A bouquet of freshly picked flowers stands on an unmarked grave in Mangga Dua, Ambon. Darmin Saiman, a motorcycle taxi driver whose controversial death on Sept. 10 brought the city to chaos, lies buried underneath.
The religiously charged riot, which killed a total of eight civilians and displaced hundreds, began the day after Darmin died, with dodgy details and theories about his death fueling the violence.
Darmin was known among his neighbors in the Waihaong Muslim neighborhood as a kind man and devout Muslim. On Sept. 10, he was found drenched in blood and barely alive in the Christian area of Gunung Nona, where Muslims rarely go. His motorcycle was beside him.
Police were quick to say Darmin was a victim of a motorcycle accident at a notoriously deadly section in a the hilly area. He was riding downhill too fast, police said, and lost control as he negotiated a steep curve and slammed into the wall of Yohanes Sahanaya’s house before being thrown several meters into a gutter.
But that story seemed to be inconsistent with Darmin’s injuries. Why did he have bruises all over his body, and why was there was a wound on his back deep enough to puncture his heart? Even Yohanes claimed to have heard nothing at the time of the incident.
“My police neighbor was first on the scene and found the body. He alerted me that there had been an accident, so I offered to take the man to the hospital in my car,” Yohanes said. “He was already in a coma. It looked like he suffered from internal bleeding. Blood was gushing from his nose and mouth. By the time we got to the hospital, he was already dead.”
The official explanation of the wound on Darmin’s back was that it was caused by the barbed wire atop of Yohanes’ wall, according to police. Yohanes’ neighbor who found Darmin was never questioned.
Yohanes said he was baffled when the National Commission for Human Rights (Komnas HAM) presented him with pictures of Darmin’s post-mortem examination a week later. “The picture shows stitches running around the top of his left foot. The only injury I found on his foot was a small cut right around his heel,” he said.
Yohanes was also shocked to see bruises on Darmin’s head, shoulders, lower ribs and stomach. Police never released the results of Darmin’s post-mortem to his family.
The battered and lifeless body of Darmin, with his bloody shirt and a hole in his back, were enough to fuel wild speculation.
Some 500 people attended Darmin’s funeral on Sept. 11, and soon the rallying cry of “Allah is great” at the grave site were loud enough to agitate residents of nearby Christian sector of Mangga Dua, which was still traumatized by the 1999-2002 sectarian conflict that had pitted Muslims and Christians.
Reymondus Sahertian, a Christian from Kuda Mati, recalled hearing a story that Muslim mourners had harassed and injured a Christian schoolgirl.
He and hundreds of others from Kuda Mati and Batu Gantung, another Christian area, descended on Mangga Dua to confront the mourners about the incident. The meeting quickly degenerated into violence, though hospitals in Ambon said there was no record of a young female patient matching the description of the schoolgirl reportedly attacked by Muslims.
The Maluku branch of the Indonesian Christian University was set on fire, while rocks were hurled at public minivans coming in from Christian areas such as Kuda Mati and Gunung Nona.
“We were provoked by the Muslims,” Reymondus said.
All but three alleyways, where the Christians reportedly lived, had only skeletons of homes filled with collapsing roofs, charcoal, ashes and burned plastic.
The Christian area of Talake, where at least 400 people lived, is now abandoned with its inhabitants taking refuge in the Christian stronghold of Air Putri.
The riot quickly moved downtown to the Silo Church intersection, a buffer zone between the Muslim areas in the southwest and the Christian neighborhoods in the northeast. Amid the chaos, police opened fire on the crowd and injured rioters as well as bystanders. Among the eight fatalities were a 15-year-old and a school teacher.
The following morning, dozens of homes in the Muslim area of Mardika on the other side of town were torched.
Adi Kaimuddin, a resident from the Waringin Muslim neighborhood, said he was defending Muslims from Christian attacks. Hundreds of men descended on his neighborhood, chasing Muslims away while burning and looting their homes.
A curfew has been since been in place as heavily armed soldiers and police guard businesses and homes.
“The security presence only makes us more nervous,” Adi said. We are eager to restore our lives and come back to our homes, but authorities told us we can’t. At the same time, they say everything is under control.”
This report is supported by the Pantau Foundation