My name is Lian Gogali. I was born and raised in an area of Indonesia called Poso, which is in the middle of the island of Sulawesi. You have probably never heard of it before because it is very remote and rural, with maybe 200,000 people living in it. It has a beautiful unpolluted lake, which is clear like the ocean, we have a 12 level waterfall, rolling hills, and lots of beautiful natural scenery. Maybe more beautiful than Bali. It is rich in natural resources like gold, oil, gas, marble, many types of wood that were untouched. It was a nice, simple life there. Poso is unique because it has a mix of Muslim, Christian, and Balinese Hindus all living together, we had intermarriage and harmony between all the different ethnic groups and religious beliefs. I come from a small village where my family is Christian. We never imagined what would happen to Poso.
In 1998, starting on Christmas Eve, the beauty and kinship in Poso was nearly destroyed. A fight between two teenagers who were drunk, one Muslim, one Christian, started a series of riots that divided the people. At the time, the different religions were not hostile to each other, but many rumors spread between people that Muslims were killing Christians and vice-versa, and people panicked to protect their families. For many years, my home which was so beautiful was a very scary place. A thousand people were killed, both Muslim and Christian, with their bodies thrown into mass graves or the river, until the river was full of blood. In Poso we say, before the conflict the people eat fish, but during the conflict, the fish eat people. We all lost someone or something in the conflict. Everyone was a victim. The communities became enemies of each other.
The conflict caused people who had been friends and neighbors to kill each other, to destroy their houses and place of worship. They killed each other in the name of religion. Thousands of people had to flee their homes and have never returned. They fled to the jungle, lost their land, and they had to start life over again with nothing. Now people became separated by religious identity and really lived in fear all of the time. Eventually, you can imagine this led to a cycle of revenge and trauma for everyone.
The idea that this was a religious conflict was spread by the government, military, and media. It covered up what was really going on. Religion was only a tool that people in power abused to mobilize villagers to do horrible things to others. But during the conflict, the idea of religious identity became very strong in Poso and it divided the people unnaturally. We had once been united, and now Poso had been burned down.
When the Poso conflict happened, I was in Jogjakarta, in Java, finishing my degree in theology, so I was very far away from home. My family started to tell me by phone about the condition there of my family, who had to evacuate, flee into the jungle, live in refugee camps without proper food or sanitation, and some had been killed. I heard about how people were killing each other. In 1999, the year after the conflict started, my father died, so I went back to Poso. Then I got to see how tens of thousands of families were living in refugee camps, living in fear, separated on the basis of religion, and stuck in the cycle of revenge.
However, from some of my family, I also heard the stories that were completely different. It was the story of how Muslims and Christian families protected and supported each other during the conflict. One story that touched me when I was there was about a group of Muslim women and children refugees who were starving to death in the jungle. One day, in the jungle, they ran into a group of refugee Christian women and children. Instead of running from each other, the Christian group of women gave the Muslims food and drink.
Another story that affected me was from a Christian family. One day some people from outside their village came to burn it down and kill all the Christians. So the people were searching for the Christians in the village, but Muslim women in the village let them hide in their houses, and gave them headscarves to put on to disguise them as Muslim. After they got rid of the people who wanted to burn down their village, the women protected and guarded each other. So you can see, The mutual understand between Muslims and Christians was very deep, although unspeakable at the time. But these stories were hidden from the mass media at the time, even as the conflict went on.
Starting in 2001 I did my research for my Master’s Thesis in refugee camps around Poso, so I lived in them. After a while, I came to the conclusion that the Poso conflict was about something much bigger than religion. During the conflict, many big businesses from outside made agreements with the local government in Poso and surrounding areas to exploit the natural resources of land that people owned. I believe that the idea and fear of it being a religious conflict was used as a tool to allow big business to come in and take the land. So not only were the people in Poso dealing with losing their brotherhood with their neighbors that had existed for centuries, but also their land, which is the source of their food and therefore, their life. The companies were supported by the Indonesian military and police. The security forces were in Poso to keep the security of the area, but the military built dozens of installations right next to the large companies that had come to Poso. Currently, the military is widely used by the local government and companies to streamline business, especially when deal with citizens who are fighting for their land.
After a few months of living with refugees, walking from one village to another, when I could walk properly, listening to all of the stories not being told in the media, I began to feel indebted to the women and children who had suffered from this conflict. When I grew up in Poso, it was a safe, peaceful place. Now it was a very damaged place. Since I realized that the conflict was about the political economy, and not about religion, I could not just sit back and do nothing. Many people became writers, researchers, got a Master’s Degree or Doctorates because of their work in the Poso conflict, but did not return to Poso to help the people they researched about. Doing my research in Poso had gotten me a small scholarship, and I got my master’s degree from it. But I had seen the unspeakable suffering that they had lived with during and after the conflict. So instead of making my life in Yogya, I chose to return to Poso without any plan other than I intended to pay back my debt to the women and children I had researched and written about.
Women and children are the victims of and the lowest layers in conflict. This is not just true for the Poso conflict but everywhere. Poso is a patriarchal society, where usually the woman is placed in the kitchen. When the conflict happened, women had to become protectors of their communities while the men were fighting. They had to make decision about how to live. But as the military began to enter villages in the name of security, women were sexually abused and victimized, and in every village where the police or military entered, three to six girls became pregnant out of wedlock. They were all abandoned and then ostracized and disgraced from their community for having a child with no husband. In one women’s organizations calculation, 3,800 were sexually abused during the conflict. The police and military are never punished. Meanwhile, the children are traumatized and deeply suspicious.
But these women are not just victims, they are also survivors who can inspire us to make and sustain peace. During my research, I saw that women were the first to come out of hiding in the mountains and jungles, back to the villages to meet with one another, and start communication with the supposed enemy of a different religion. Women are the first to say hello to each other and express sympathy for their losses during the conflict. They were the first to conduct interfaith meetings when the conflict occurred.
Traditional markets are an effective meeting place for women from different religions to initiate communication. In the conflict, everything took on a religious identity, even vegetables, fish, and tomatoes had a religious identity, depending on who sold it and where. It was women who dismantled this idea. Today Muslim women from the village with the most amount of people killed grow food for pigs, which are an animal only for Christians.
There are many interfaith seminars and meetings in this country that are held in luxury hotels in Jakarta or Bali, conducted by the government or religious leaders. But that is not where grassroots change comes from, and the way to peace is through grassroots education and change. In these meetings, the ideas coming from women are not represented or ignored. This is still a patriarchal society, and that also means that the remembrance and understanding of conflict, as well as the peace process, is controlled by men. There is a lack of space for women to develop their ideas of reconciliation, gender rights, and peace. There is no space for their ideas in mainstream Indonesian media.
I am not a rich women, I am from a small village. I am an ethnic minority in Poso. I haven’t walked in two years with both of my legs, and I am a single mother. So the only thing I have is my vision and ideas for the future of peace in Poso and in Indonesia. But I do have a front porch with some chairs, and that is where I started my idea of a school for women. I know that what we need is a safe and open place for a grassroots women’s movement to really take place in Poso, between women from all the different religious and ethnic backgrounds in there.
So my idea is that we bring women together, many who have not talked with each other in over a decade, so we can make Poso not just a place with no more violence, but a place of justice too. I think that women can create an environment where we are not just surviving conflict, but ending it and preventing future ones. If we can unite the women of Poso, we can fight the major thing that made us have conflict, which is a fight over natural resources. We can fight against rape and sexual abuse from the military and from domestic abuse in our houses. We can have women making important decisions for the better of our children. And most importantly, we can fight against ignorance. In our vision in the Women’s School, is the establishment of a Women’s Congress, where for the first time women have a voice, a REAL voice, in shaping the policies of Poso. And how we are doing that today is the training of local facilitators in the villages we work in with our vision of religion and peace and gender equality. For many of these women they have never heard this idea before!
Our ideas comes from our daily life, our experience, local wisdom that was lost during the conflict. We are using education to teach women and children about the laws in Indonesia that can protect them from violence and exploitation from the military and big business. If we can reunite the women of Poso, we can save our land from being ruined. We can save our life.
No need a lot of money to do this, or nice cars, or even two legs!
Today if you have a cell phone, a white board, and a big idea, you can make it happen, no matter where you come from.