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Kei (Chapter 8)

Nurhayat Indriyatno Mohamed is the managing editor of the Jakarta Globe, an English-language newspaper in Jakarta. He was born and raised in Tanzania, and has a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Natal, Durban, in South Africa. At age 24 Hayat decided to move to Indonesia, the land of his father’s birth, and was immediately smitten by the novelty of it all.
A chance encounter led to a newspaper job, and another presented him with the opportunity to translate into English a book by the award-winning author Okky Madasari. Hayat translated Erni Aladjai’s award winning novel Kei (GagasMedia 2013) under the same title for Dalang Publishing in 2014.

Hayat can be reached at:






Chapter 8

Langgur, May 1999

The wind from the sea was colder than in previous months. Old and young men lined up on the beach. In the distance, a group of three rowboats lit by lanterns snaked their way closer to the shore.

“Everyone get ready.” At forty-five, Tinus was the tribal leader’s assistant for legal matters. The men held their breath as the rowboats approached. As they drew closer, the sound of the oars churning the water grew clearer. Someone in one of the boats held a lantern aloft and stood up.

“Hey, brothers, we are here,” shouted a woman wearing a jilbab.

“Can we come ashore? We have food and clothes for our families taking refuge here,” another person in the boat said.

“Yes, my brothers and sisters, you can come ashore,” Tinus called out.

Everyone was relieved. They were not attackers or people trying to instigate violence. The latter were out to destabilize Maluku, but on Kei, whether Muslim or Christian, everyone was still a Kei.

The men escorted three of the women from the rowboat to the refugee camp. Once there, they embraced their relatives. “Don’t be sad, just calm down. The conflict will end soon and we can be together again. We can’t do anything for now, do you understand? This is only temporary.” One of the women wiped the tears from her sister’s eyes.

The personal ties among the Kei people had always been complex. Many Muslims married Christians, so if a woman was a Muslim, her grandchild could very well be a Christian. A Christian husband could have a Muslim wife, and a Muslim’s sibling could be Protestant and their cousin Catholic. That was part of the reason why the Kei were brothers. Their relationships were as complex as the arrangement of the song “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen.

In the heart of the Kei lived snib — a sacred legacy of the ancestors to always guard, protect, and respect women. Kei men had to protect women everywhere, no matter who they were or what religion they followed. The bringing of food by the women in the rowboats was common in Kei. They knew they would never be hurt.


Long before the conflict came to the Kei islands, the people had built churches and mosques together. Catholics, Protestants, and Muslims alike joined in cheerfully. The Kei had a life philosophy: we are all eggs from the same fish and the same bird. Their traditions and tribal laws dated back to historic times, prevailing through the years and superseding all else, including religious doctrine.

When the conflict started in Ambon in January 1999, the Kei stayed calm and refused to take sides. Then on March 31, just before daybreak, violence erupted in Tual. The Kei people learned about it from television and radio reports after the sun had risen high in the sky. Most of them following the developments were convinced the conflict would never leap to the Kei islands. An imam at a mosque said: “The traditional laws of Kei come first. Only after that do people heed the Qur’an or the Bible. The last law we obey is the law of the State of Indonesia.”

The conflict was crueler than the angel of death. It spread quickly to the small villages and islands in the area, reaching Elaar and Watraan and other places.

As the conflict escalated, the tribal leaders and settlers — the Buginese, Javanese, Makassarese, Buton, and Chinese — gathered to talk about peace.


Namira was trying to calm two young boys at the refugee camp who were arguing and trying to snatch each other’s marbles when Sala came along carrying a pair of yellow flip-flops. He knew she had not worn footwear since he first met her, and did not want her stepping on any more glass shards. Since the night at Max’s house, Sala’s love for Namira had grown by the day. He abandoned his plan of leaving the Kei islands. He wanted the conflict to be over quickly so he could take Namira to Watraan. He wanted to marry her there.

Sala imagined that after a tiring day of forging knives, she would bring him a cup of tea and a plate of fried cassava. His daydreams were filled with the small pleasures of married life. He believed his mother’s soul would be at peace if he went back home and revived the metal shop.

Namira was all the encouragement he needed.

At lunch at the camp, Namira busied herself preparing Sala’s food. It became the talk of everyone working in the kitchen. The volunteers called her and Sala the Romeo and uliet of Langgur. It annoyed and pleased Namira.

“He’s a good man, Ra,” said Rohana. She was short and fat, with round cheeks, and always joking and cheerful.

Namira liked Rohana, and so did many of the other refugees. She told funny stories that made the others laugh as though the violence in Kei had never happened.

One day, the volunteers and social workers were upset because the food aid sent by the government had spoiled. The bread was moldy and the instant noodle packets were torn and infested with ants. Seeing the others upset, Rohana started to chatter.

“A young man named Lius went to the same food stall at lunchtime. One day he asked the woman owning the stall, ‘Aunty, what stew do you have?’

“The owner said, ‘Nail stew, Lius.’

“He ordered the nail stew. The next day he came again at lunchtime. He asked, ‘Aunty, what stew do you have?’

“The woman answered, ‘Bamboo stew, Lius.’

“Then Lius said, ‘Aunty, if this keeps up, tomorrow I’ll
shit a fence.’

”Another time, when the volunteers were gloomy because of news that the military had entered the conflict in Maluku, Rohana had another funny story to tell. She said that when people complain, things only get worse because the universe repays them with more grief. “So let go and laugh,” she said.

The story went like this: A child went home after he was scolded by his teacher at school and told his grandfather. The grandfather became angry and went to the school looking for the teacher. But when he arrived, the teacher had gone home. The grandfather became angrier and went to the teacher’s house. He rolled up his sleeves, revealing his tattoos. When he knocked on the teacher’s door, a soldier in full uniform answered. The soldier was the teacher’s husband. The grandfather suddenly turned coward.

The soldier asked, “Can I help you, pak?”

The grandfather answered, “I wanted to ask the teacher if there was community service at the school today.”

Rohana was endearing to Namira, Sala, other volunteers, and the refugees.


Sala touched Namira’s leg. She woke and rubbed her eyes.

“Sorry.” He felt bad waking her up before daybreak.

Namira rose and went to the well. She washed her face and tied her hair back while Sala waited for her. They walked to the ketapang tree and stood so close they formed a single silhouette. Moonlight seeped between the leaves and branches, and fell in a straight line across the ground. Sala pulled Namira into an embrace. He felt uneasy, yet wished he could spend all of his time showing her his love.

A moment later, they headed toward the road and the beach. They walked through patches of beach morning glory and gravel before they reached the white, wet sand. Namira brought a fish basket and Sala carried a set of oars. The village chief ’s boat was moored on the beach. It was used for fishing so there would be food for the refugees.

“I don’t have a good feeling about today. Maybe you should stay on land,” Namira said. Besides her premonition, she had a vision of corpses floating on the water and the fish nibbling on them. She shuddered to think people ate the same fish.

Namira looked at Sala, her intuition tied up in knots. She took the fish basket back out of the boat and Sala followed her.

Deep in his heart, he felt the same. Martina had told him that a woman’s intuition is stronger than a fortuneteller’s prediction.


“Not going out to sea today, pela?” a volunteer asked.

“No, Namira won’t let me.”

When the sun was directly overhead, the sound that had haunted everyone for the past two months returned. It was heard in Elaar, Watraan, and Ngursoin. The refugees scattered. Once again, there was crying and the noise of gunshots. A mob appeared from nowhere and surrounded Langgur, like “rats that suddenly appear from unknown holes, right at the eruption of war.”

These unknown rats came with machetes, spears, and arrows. This was the most sorrowful conflict of all — against one’s brothers.

A bomb exploded north of Langgur and shook the ground. It felt as though the village would split apart. The refugees ran every direction. Namira could only sit with her wet cheeks and cover her ears. The trauma she experienced in Elaar made her unable to move.

“Those goddamned police and soldiers. Where did these people get their guns if not from them?” One of the volunteers cursed aloud and added, “This is truly crazy.”

Langgur’s main street was divided. To the right were the local men and refugees, and to the left the attackers who barricaded the road. The parties threw rocks at each other and the attackers shot arrows that showered the other side like shooting stars.

The road was strewn with rocks. A food kiosk close to Max’s house caught fire. Three men lay still on the road. No one helped them. Sala broke through the blockade of men wearing red bandanas. Namira was left behind and hid with another volunteer beside a rusty barrel. A man wearing a red bandana pointed his spear at them.

Namira broke out in a cold sweat.

“Are you Muslim?” he asked.

Namira trembled. The volunteer next to her shut her eyes tight, ready to meet her barbaric end with dignity.

“Hey, pela, don’t you hurt those girls or you’ll get hurt yourself.” A voice like a tiger’s roar pierced Namira’s ears. Sala stood in front of the man with the red bandana. “I won’t fight you, pela. I don’t want to give those seeking bloodshed any reasons to cheer.”

Namira looked intently at Sala.

The volunteer babbled, “Oh, Allah, Jesus, Elohim, Hallelujah, Dalai Lama, gods of the sky, bring peace to Kei.”

Sala stepped up to the man with the spear.

“I’m the same as you, I have the same religion. But if we join in the slaughter, we’ll only satisfy those who want to see chaos in Maluku,” Sala said.

It was like a miracle. The man with the red bandana was quiet. He had only been paid to do something that he was reluctant to do. Sala pulled Namira by the arm. She collapsed in his embrace, sobbing. “Please find Esme,” she said between tears.


Black smoke blanketed Langgur and the other villages, resembling a flock of crows passing overhead. The stench of death was like the scent of frangipani at night. The refugees who were still alive fled in boats along with the women and children of the village. This time they headed to Evu.

Sala asked Namira to go there too. He had to remain in Langgur with the other men and protect the village. They planned to secure the public facilities so the village did not have the same fate as the one on the other island — it was best not to mention the name out of decency and horror. The well in that village, the people’s only source of fresh water, was filled with severed body parts. The stench was overwhelming.

The unrest had caused many horrors, stories of corpses without arms or legs, or heads or shoulders or chests. One report from an island to the south reached Langgur, about a gunnysack being found behind the mosque filled with the body of a man and swarming with fat maggots.


Namira gazed at Sala with tears in her eyes. She jumped out of the boat and hugged him, crying. Sala held her tight and stroked her hair. He shed a teardrop. It held sadness more profound than the most hysterical crying.

“Go, wait in Evu. Don’t worry. I’ll find you. The conflict will soon wear itself out. I love you.”

Sala peeled Namira’s arms from his waist and took her to the boat. Once on the water, sea foam lapped at its hull. A sea eagle soared in the sky above Langgur, returning to its nest. Below the bird were people without hope of being reunited with their families.

Namira stared at the yellow flip-flops on her feet. They looked like the sign of a long journey ahead of her.

Far away, Sala stood on the beach.




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