That New Black Magic

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DAVID LIEBHOLD BanyuwangiJumaidi hoped that a public denial would finally put an end to the rumors that he dabbled in black magic. Early this month the elderly fisheries supplier went through an elaborate ceremony at his local mosque, formally swearing that he had never engaged the services of dark powers. But it was too late. Four days afterward, walking along a dirt road beneath a pale moon, Jumaidi met his end. His head was split open with an axe, says Wahyudi, a member of a citizen's self-defense group who was one of the first people on the scene. He had been stabbed with a sickle--twice in the back and once in the side. His intestines were hanging out.Nobody saw the murder, one of the latest in a string of macabre killings that is terrorizing the East Java town of Banyuwangi. At least 95 people have been killed in the town this year, most of them during the past two months. Townsfolk describe masked, ninja-style killers, dressed entirely in black. They say some of the dead have been found with a large X carved into their backs, while others have been cut into pieces, tied into bundles and hung from tree branches. Most of the victims have been suspected practitioners of black magic, but in recent weeks the dead have included Muslim teachers with no known history of sorcery. The 32-million-strong Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) Islamic organization has appealed to the authorities to protect its members, many of whom have also been attacked or murdered. It's easy to get your enemies killed, says Pastor Leonardus Jawa. You just say they're sorcerers.Conspiracy theories are flowing as freely as the victims' blood. Some believe the killings are the work of former communists or their families, taking revenge for massacres in the mid-1960s. Others believe the military itself is orchestrating the murders so that it can later step in and restore order, thereby proving its usefulness to an increasingly skeptical population. And those are just the most reasonable hypotheses. According to one line of thinking, the NU has been killing its own members as a means of winning public sympathy and support for its new political arm, the National Awakening Party. It has even been suggested by some that the assassins might be in the pay of the notoriously superstitious former President Suharto, in a bid to stop the sorcerers from further undermining his position.While it is difficult to rule out anything in troubled Indonesia, observers note that East Java has a long history of violence. Last January, Banyuwangi was among the first towns to see attacks on ethnic Chinese, and the region leads the country in looting and rioting. Even the conspiracy theorists agree that the current economic depression is making people more susceptible to incitement, raising fears that the bloodletting could engulf other parts of the country. Indeed, the killing spree has already spread to the nearby towns of Pasuruan, Jember, Situbondo and Lumajang, bringing the provincial death toll to 105. PAGE 1  |  
By day, Banyuwangi appears normal enough. Facing Bali on the sparkling Java Sea, the town is set among lush rice fields, palm groves and teak forests. But the setting of the sun reveals a different reality: a town living in terror of itself. For the past two weeks a curfew has been imposed--not by authorities, but by the petrified citizenry. Groups of residents armed with sickles, swords and metal bars guard the entrances of every side street and neighborhood until 4 a.m. More than one unwary motorist has had his vehicle attacked for failing to stop at the makeshift checkpoints. We're afraid that they'll come and take people away, says San, 36, standing guard in the north of the town.Sorcery may be hard to prove, but there is general agreement that the first victims were, indeed, dukun santet, or practitioners of black magic. Supernatural warfare is a part of everyday life in East Java. In exchange for a fee--ranging from a few cigarettes to $500--the sorcerers offer to rid people of their enemies. The standard method, locals say, is to dispatch an egg-sized green ball that flies through the air like a meteorite. It finds its way to the home of the victim, who dies in accordance with detailed instructions the sorcerer has committed to writing. Banyuwangi has the largest number of sorcerers--there are thousands of them, says regional police chief Budi Utomo. The number of people suspected to have been killed by them is large. The police say they have relocated 227 sorcerers since the witchhunt began, while others have fled on their own.Banyuwangi police are holding 118 people in connection with the murders, and Utomo says they already have 59 confessions. However, police have yet to give a coherent explanation for the slayings. Chances are that Jumaidi's family will never know who killed him, or why. But there is little doubt that the country's troubles have helped set the scene for the bloodletting. The basis of it all is the economic crisis, says a policeman sitting outside the Banyuwangi headquarters. People are confused about how to get food. Once again, as if under an evil spell, Indonesians are sharpening their knives.  |  2