Indonesian pastor turns ex-child soldiers to peace

Young participants in Muslim-Christian clashes two decades ago are now promoting interreligious harmony
Indonesian pastor turns ex-child soldiers to peace

Reverend Jacklevyn Frits Manuputty mentors former-child soldiers who fought in Ambon's bloody sectarian conflict. (Photo supplied)

In January 1999, a fight between a Christian public transport driver and a Muslim in the capital of Indonesia's Maluku province, Ambon, kicked off a bloody sectarian conflict.

Three months later, Reverend Jacklevyn Frits Manuputty travelled to New York in the United States following an invitation from the Presbyterian Church Synod there.

The pastor, popularly known as Reverend Jacky, was serving as director of the Research and Development Agency of the Protestant Church in Maluku at that time.

So, he used the chance to share accounts of Christians who had become victims of the sectarian conflict back in Ambon.

However, members of his audience asked why he focused only on Christian victims when Muslims were also victimized. The tough questioning hit him hard and he began to think more about humanity and implicit underlying issues.

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After returning to the conflict-torn mixed Christian and Muslim city of Ambon in October that year, he also visited refugees of conflicts with a religious dimension in Myanmar and Sri Lanka.

And he sharpened his thinking on the role played by children in sectarian conflicts and the impacts on them.

In Maluku province, large numbers of children became participants in the sectarian strife which ended in February 2002 when a peace agreement was signed by members of the two warring groups.

The four-year conflict resulted in the destruction of hundreds of churches and mosques and the razing of thousands of homes.

At least 5,000 people were killed and half a million others were displaced, according to some reports.

Reverend Jacky, who is co-founder and director of the Interfaith Organization in Maluku, has since sought to promote community-based dialogue across the religious divide.

In 2011, in cooperation with some local Muslim leaders, he officially formed a movement called Peace Provocateurs, aimed at building collective pride among young people, particularly those who effectively became child soldiers in the sectarian conflict.

Many young people were, in the wake of the peace agreement, left living in communities deeply divided along religious lines and traumatized by the past. Worse, former child soldiers were stigmatized as combatants.  

"Principally, no matter how bad a person is, he or she still has the seed of peacefulness within himself or herself," said Reverend Jacky, who in 2012 received an award from the New York-based Tanembaum Center for Inter-religious Understanding.

The Peace Provocateurs use arts and social media to promote peace and friendship while countering attempts by others to foment strife.

About 40 former child soldiers, including Ronald Regang, have joined the movement so far. "I met Reverend Jacky in 2004," Regang said.

In the sectarian conflict, he first joined a children's troop and was then appointed as a troop leader and learned to use assault rifles including AK-47s and M16s to deadly effect.

"I was only 10 years old when it broke out in 1999," said the Protestant layman, now 29. "All I knew about was fighting against those who desecrated my religion. If I had to kill people, it was because I had no choice."

Not long after his meeting with Reverend Jacky, Regang was asked by the pastor to join a peace-building program held by the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) at the state-run Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta province.

"I was lucky," said Regang, who now runs a community called Red Home where young people learn to  employ arts to deliver a message of peace.

"Reverend Jacky helped me out of the so-called satanic circle. Now my life is so meaningful, and I can promote peace," he said.

For Reverend Jacky, providing as many spaces as possible for young people to maintain friendships is crucial in his efforts to promote peace in still tense Ambon.

"Sometimes it's tiring, though," said Reverend Jacky, who is now 53. "But it needs passion. This is the art of building the bridge."

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