May 22, 2024 Last Updated 6:09 AM, May 21, 2024

The aftermath of civil war

Christopher R Duncan

The newly formed province of North Maluku in eastern Indonesia is starting to recover from a period of communal violence that began in August 1999 and continued through July of 2000. Now reconciliation and reconstruction are the tasks ahead for the people of North Maluku. More than 100,000 refugees need to return home, dozens of villages must be completely rebuilt, and regional infrastructure has to be repaired.

Formed in October of 1999, the province of North Maluku includes the island of Halmahera and surrounding islands, such as Ternate and Tidore, as well as the Sula Archipelago to the southwest. As the fighting raged in Ambon further south in early 1999, North Maluku remained peaceful. However, in mid-August 1999 violence erupted in Halmahera, in the sub-district of Kao, between Makian migrants and indigenous populations. These clashes focused on plans by the regional government to create a new sub-district (kecamatan) of Makian Daratan from the southern half of the Kao sub-district. This new sub-district would consist of all of the Makian villages that were established in 1975 when the Indonesian government moved the Makian from their homes on Makian Island and resettled them in Kao to protect them from a predicted volcanic eruption.

The argument revolved around the inclusion of several villages in the new sub-district that were inhabited by indigenous Pagu and Jailolo people. Government regulations insist on a minimum number of villages per sub-district. The Pagu villagers had no desire to be separated from their indigenous brethren, nor to be ruled over by the Makian. The resulting tension led to violence on the day the new sub-district was to be formally inaugurated. Another factor that has been cited as a cause of the violence was the economic benefits associated with an Australian-owned gold mine in the region.

This violence was short-lived, but the problem remained unresolved. Disturbances broke out again in October, this time resulting in the total defeat of the Makian by the indigenous population (both Muslim and Christian). Approximately 15,000 refugees fled to Ternate and Tidore. Although the fighting started as an ethnic conflict, it soon took on the character of a religious war when the violence spread to Ternate and Tidore in November, since the Makian are Muslim, and many of the people of Kao are Christian.

The violence in Tidore began with the appearance of a false letter calling for Christians to cleanse the region of Muslims. This letter infuriated Muslims, particularly the Makian refugees who were still resentful for having been chased from their homes on Halmahera the previous month. Once all the Christians had fled from Tidore, the violence then spread to Ternate. As a result approximately 13,000 largely Christian refugees fled to North Sulawesi and Halmahera. This was followed by Muslim attacks on the western and southern regions of Halmahera, sending thousands of Christian refugees to North Sulawesi and northern Halmahera.

At the end of 1999, after months of tension, fighting broke out in Tobelo in north Halmahera. It resulted in the deaths of several hundred Muslims and the complete destruction of their homes and mosques. Accounts of this violence, made worse by exaggeration, created a national uproar. This led to the creation of the Laskar Jihad, a group of self-proclaimed Muslim holy warriors who flooded into Maluku and North Maluku several months later to help their religious brethren. These Jihad troops, supported by some army units and some among the local Muslim population, destroyed virtually every Christian village in the sub-district of Galela, as well as on the islands of Morotai and Obi and elsewhere.

By the time it slowly came to a halt in July of 2001, few areas were unaffected by the violence. The extent of the damage remains unclear, and the total number of deaths will likely never be known. Many perished in the forest as they fled, and Laskar Jihad troops from outside Halmahera who were killed in fighting were buried without record keeping.


Although many on both sides would like to move on with the process of reconciliation, mistrust and animosity remain. Many say they will never again be able to trust the other side. Government efforts at facilitating reconciliation have been half-hearted at best. Officials seem to believe that once the refugees have gone home reconciliation has been completed. They have thus far failed to realise that the process will take a long time and extended effort.

Numerous non-government organisations (NGOs) have sprung up in the region to deal with this challenge, but with mixed success. Efforts by international aid groups have largely been unsuccessful. They bring a few open-minded 'leaders' from North Maluku to Manado for meetings and then send them home with little if any follow-up. The lack of success of these meetings has led many refugees to stop attending them, as they see them as a waste of time. Their argument, and that of many on Halmahera, is that any attempts at reconciliation have to be made from the bottom up, and be made in Halmahera.

Where refugees have returned it has been a case of repatriation rather than true reconciliation. Where reconciliation has begun, it is the exception rather than the rule. For example, Muslims have begun returning to Tobelo, but the Christian population has greeted their return with mixed feelings. Many are eager to put the past behind them, while others are still mistrustful and would rather the Muslims did not return. Dealing with the latter group will be the challenge for the local government. News reports say that 'Team 30', an organisation established to promote reconciliation in the sub-district of Jailolo, has had some success, and many refugees from Jailolo have returned home.

In addition to reconciliation, the people of North Maluku must rebuild. During the fighting an estimated 20,000 homes were destroyed, along with innumerable churches, mosques, schools, and government buildings. Dozens of villages were destroyed completely. Many people had their gardens partially destroyed, and other means of livelihood, such as fishing boats were burnt or stolen, hampering economic recovery. The flight of civil servants and schoolteachers from the region has slowed recovery efforts as well. Several efforts are addressing the destruction, including donations of material from USAID and World Vision Indonesia. Unfortunately these programs are only for refugees who return to their place of origin. They do not help people who have no desire to, or cannot, return home. Furthermore, the aid programs have been hampered by corruption at the local level.


The biggest remaining obstacle is the return of the more than 100,000 refugees displaced by the violence. Many have begun returning home on their own accord. In the Malifut area the first returnees from both sides are starting to rebuild. The same can be said for other parts of northern Halmahera. The first groups of Muslims returned to Tobelo in July 2001, accompanied by the army to guarantee their safety. A few Christians have returned to Galela. However they were not provided with military protection, and most are unwilling to return at this point. There are also significant numbers of Christian refugees in northern Halmahera from Morotai Island and from southern and central Halmahera who are still scared of going home.

The largest remaining group of displaced people is in North Sulawesi, many living in large refugee camps in Bitung and Manado. These approximately 30,000 refugees, the majority of whom are Christians from Ternate, Tidore, and southern Halmahera, remain uncertain about their future. Many of the refugees from Ternate have decided they will never return. They have sold their homes and taken up opportunities for relocation in North Sulawesi, or are moving to Ambon or Halmahera. The picture looks the same for Tidore where, according to one Muslim journalist, the Sultan of Tidore has said that it is unsafe for Christians to return. Other groups from the islands of Obi and Bacan want to go home, but the lack of information about the current state of affairs hampers any decision. Others see no point in returning to their destroyed villages where their lives will be more difficult than in the refugee camps.

One forgotten victim group has been the thousands of Javanese transmigrants. They were deported by the army against their will from the largely Christian regions of Halmahera. These largely Muslim transmigrants had refused to take part in the violence, and had received assurances from Christian communities, as well as from Muslim communities in Kao, that they would not be attacked, as this was a purely local matter. However, the military decided to forcibly remove the Javanese with only a few hours notice, forcing them to leave behind their belongings. After they left, their homes were taken over by refugees, and the irrigation works and rice fields built for them by the government have been destroyed. Some Javanese families have returned, but most are still waiting in Java.

Christopher R Duncan ( is a research fellow at Goldsmiths College, University of London. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on Halmahera, and visited the area in August 2001. For more on this conflict, see 'Inside Indonesia' no.63 (Jul-Sep 2000). One organisation doing good work with refugees on both sides of the conflict is Consortium for Assisting the Refugee and Displaced in Indonesia (Cardi, email

Inside Indonesia 68: Oct - Dec 2001

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