A Journey Across Differences

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  • TEMPO.CO, Jakarta, 

    Rebuilding Peace in Ambon

    Various groups have been working to end religious segregation and nurture peace following the 1999 bloody conflict between Muslims and Christians in Ambon.

    Iskandar Slamet can now enjoy going on adventures. There is no need for him to leave Ambon, let alone travel overseas. Often he will embark on a solo escape to the mountains, the beachesandAmbon's backroads, though sometimes he will travel with his peers, nature-loving Pattimura University alumni or other members of Bareksa Aksara-a community of youths who bring non-formal education to children in the Maluku Islands.

    The 33-year-old's wanderlust was kindled in 2006. Before, the segregation that followed the bloody conflict between Ambon's Muslim and Christian communities made it impossible for him to explore even his own city.

    "My world was very limited," said Iskandar, who studied fisheries and maritime subjects as a university student. "As a Muslim, I was afraid to wander into Christian residential pockets and vice versa."

    In January 1999, riots between Christians and Muslims broke out in Ambon. People in the two camps terrorized and murdered each other, turning Ambon into a battleground. Churches and mosques were destroyed and casualties were claimed from both communities.

    Iskandar's adolescence was far from happy. He grew up exposed to machetes, bombs, screaming, bloodshed and dead bodies. He himself, at the time a 13-year-old ninth grader, became a fighter. His blood had boiled when his brother's leg was gutted in a bombing. "I also killed. I even became the gang leader at school, commanding my friends to do the same," said Iskandar. "But at the time we only had two options: killed or be killed."

    Iskandar believes that the tragedy shattered not only harmony between residents, but also the city itself. Although tensions had cooled several years later, there was still apprehension between Muslims and Christians. Muslims were still scared to visit Christian neighborhoods and vice versa.

    In the end, the segregation was not only territorial but also psychological. But because of his deep hatred for Christians then, Iskandar confessed to caring very little about the fractured social relations between the two communities.

    His transformation began in 2002 when as a university student he participated in a training program organized by the Indonesian Muslim Students organization in Makassar, South Sulawesi. Seeing the world beyond Ambon pricked his mind. He felt free and happy because he was able to visit many different places. While he was still living in Ambon, the religious conflict had turned him into a prisoner. At first, he kept his restlessness to himself.

    In 2006, Iskandar was invited to join the Young Ambassadors for Peace program organized by the Maluku Interfaith Institution (LAIM) led by Pastor Jacklevyn 'Jacky' Frits Manuputty and Ustad (Islamic teacher) Abidin Wakano. Besides Iskandar, a number of youths who were either survivor of or involved in the Ambon conflict also participated in the training program. They were asked to explain the roles they played in the conflict and how they felt at the time. "I felt relieved that I was able to let it all out," said Iskandar.

    The open atmosphere was a turning point for Iskandar and many other youths. LAIM encouraged them to forgive one another and to put their enmity aside. "We were made to realize that Maluku's future lay in our hands," he said.

    After, Iskandar's days became much more pleasurable. He began to visit the neighborhoods of his new friends from the interfaith community and to actively campaign for peace at various opportunities. "It's very unpleasant to discuss the past, but I want to keep reminding people that conflicts will only hold us captive and leave behind wounds."

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