Where insanity stalks at sundown


Viewed from the air, the coast of east Java around Banyuwangi looks like paradise. The turquoise of the submerged coral reef offshore blends with the silver reflection from terraced rice fields and the lush green of tropical forests.

But on the ground it is a place of terror. In the city of 1 1/2 million people, the streets fall silent after dark and the night stalls selling ginger tea and egg and sweet corn patties close early. In the countryside men armed with knives and swords man road-blocks from dusk until the equatorial sun rises over the Banda Sea and daylight returns.

The object of their fear are the ninja men, mysterious assassins clad in black and named after mythical Japanese sorcerers with satanic powers. The first murders attributed to the ninjas occurred in January near Banyuwangi at the time when President Suharto's power was undermined by economic disaster. Since then scores of people have been slain and the terror has spread to the centre of Java, the island which forms the political and geographical heart of Indonesia.

The killing of Adi, a Muslim teacher, was typical. One night the electricity to his village was cut and moments later, hooded men in black burst through his door and hacked him to death. Rumours spread that the ninjas were local shamans, healers with reputed magical talents. The ninja killings have been followed by a wave of lynchings of anyone suspected of practising black magic. In an atmosphere of hysteria, strangers are often accused of being ninjas by blood-thirsty mobs.

In the town of Turen, the headless body of a man was dragged naked through the wet streets in a convoy of 30 motorcycles whose riders shouted: "God is great, the ninja is dead," as onlookers cheered. The public display of the corpse is important to terrify people to believe the ninjas have the power to escape by changing into animal shape and leaping into trees.

When 31-year-old Zaenal, a one-time model suffering from depression, was beheaded as a suspected ninja in Malang his executioner held the head aloft and drank the dripping blood to protect himself from the evil of ninja spirit. Outsiders without identification can become suspect and many Indonesians now refuse to travel on business in parts of Java.

When the killings spread to Surabaya, the capital of east Java, local hotels emptied. At first the killings seemed irrational, a product of folk beliefs in a land where ancient religions and mystical thought carry over into modern times.

Though on a smaller scale, they echo the wholesale killings of 1965-66, the last period of political transition in Indonesia when 500,000 died in anti-communist purges. Now, however, there is growing evidence that the ninja killings and the mob violence are part of a sinister political plot, orchestrated by dissidents in the army and hard-line loyalists of ex-President Suharto.

Their goal is to create the conditions for a coup or simply to stifle demands for political reform, diplomats in Jakarta say. When lawlessness is afoot, people are less likely to call for the weakening of the army, the institution which for decades held Indonesia together and imposed stability.

Hints that the Indonesian government knows that a dirty war is under way have come from the top. On October 18th the head of the Indonesian armed forces, Gen Wiranto, said while visiting Banyuwangi that the murders were "the result of a conflict among the political elite".

Many of the ninja targets were Islamic scholars belonging to the 20 million-strong moderate Muslim organisation Nahdlatul Ulama, whose head, Gus Dur, could probably unseat President Habibi at any time, together with his ally Megawati, daughter of the nation's founder Sukharno.

"The masterminds are everywhere, in the cabinet and outside the formal political structure," said Gus Dur recently. Police blame descendants of communists seeking revenge for killings begun in 1965 involving Muslim elements. In the atmosphere of fear and loathing old scores are being settled and the cry of "ninja killer" has been enough to turn people against someone pursuing a criminal. Hundreds of vulnerable people have been taken into police custody for their own safety.

Last month a new phase of the killings began when rumours were spread that ninjas could take over the bodies of insane people. In Malang, mental patients were spirited out of the hospital and dumped many miles away, where the word was put around that a ninja was in a district. Some 10 mentally unbalanced people have been murdered by the mob in a land where insanity takes over when the sun goes down.