Ambon, the capital of Indonesia’s Maluku province, has been a no-go zone for years since violent conflict between Muslim and Christian communities broke out there in the late 1990s.
Five years on from the last bloody clashes in which thousands of people died, I took the opportunity of Indonesia’s presidential elections to revisit Ambon and find out if the conflict was truly over and whether people were ready to move on.
At a glance, Ambon looked like many other Indonesian cities. The roaring car engines and motorbikes crowding the streets. As I walked along Anthony Rebok Street I bumped into Rexa, a local journalist who worked with Radio Pelangi FM, a BBC partner station. The station was just around the corner.
It was dark when we entered Rexa’s office:
“We experience power cuts almost everyday, which usually last until late afternoon,” he said.
Memory of past events
Rexa grew up in a Muslim family. When I asked him about the past conflict he did not say much.
“In this time of peace, it does not seem right to open up the memory of past events,” he said.
But his reluctance betrayed the reality that the bloody conflict was still fresh in many people’s memories. His own office was a silent witness to the trouble.
As we continued chatting, the station manager came to join us.
Other colleagues followed later, including a female reporter who wore a headscarf.
The station’s employees came from different places and communities.
Station manager, Andre Syagat, was a devout Christian.
We talked and laughed freely over a tea.
But I wondered what happened when the Muslim community and its Christian neighbours could not see eye-to-eye.
“During the conflict we operated two doors,” Syagat said.“Christian reporters used the front door to come in and out; while the back door was used by the Muslim members of our team.”
Now when he recalls the event he can smile, but at the time it was difficult.
“The back door leads you straight to a Muslim residential area, so it was safe for our Muslim colleagues to use,” he added.
As I looked out through the front door – the entrance where Christian staff would have entered the office – I noticed a Christian church opposite the station.
Pelangi FM Station was located right on the border between the two fighting communities.
Syagat said this was justification for serving both communities – providing them with balanced news and information.
Both communities were represented in his editorial team.
He insisted that the number of Muslim reporters had always been the same as that of Christian reporters: “We carry on upholding the principle to stay balanced.”
Until now reporting from the islands has remained very challenging, according to Syagat. It was for the same reason that the BBC in 2002 and in 2004 organised a series of courses about Reporting Conflicts in Ambon.
Pelangi FM began broadcasting the BBC Indonesian Service after the BBC’s previous local partner, JNS Radio had to close down. Clashes had forced some of its staff to flee to neighbouring islands.
For Pelangi, taking the BBC was part of its mission to provide balanced news for the audience.
Peace in Ambon
Following our afternoon chat, Rexa took me back to Anthony Rebok Street.
We stopped at a fish restaurant run by a Muslim family from the neighbouring island of Sulawesi.
As we enjoyed our dinner, I observed people moving along the side walk. Some of them wore headscarves and others wore cross pendants to express their religious affiliations.They crossed paths without any trouble.
A nearby health clinic, run by the Church, looked busy, as was the restaurant and nearby some polling booths had been erected.
They were ready to take the people’s votes for their national leaders: “It does not really matter who wins, as long as they can ensure peace around here,” said one local.
Looking back, one thing that made me happy was that I did not have to use the back door when leaving Pelangi FM Station.
I am an Indonesian Muslim with an Arabic look. Five years ago, that front door was a no-go area for me.
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