of observers, and I was invited to be a foreign representative.

On the afternoon of our arrival in Bau-Bau, the capital of Buton, the bupati presented us with the data he had collected on the exodus from Ambon, detailing the number of families that had sought refuge in villages throughout the region. That night we visited the refugee centre in Bau-Bau city. It was an open market next to a sports field. Between five hundred and a thousand refugees were crowded under the roof on a cement platform. It was difficult to see how they all found space to lie down at night.

The refugees in this centre were those who knew that some time in the distant past their ancestors had migrated from Buton to Ambon. But they no longer knew which village they had come from in Buton, or even whether distant relatives might still live there, so they had nowhere to go. Many were women with small children, who had no way to earn money. Their children crowded around them, and their babies sleeping on the floor looked exhausted and poorly fed. Several older women crouched over gas burners making snacks that could be sold the next day, but most people seemed to have no energy and no idea how they would manage.

The terror

The people I talked to had been traumatised by the violence that they had witnessed. They spoke of ‘the terror.’ They told us that their families had lived in Ambon for generations. It had been their home. They could not comprehend what had happened. One young man, the youngest of seven children, had been a driver in Ambon. Last January 20th he returned home to find the bodies of his parents and all his brothers and sisters cut to pieces. In Bau-Bau he earned a bit of money when he could as a becak (trishaw) driver. In this way he was able to supplement the meagre supply of rice that was available to the refugees. He was hoping he might find relatives somewhere.

Heavy rains have now flooded out the people in this refugee centre. The tarpaulins that we bought to keep out the rain were not enough. These refugees have probably been moved to the already crowded centres into an orphanage next to a mosque, and into a state Islamic institute (STAIN) dormitory near Bau-Bau, which we also visited. The refugees in these camps were somewhat better off because, although most slept on the cement floor, they were protected from the weather. However, the refugees complained that they did not have enough food.

They had not eaten rice for some time, nor were they given any protein. At noon that day they had been given noodle soup, all the food that was distributed that day. We saw a listless baby suffering from malnutrition. Another child had a high fever. Seven children have already died of diarrhoea.

The bupati and his wife have done the best they could to organise help for the refugees, but their resources are limited. The bupati explained that it would take several tons of rice a day to feed all the refugees. All he could do was provide some boiled rice and milk for pregnant women and babies. There was also a shortage of medicine and doctors.

Over the next two days we visited five villages, each with between 700 and 1,500 refugees. Most of these refugees lived on the ground under houses owned by relatives. Village resources were strained to breaking point. The teacher at a village primary school reported that formerly he had been responsible for just over one hundred pupils. Now he had over two hundred, and many of the refugee children had no books and no change of clothes. They were hungry and traumatised.

There will be no simple solution to the problem of the refugees from Ambon, as there is no simple solution for the problem of the (equally Muslim) Madurese refugees from West Kalimantan. Some are farmers who need land, and Buton is a harsh and rocky landscape with no empty land. Fishermen are better off, but they need boats and nets. We bought small ‘koli-koli’ canoes for the refugees in several of the villages we visited, but we knew that more than twenty families would have to share each of these boats.

The merchants whose shops in the city of Ambon had been burned have lost everything, even the deed to their property and the cash they had kept to do business. Yet many of these refugees said that they would return to Ambon if peace returned, but they needed help to start over again. One woman demanded to know what the government would do to help them. University students wondered if they would be able to finish their education now that their families had lost everything and they could not return to take their exams.

We met with the governor in Kendari, the capital of Southeast Sulawesi province, after returning from Buton, and learned that he had directed aid be sent to the region. He said that just before our visit to him he had learned that the aid had not arrived. (Later we learned that the money was used to buy land, said to be for the refugees.) The central government has yet to establish any program to help the refugees of Buton. The bureaucracy seems to be paralysed.

Ordinary citizens

The beginning of a solution to the problem of the Butonese refugees lies in civil society, in the actions of ordinary citizens channeled through non-governmental organisations (NGOs). While in Buton, the team I travelled with collected funds among themselves and from friends in Jakarta to buy tarpaulins, small koli-koli fishing canoes and nets, and to build portable toilets. Since returning to Jakarta they have established the ‘Foundation for an Enlightened World’, Yayasan Nurani Dunia, with the motto ‘People to People Aid.’ I will serve as an advisor to the foundation.

As a result of publicity by reporters on our expedition, the refugees of Buton are beginning to receive some limited help. Dompet Duafa, a non-governmental agency associated with the newspaper Republika, has established a post in Buton for emergency relief and to collect more data on the refugees. They report that there are now more than 50,000 refugees, and more continue to arrive as conflict spreads to other areas in Eastern Indonesia. The refugees are still in dire need of food, mattresses, access to clean drinking water, clothes, tarpaulins, toilets, school books, small boats, and fishing nets.

Nurani Dunia is now working with Dompet Duafa to raise funds for emergency aid to refugees in Buton. In this way there will be no administrative costs. Reporters will continue to report on the situation in Buton to ensure that the aid goes directly to the refugees.

I have a particular reason for wanting to be part of the effort to help the refugees in Buton. Over and over again, I have been asked by friends in Indonesia why it is that people in the West always seem ready to help when Christians are the innocent victims of violence, but not when the victims are Muslim. Every university student I talk to seems to have read or at least heard of the Huntington thesis that the future enemy of the West will be Islam. They wonder if Western governments are trying to weaken Islamic nations by ignoring the plight of refugees and the poor in a time of economic crisis. Just as I remind students in the US that there is no such thing as monolithic Islam, I try to explain to people here that scholars in America and elsewhere vehemently criticise Huntington’s arguments. I would also like people in Indonesia to know that Americans are ready to help refugees, whatever their religion.

The twentieth century has been a century of refugees. We are becoming numb to the seemingly endless campaigns of ‘ethnic cleansing’- in Europe, Africa, South Asia, and now Southeast Asia - and to the streams of traumatised, poverty-stricken people who flee from violence. But we cannot afford to ignore the problem of refugees. Refugee groups that are not helped to start life anew in one way or another are fodder for extremist political movements. They are angry and powerless. Their emotions can be easily manipulated so that they seek revenge. And the plight of refugee groups can become the excuse for another violent episode and another exodus of refugees.

A small (one man) koli-koli fishing boat and nets cost about US$100. Emergency assistance to mothers of US$25 per child will buy food (especially milk), clothes, and school books. All assistance will be most welcome. Temporarily (until I can set up a matching non-profit organisation in the States), Gene Ammarell has agreed to help collect funds for the Buton refugees. Contact him at: Dept of Sociology and Anthropology, Ohio University, Athens, OH 45701, USA, tel+1-740-592 9697, email ammarell@ohiou.edu. Or cheques may be sent to Nurani Dunia, c/o Imam B. Prasodjo, PhD, Dept of Sociology, Fac. of Social and Political Sciences, Univ. of Indon. (home: Jl Proklamasi 37, Jakarta 10320, Indonesia, tel/fax +62-21-391 3768).

Dr Elizabeth Collins is Director of the Southeast Asian Studies Program at Ohio University.