Sampang, Madura. Eights months after dozens of Shiite Muslims on Madura Island were driven from their homes by mobs from neighboring Sunni villages, the displaced remain in poor conditions with no immediate prospect of returning.
Nearly 170 Shias in Madura’s Sampang district are still confined to a gymnasium, unable to work or travel. They are dependent on government provisions for their survival. Local authorities have warned them to stay near the gym for their safety.
“We have no chance to leave here. It feels like we’re in jail,” Ustadz Iklil, 40, lamented.
He said families were limiting themselves to one meal a day when government food provisions fell short, and that basic hygiene was difficult to maintain.
The displaced are living on tennis courts in a tin-roofed hangar. A stench permeates much of the shelter’s interior, where there is only one bathroom.
People there said they were psychologically and physically unraveling.
“At any given time, many of the people here are sick,” Ummi Kulsum, 37, said.
She said medical personnel from the local state hospital were supposed to make daily trips to the shelter, but none had visited since October.
“We’re struggling to live here, and we still have no clear decision from the government about our future,” she said.
Rokiyah, 35, said her 2-month-old baby struggled to sleep in the stuffy, overcrowded compound. “The people in our district couldn’t accept our difference so now our children are forced to grow up in these conditions,” she said.
The children attend a makeshift classroom under a tarp in a field facing the complex. Classes are staffed by volunteers.
Although Sunni Islam is officially the dominant form of the religion in the country, many Indonesians identify themselves simply as Muslim.
Madura Island, however, has a history of conservatism, and those on the island who publicly identify as Shiites are regarded with suspicion and disapproval by some of the Sunni majority. The size of the Shiite population in Madura — and the rest of Indonesia — is unknown due to under reporting and fears of reprisals. There are few villages on the island that openly identify as Shiites.
In August 2012, local Sunnis, some wielding traditional machete-like weapons, attacked two of the district’s Shia villages. One Shiite man was killed and another, who suffered multiple deep cuts, barely survived. Dozens were seriously injured in the attack, which left 48 Shia homes destroyed by fire.
Villagers said the violence erupted when Shiite schoolchildren, barred from attending their local school, attempted to reach a neighboring school. Sunni men blocked them, and the confrontation escalated into a wider attack on Shia homes, witnesses said.
With few exceptions, the displaced Shiites lost all their possessions.
Among the main targets of hard-line Islamist groups from the country’s Sunni majority are minority Muslim sects and Christians, according to a recent Human Rights Watch report.
The Jakarta-based Setara Institute, which monitors religious freedom in Indonesia, identified 216 cases of violent attacks on religious minorities in 2010, 244 cases in 2011 and 264 cases in 2012.
According to HRW, the state is complicit in the abuse.
“Harassment and intimidation of minority communities by militant Islamist groups has been facilitated by the active or passive involvement of Indonesian government officials and security forces,” the report said.
In an interview with international media, a spokesman from the Religious Affairs Ministry denied religious intolerance was a serious problem, calling Indonesia a “laboratory of religious harmony.”
It is not clear which authority ultimately controls the fate of the displaced Shiites in Sampang.
According to Andreas Harsono, an author of the HRW report, national agencies with influence over such cases include the president’s office, the national police chief and the coordinating minister for legal, political and security affairs. But, he added, decentralization measures started in 2004 have boosted local officials’ control over disputes within their jurisdiction.
Jakarta should step in as local solutions are not forthcoming, he said.
“We need time to address the issue that [led to the] conflict there,” said Rudi Setiadi, the head of the Board of National Unity for Sampang district, a government office responsible for security, stability and other issues.
“We have to obey our religious leaders very well, and the religious leaders say they [Shiites] must return to Sunni Islam in order to return to the village,” Setaidi said, echoing the hard-line position that displaced Shiites must declare themselves Sunnis in order to return.
“From a [human] rights perspective, [the Shiites] should of course be able to go back to the village and the government should be responsible for protecting them at any cost,” noted Akhol Firhaus of the Center for Marginalized People, a local nongovernmental group.
“But the government has not given them any solution except to convert to Sunnism or leave Madura Island,” he added. “The government has a responsibility to give a better solution.”