July 25, 2023
SINGAPORE – Under the cloak of darkness, masked assailants set upon their targets, beheading or disembowelling them, before disappearing as swiftly and silently as they had come.
Called “ninjas”, the assailants were behind some of the killings of people accused of being sorcerers in the eastern part of Indonesia’s Java island in 1998 and 1999.
In a country where sorcery has long been part of life in rural areas, sorcerers are blamed for almost all problems, from harvest failure to incurable illnesses.
Still, the horrific murders were unusual and sparked hysteria and revenge attacks across East Java’s Banyuwangi regency – known as the centre of sorcery – and other parts of the island.
Quran teacher Ahmad Sugiono, who lives in Banyuwangi, said eyewitness accounts had it that the ninjas were highly skilful.
“They suddenly appeared, then suddenly disappeared,” he told The Straits Times in the fourth episode of the True Crimes Of Asia podcast series. “Even when people knew they were coming and ambushed them, they could disappear. They left no trace.”
In Banyuwangi alone, 194 people died in the bloodletting, according to the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM). The toll reached 108 in Jember and seven in Malang.
The violence came at a time when Indonesia was facing an economic crisis that triggered the May 1998 riots which led to the downfall of dictator Suharto.
After the killings in East Java, there was public discussion about the need to regulate the widespread practice of sorcery in Indonesia. After 24 years, the country finally took the step in 2022 to regulate sorcery.
Dead cattle sparked witch hunts
In early 1998, cattle were dying mysteriously in the village of Kaligondo in Banyuwangi and villagers blamed this on black magic.
Their suspicion fell on sorcerer Soemarno Adi, who once showed off his supernatural power by switching off the electricity supply at a night market.
The villagers demanded he give up his black magic, but he refused. The 35-year-old was assaulted with sticks, swords and sharpened bamboo, and eventually stoned to death on Feb 4, 1998.
His killing was the first of 309 reported lynchings across East Java, where villagers formed vigilante groups to hunt down, torture and kill anyone suspected of sorcery.
They killed dozens of people – a few victims were burned alive, while others were beaten, disembowelled or beheaded, with their severed heads paraded on stakes.
“The suspected sorcerers were often found dead with gaping wounds caused by sharp objects. Some were burned along with their houses. Others were strangled,” senior journalist Abdul Manan, who co-wrote a book titled The Commotion Of Banyuwangi Sorcerers’ Murders, told ST.
Sometimes there were masked persons dressed in black among the vigilante groups. They worked silently and efficiently, marking out the houses of intended victims and cutting off electricity to the entire neighbourhood before executing their targets.
Rumours had it that the so-called ninjas could jump from the roof of a house to another and disappear as quickly as they had come.
At 8.30pm on Oct 3, 1998, four ninjas entered the prayer room of Tarbiyatul Islam As-Syafi’iyah boarding school in Banyuwangi, where Mr Sugiono was then a student. Their target was the principal and cleric Ali Sudardji.
“The ninjas ambushed our cleric’s house from two sides – the front and the back. The situation was very tense,” said Mr Sugiono, citing students who had witnessed the incident.
But the cleric escaped death as he had left the prayer room earlier than usual because he felt sleepy and hungry, said Mr Sugiono, who is the son-in-law of the late cleric.
Unfortunately, many victims of the witch hunts from early 1998 to early 1999 were just ordinary people, such as farmers, village chiefs, heads of neighbourhood, and even clerics linked to Indonesia’s largest Muslim organisation Nahdlatul Ulama (NU).
The number of killings was the highest for a local community that had always avoided murders, Banyuwangi-based historian and culture expert Suhalik told ST.
“The conflicts involving accusations of sorcery (were usually settled within the community). These are solved… through means like the accused taking oaths of innocence or being expelled from the neighbourhood,” said Mr Suhalik, who goes by one name.
When the conflicts turned into killings, it was clear that they were exploited for political purposes, he noted.
Sorcery hijacked for political ends
Explanations abound on why the killings happened.
Among the most widely believed accounts was that the murders were carried out by trained assassins with links to the military, and were intended to destabilise the new Indonesian government, create fear and spread anxiety.
The killings coincided with the May 1998 riots and civil unrest triggered by an economic crisis that had caused millions to fall into poverty. The riots, protests, lootings and rapes of Chinese women claimed 1,200 lives in Jakarta and some other major cities, including Medan in North Sumatra and Surabaya in East Java.
On May 21 that year, Mr Suharto was ousted after 32 years in power. This ushered in the Reformasi movement, or process of reform, under President B.J. Habibie.
Mr Abdul, the author who is now a senior editor at Tempo magazine, said the murders “spread fear and served as a warning… that these events were the negative result of Suharto’s fall”.
“This was expected to discourage people from supporting Reformasi,” he added.
Another argument was that the murders were intended to unsettle NU’s stronghold in East Java and weaken the foundation of a new Islamic party, the National Awakening Party led by charismatic cleric Abdurrahman Wahid. He eventually replaced Mr Habibie as president in October 1999.
Yet some people reasoned that the killings were meant to disrupt the congress of the Indonesian Democratic Party to be held in October 1998 in Bali, just half an hour away by sea from Banyuwangi. The congress later appointed Ms Megawati Soekarnoputri, the daughter of Indonesia’s founding father Sukarno, as the party leader. She became Indonesia’s president in July 2001.
Mr Suhalik noted that throughout Indonesia’s history, similar incidents had occurred where sorcerers were made “scapegoats”.
For instance, sorcerers were killed during a genocide in 1965 and the following years that claimed the lives of around one million members of the Indonesian Communist Party and other civilians. The party was thought to be behind a coup against then President Sukarno, according to the government.
Alleged links to security forces
An investigation by NU found that security forces were involved in the murders in East Java.
Another probe by Komnas HAM concluded that the murders were “systematic” and “extensive” gross human rights violations conducted by “trained” and “organised” assailants.
Among the evidence were the similar modus operandi of the killings, a list of sorcerers drawn up by Banyuwangi regent Turyono Purnomo Sidik and the late intervention by security forces.
“Security forces let the killings happen…. The events began in February (1998), but the security forces only sent the troops in September or October,” said former Komnas HAM commissioner Beka Ulung Hapsara, who led the investigation.
The commission filed its report to the Attorney-General in 2018, but the latter did not follow up on the finding, citing factors such as “lack of evidence and witnesses”.
Mr Abdul said many of the victims were on the list of people thought to be sorcerers, issued by the local government and verified by the security forces – a clear sign of the involvement of the military.
The assailants were outsiders as they did not speak in the local dialect, drove cars and communicated with walkie-talkies, he said.
“It showed that these were premeditated and organised murders,” he noted.
Law on sorcery passed, problem persists
The murders triggered public discussions on how to regulate sorcery to prevent people from taking the law into their own hands.
The government first proposed punishing sorcerers in the 1990s – before the killings in East Java – but it did not push through the idea.
In 2005, seven years after the killings, the Indonesia Ulema Council issued a religious edict that forbids witchcraft.
In 2009, the council branch in Probolinggo city, East Java, floated the idea of making the oath of innocence an alternative legal solution to settle court disputes related to sorcery.
It was only in late 2016 – 18 years after the Banyuwangi massacre – that articles regulating sorcery found their way into the revised draft of Indonesia’s Criminal Code.
After years of deliberation, Parliament finally passed the Criminal Code Bill into law in late 2022. It stipulates that whoever admits to having supernatural power, then informs, promises and offers services to cause harm to someone risks being sent to jail for 1½ years or fined up to 200 million rupiah (S$17,800).
The effectiveness of the law to rein in sorcery remains to be seen, as it will come into effect only in 2026.
Meanwhile, a team to rehabilitate the victims of 12 gross human rights violations between 1965 and 2003, including the Banyuwangi murders, was set up earlier this year on the order of President Joko Widodo.
Mr Beka, a team member, said it seeks to offer assistance to the victims and their families, including psychological counselling, medical services and financial aids.
“We work with victims with deep trauma, so we must be cautious not to make them feel like victims once again.”