Capitalism & Spirituality

Yoshie Furuhashi furuhashi.1 at
Tue Jan 2 20:05:50 MST 2001

New York Times 2 January 2001
Witch Hunts in Java Called a Cover for Murders


CIANJUR, Indonesia - In this verdant farm belt of West Java, where
sorcery and superstition have deep roots, few were surprised last
September when an angry mob decapitated a 70-year-old woman accused
of casting spells that made people ill. Before lopping off her head,
witnesses said, the crowd gouged out her eyes and severed some of her
limbs, which they tossed into the street.

Beheadings of suspected witches are not uncommon in rural towns and
villages of Java, Indonesia's most populous and perhaps most mystical
island. The local police estimate that there were at least 100 witch
killings in Java last year. Still, few people seemed upset by the
killings, which typically occur in Indonesia's backwaters and are
committed under the guise of wiping out evil.

But indifference to the killings may now be changing after 21 people
accused of practicing black magic were beheaded or chopped to death
between July and October in one district alone - Cianjur, about 60
miles south of Jakarta, Indonesia's capital. Because of the high
concentration of witch murders in one area, the police suspected that
there was more to the killings than just fear of sorcery.

This month, the police announced the arrest of 28 suspects linked to
the killings, which they said were driven less by fear of evil forces
than by personal gain. In most cases, the police said, the suspects
had falsely accused the victims of practicing witchcraft and then
either killed them or incited or paid others to do so. Their motives
were mainly revenge, rivalry and extortion, although some of the
suspects may have indeed been driven by genuine terror, the police

So far, there is no direct evidence linking the victims - who were
mainly farmers, Muslim teachers and elderly women - to the practice
of witchcraft, which is not illegal in Indonesia.

While some of those arrested were bit players caught in the hysteria
of a bloodthirsty crowd, the police said that many suspects were
connected to a well-organized syndicate that for a fee cleverly
engineered murders to look like witch hunts.

"Many of these were premeditated murders arranged by a network of
experienced witch hunters who preyed on the fears of ordinary
citizens and convinced them to kill," said Agus Nugroho, Cianjur's
senior police inspector. "This case shows just how real black magic
is in the minds of the people of this region."

Mr. Agus said that for about $100 syndicate gangs would persuade
someone in a village to accuse the targeted person of being a witch.
Once the village became convinced that there was a witch in its
midst, the gang carried out the killing, usually with the help of
townspeople who had been whipped into a frenzy.

Typically, the witch-hunting syndicate found clients in local
businessmen seeking to get rid of competitors and candidates for
village offices who sought to eliminate political opponents, the
police said.

People with grudges or seeking an early inheritance also contracted
with the syndicate.

At least 2 of the 21 victims were casualties of a highly competitive
local election. In September, two men who were candidates for
administrative chief of the local mosque in Hegar Sari in southern
Cianjur were suddenly branded as witches and killed, the police said.

Of the 24 suspects now in custody, the police said, a pivotal role in
the witch hunts was played by Apih Barma, a 53-year-old farmer and
part-time healer. He was the man who judged whether or not a person
was in fact a witch.

For 50,000 rupiah, or about 50 cents, Mr. Barma administered what the
police called a "medical" test to determine if a person was a black
magic practitioner. They said Mr. Barma had effectively condemned to
death many of the people brought before him by declaring them
witches. He has been charged with practicing medicine without a

In an interview at the Cianjur jail where is being held, Mr. Barma
said that he was innocent and that he knew nothing of a network to
frame people as witches.

Mr. Barma, who has spiky hair and a fixed, piercing stare, at first
admitted to administering the witch test to dozens of people brought
to him by local community leaders. He said the test consisted of
reading from the Koran and observing how the accused reacted. Later
in the interview, Mr. Barma denied that there was any witch testing
and said that he simply read scriptures to try to free people under
the sway of the devil.

"I didn't give any instructions or permission for anyone to be
killed," Mr. Barma said. "Those people who were killed died because
they were witches and deserved it."

In these poor and undeveloped areas of Indonesia, where education and
medical care are scarce, people are prone to believe in the power of
supernatural forces to influence sickness and health.

A person can be branded a witch by being the last to have contact
with someone who fell ill or suddenly died. Even common ailments like
rashes, allergies and the flu are attributed to black magic. In some
instances, healers are accused of being witches if they fail to rid
clients of disease.

Cianjur residents recount, with evident belief, stories of people
vomiting nails, snakes and paper clips, and of bloated stomachs the
size of giant balloons that cause people to float around a room.

In the case of Jumsih Canak, her problems began in early September
when she tried to do a good deed by feeding her sick neighbor a piece
of fish. The neighbor's condition worsened and she eventually died.

Other villagers recalled becoming ill after contact with Mrs. Jumsih,
and she was labeled a witch. Five men stormed her house and severed
her head with machetes, the police said.

Witch hunters are considered heroic in most villages because they rid
the community of evil forces. When the police first began detaining
and questioning suspects in the killings, local residents staged huge
protests demanding that the suspects be freed.

In one case, villagers overpowered several police officers and held
them hostage until the suspects were released.

Hiday, a 36-year-old farmer who is also being held at the Cianjur
prison, said in an interview that he had taken part in the killing of
three witches in southern Cianjur, which he said was overrun with
witches who had cast "evil spells" on many people there.

"The only way to get rid of witches is to kill them," he said. Before
going on a witch hunt, Mr. Hiday said, he and his colleagues would
prepare themselves psychologically.

"It's hard work killing a witch, but you just have to keep telling
yourself over and over again that they are evil and that you are
helping to save innocent people from their curses and spells," he

Tu Bagus Ronny Nitibaskara, a University of Indonesia anthropologist,
said witch killing in the region dates back centuries, at least as
far back as the Dutch colonization of the islands that eventually
became Indonesia. Although legally unjustifiable, the witch killing
has long served as a mechanism for rural villages to expunge
antisocial behavior.

Asked why witch killings are so sadistic, Mr. Nitibaskara said: "They
are killed in such a savage way because people believe that they are
witches and that they can come back to life. That is why they
separate the head from the body or chop the body into pieces."

Abdul Halim, chief of Cianjur's Council of Islamic Teachers, said
that although Islam forbids the belief in and practice of black
magic, many pre-Islamic traditions and superstitions are widely
followed in Indonesia, which has the world's largest Muslim

Mr. Halim said that while a lack of education led many people to
believe in witchcraft, many well-educated people also dabbled in the
spiritual world.

According to persistent reports he has never denied, President
Abdurrahman Wahid regularly consults spiritualists, as do many
prominent Indonesian political and social figures.

Even among the educated class in Indonesia, black magic is often a
convenient explanation for one's own shortcomings.

A senior government official whose house was recently ransacked and
robbed by his domestic help said that his workers had been hypnotized
and ordered to steal by a witch hired by the political opposition.
Close friends of the official said the workers had robbed his house
because he had refused to pay them the customary year-end bonus.

"My greatest fear is that this trend will spread to other regions of
Indonesia," Mr. Halim said of the use of witch hunts as a cover for
murder or threatening to identify people as witches to squeeze money
from them. "You must understand that rural villagers who are not very
educated are very easily provoked and moved by rumors so we must
combat people using witchcraft for extortion."

The police said they have some leads as to who is behind the
syndicate but are still searching for the organizers.

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