Aceh 2001: Christina’s storyThe following report from Aceh, Indonesia, was published in the Sydney Morning Herald in January 2001.
Christians mutilated in "holy war"Victims tell harrowing tales of forced circumcision in the growing holy war in Indonesia’s Maluku islands. Lindsay Murdoch reports.
In December, Christina Sagat and other Christians from her village on the island of Kesui, part of the Indonesian Maluku group, were forced to convert to Islam. The conversion included forced circumcision, a mutilation inflicted on hundreds in the isolated island group by extremists of a jihad (Islamic holy war) movement.
She shakes with fear but is determined not to cry as she tells her story. Her wounds have healed but this 32-year-old woman is left with the deep pain of unresolved sorrow and humiliation. There is also the pain of betrayal - how could her neighbours, with whom she had lived in harmony, turn on her and lead her to a cruel ordeal?
“I feel sad, I feel like I’m no longer ‘complete’, both as a person and a woman,” she said, speaking amid the ruins of Ambon City, the epicentre of the Maluku tragedy.
This is her story.
I was born and raised in Karlomin, a Catholic village in Kesui island. The island itself is actually dominated by Muslims. Kesui is a very beautiful place, it has a white sandy beach. I lived with my parents and seven brothers and sisters, in-laws, nieces and nephews. I used to help my parents take care of our small plantations.
Catholics, Protestants and Muslims used to live peacefully before those local followers of jihad came to the island. In the past, we could hang out and visit friends and families from different religions. If, for example, the Christians were constructing a new church, the Muslims would automatically help, and vice versa.
At first, we did not believe it when we heard about the bloody conflict in Ambon and rumours that the Muslims would attack Christian villages in Kesui. We said it was impossible that our own friends and neighbours would attack us.
As the situation in Ambon got worse, religious and customary leaders in Kesui met and agreed to stay away from the conflict. About late October, people from nearby islands who had joined the jihad visited Muslim villages often. But the Christians at that time did not see that as a problem.
We realised the visits of jihad people were the likely seed of the disaster in the island when my uncle was attacked by Muslim youths in the neighbouring Muslim village. My uncle, as usual, went to buy cigarette papers in that village. But on his way out of the village the mob surrounded him and attacked him. He suffered severe spear and machete wounds all over his body. He was bleeding but managed to get back to our village. But still (before he died) he told us not to take revenge. So we buried him and did exactly what he asked us.
But on the next day, another Christian youth was attacked. We heard that the attacker went back to his Muslim village and told his friends that the Christians were ready to attack them.
After the second murder, some of the Christians started to believe the rumours about the possible war between Muslims and Christians on the island and fled to the mountains or nearby islands.
But many others, including my family, stayed behind. My father was one of the village’s cultural leaders so he had to stay to protect the village. In the third week of November, we eventually decided to flee after learning that Muslim mobs were marching toward our village. We packed some clothes, food and valuables and rushed to the mountains.
We were very scared. We regretted the fact that we had not made the decision to save our lives earlier.
There were about 260 people from my village who stayed on the mountain. But, on the fourth day ... some of our Muslim neighbours found us and told us to follow their religion for our own sake. They said they could not protect us from the jihad people if we were not Muslims.
It’s very hard to us, but we finally decided to follow the Muslims to their village and do whatever they told us to do in order to save our lives. We’re fully aware that refusing to do so would only get us all killed.
The Muslim representatives told us to go straight to a mosque in Kampung Baru village so that when the jihad arrived they would think that we had already become Muslims. When we reached the village, the crowd of people and local jihad followers were already waiting for us; they made a barricade along the path to the mosque. I felt like we were just a group of hopeless sheep being led to a slaughterhouse.
There we realised that all that the Muslim representatives had told us was completely lies. They had cheated us. They acted as if they cared about our lives, but the truth was they only wanted us to convert to Islam, nothing more.
When we all entered the mosque, the habib (Islamic preacher) asked us whether we really wanted to be Muslims. I felt miserable. The habib then told us to say the Al Fatiha prayer (chanted when a person adopts Islam) three times. I did not remember any of the words at all because I did not say it. I just opened my mouth but in my heart I said my own Catholic prayers.
The Muslim crowd inside and outside the mosque yelled and waved their machetes, spears. We all cried. I felt mixed up, scared. I told my mum, who sat beside me, “Why do we have to go through all of of this? It is not a self- willing act, it’s coercion. I can’t do this. But what else can I do. We would only be killed if we refused it, wouldn’t we?”
Meanwhile, the crowd in the mosque searched our bags, they took out the Bibles, Rosary necklaces and small statues of Mary, which were torn and broken to pieces and burnt outside the mosque.
Some of the Muslims shed tears. But I’m sure that’s tears of joy because they could finally make us convert to Islam. Some of the people said “Why on earth did you not follow us earlier?”
We, especially the men, were told to perform Muslim prayers at the mosque. But I tried to avoid it. I didn’t want to do that, did not know the prayers and did not give a damn.
The Muslims did not stop their acts there; they continued with the forced circumcisions. All of us, men and women, old and young, even infants and pregnant women, were circumcised under threat. At least 100 females were circumcised.
The team went to the houses where we stayed in turn. They came to the house where I stayed on December 4. I asked the Muslim family about who would perform it, whether I would be given anaesthetic, etc. They told me female priests would do the circumcision using a kitchen knife and no anaesthetic was necessary. I said to myself, “What? What kind of circumcision is this? How come they do not bother about the sanitary and health factors of it?”
So I tried to avoid them. I pretended not to hear them calling my name. I stayed in my room. I was very, very scared. My body’s shaking. I could imagine myself being circumcised. But I realised there was nothing I could do to stop them from doing it because they would certainly kill me and my family if I refused.
So I reluctantly came out of my room and entered another room. They told me to undress and sit on a chair which was covered with white cloth. “Open your legs,” they said. I saw under the chair a coconut shell filled with water and a kitchen knife. I said. “Oh My God, what would happen to me?” I was so scared, upset too. But I did not dare to resist them, I didn’t want to be killed.
At first the woman soaked her fingers in the water and then inserted them into my vagina as she looked for the clitoris. After she found it, she pulled it out, took out the kitchen knife and cut it. That hurt very much. I shed tears. They left just like that without giving me any medication.
I was lucky, I had some money and went to the store immediately to get antibiotics. I know the men suffered more than us women. The circumcision hurt them more that it did to us because their scars could not heal fast. Several of the men I knew got serious infections after suffering from severe bleeding.
My scar healed quite fast, but the sad, humiliated feeling stayed until today.
My niece, Cecilia, who at that time was eight months pregnant, was also circumcised. How could they do that to her? I heard she cried. But she did not talk about it a lot, maybe she just wanted to bury it. My mother, who is in her 70s, was also circumcised.
Teenagers and even infants were also circumcised. Children were told to soak themselves in the salt water, on the beach, to help healing their scars.
I don’t understand these people. I don’t think the original Ambon Muslim female adults were circumcised. But they insisted we be circumcised.
(On December 15, a ship arrived under government supervision to take Christians to the relative safety of Ambon, a move resisted by jihad leaders.)
I did not want to miss the chance, so I came over to the houses where my mother and father stayed and asked them to go to the beach to board the ship. But when we got to the beach, we saw most of the people who had boarded the ship had returned to the beach.
Then I learnt that jihad leaders were protesting at the way the government team did its job. I guess they just did not want us to leave the island and return to our original religion.
We were scared because it was obvious that the government team was helpless. I decided then to get off the island. I told my mum I would leave. I said, “Mother, if I could board that ship, I would not go down here again.” My mum was very sad, “You’re leaving, don’t you love me any more?” I told her: “I will go, but I will find a way to get you and Dad out of the island.”
The ship left with only 41 people, including me. There were about 100 people, including my brothers and their families and some Christian leaders, who had boarded the ship but then returned to the beach under the Muslims’ threat. The Muslims told them that their families who were still on the island would surely be killed if they left.
We arrived in Ambon at night after almost three days on the ship.
I now stay at the refugee camp at the Stella Maria Church in the Benteng district. I work as a housemaid with a local Christian family.
I don’t know what I will do with my future. I guess the first thing to do is to find a way to get my parents off the island. But I don’t know how.
Sometimes when I’m alone I cry if I remember what happened to me there. What makes me sad the most is my uncle who was bleeding and dying of the stabs and wounds but still had a good heart, asking us not to take revenge for him.
As for the circumcision, the scar is completely healed. But somehow, I feel sad, I feel like I’m no longer “complete” both as a person and a woman.
This week Christina Sagat was rebaptised at a Catholic Church in Ambon City, along with dozens of other Christians from Kesui who were forced to convert to Islam. She told her story to Christiani Tumelap, assistant to the Herald correspondent in Jakarta.
Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday, 27 January, 2001
1. It is not clear from this narrative just what the "circumcision" of the women entailed, though it would appear that it consisted of a cut to the clitoris, wthout excision of any tissue. It is apparent in the case of the men and boys, however, that their entire foreskins were amputated, and Christina actually says that the males were subjected to a more serious operation: "I know the men suffered more than us women. The circumcision hurt them more that it did to us because their scars could not heal fast. Several of the men I knew got serious infections after suffering from severe bleeding."
2. Islam recommends circumcision for both males and females (as a custom or meritorious action), but mandates or requires it for neither. There is no mention of circumcision in the Koran. Further information.