Asia

Crossing Divides: The battle to unite former child soldiers in peace

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Media captionAs boys, Iskandar Slameth (left) and Ronald Regang were given weapons and sent out to kill

The Reverend Jacky Manuputty is still haunted by the blessings he gave Christian fighters during the conflict with Muslims on the Indonesian island of Ambon, almost 20 years ago.

"I never carried a machine gun, but my thoughts, my prayers, my blessings destroyed more than a gun ever could. By blessing them, they came to believe that this was a holy war," he recalls after the Sunday service at his church, the oldest on the island.

Hundreds of child soldiers are believed to have taken part in Indonesia's worst religious conflict, which started in 1999.

More than 5,000 people were killed in the dispute and over half a million were displaced.

When a fragile peace deal was reached in 2002, many young people were left living in communities deeply divided along religious lines, traumatised by their past.

Image caption Jacky Manuputty hopes working for peace will bring comfort to the former child soldiers

Mr Manuputty is determined to help those whose lives were shattered by the conflict and give them hope for the future.

Alongside local imam Abidin Wakano, he has set up an initiative called Peace Provocateurs which brings together people from both sides of the religious divide.

Among the young men they helped are Christian Ronald Regang, 28, and Muslim Iskandar Slameth, 31, who both fought on the front line. Ronald was only 10 when he first killed for his community, and Iskandar just 13.

From 'little gods' to destroyers

"I killed with a home-made pistol. I shot them at close range," recalls Ronald. "We paraded the corpses around as it gave us the strength to fight harder."

Iskandar agrees. "We were very sadistic," he says, adding that he became a "mini-jihadi" to avenge his cousin's killing.

As Ronald puts it: "We were viewed as little gods during the conflict, but once it was over people didn't want to be around us. Other children were told 'Don't hang out with the fighter children, they were the ones that destroyed Ambon'.

"But in my heart I thought, if we didn't fight back then would you be still alive? Would there even be Christians still here? I don't know why people thought so badly of us after the conflict. It really hurt me, but we had to move forward through the pain."

Mr Manuputty believes he can help young men like Ronald because he empathises with their guilt and conflicting sense of identity.

"To gain his heart I tried to convince him that he will get equal respect," the priest explains.

Mr Manuputty was able to take Ronald out of Ambon to Java and the Philippines to speak about his traumatic experiences, and to try to help others understand more about children forced to fight and kill.

"By allowing them to lead in the peace activities we give them that respect again. Now they become heroes again as peacemakers," Mr Manuputty says.

The peace in the Maluku Islands (Mollucas) is fragile and has been tested a number of times since the peace treaty was signed.

"On the scale of one to nine, I will give it a six. Peace here is still fragile because it takes a long time to deal with healing trauma," he says.

"We are still living in segregated areas. We take on people like Ronald, a former child soldier. We help build their character and confidence - to build a new generation for this island."

Image caption Ronald says the men he killed haunt his dreams, while Iskandar has used drugs to bury his pain

In Indonesian history Ambonese people have often been admired for their ability to live in harmony with each other.

Christianity was introduced by Portuguese traders in the 15th Century, while Islam spread to the island through Arab merchants a century earlier. A local tradition known as Pela gandong celebrates the respect between the two communities and their close cultural ties.

Nonetheless, tension has existed for centuries. Many blame the Dutch - who later colonised the Spice Islands, as they were known - for their policy of segregating the two religious communities.

Mr Manuputty hopes the islanders will embrace their own deep peaceful traditions and indigenous wisdom to bring hope to a new generation.

He leads by example. It was through his friendship with Imam Abidin Wakano that Mr Manuputty inspired the young men he works with.

"Ronald came with me and met Imam Abidin and saw the level of trust between me and a Muslim leader, and he could trust him... Through my personal guarantee, we enlarged the circle of the group and we linked it to another group."

Image caption Jacky Manuputty and Ronald Regang have built a foundation of trust, and now are extending it to others

It was during one of these meetings that Ronald met Iskandar Slameth, the former child jihadi.

"When they returned to their communities they were surrounded by people who still had hatred. So we moved them into each other's homes.

"We took Ronald to a Muslim compound, while the Muslims stayed with Christian families... They have to experience everyday life and have the opportunity to meet each other."

Abidin says that through this homestay experience Ronald began to "understand the bearded men he had once thought were cruel jihadists, realising they are just normal guys".

"Through many activities, they started to understand each other. They realised that they had experienced the same fate. To face those who they thought were their fierce enemies. They become friends and peace-makers, crossing the divide."

Image caption The former enemies now call each other "brother"

Many of the activities organised by the "Peace Provocateurs" are based on cultural expression. These days Ronald invites Muslim friends to dance, and organises hip-hop events.

"I'm a dancer so I invite friends to dance, paint and create poems together," he says.

As Manuputty puts it: "We had to change the language, to create the peace narrative to combat the conflict narrative. We did that through poetry, we did that through musical lyrics. That kind of language is very close to the youth groups.

"We bring them together and make music. It spreads the positive energy. The role of a peace provocateur is to change something in your mind, to let us join with others. It is a new diction but powerful."

Many child fighters did not survive the conflict, and others have continued a life of violence as petty criminals. Out of hundreds of former child combatants, there are only 50 who have become peace agents.

Ronald and Iskandar are two of them. They now work promoting peace on social media, combating incitement to hatred, and helping bring together the communities they once fought and killed for.

Photographs by Haryo Wirawan


Crossing Divides

Crossing Divides: a week of stories about people creating connections in a polarised world.

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Media captionHow to survive a difficult conversation

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