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Paris, Friday, March 10, 2000

The Man Who Outran Death

Indonesian Describes Sectarian Massacre at His Factory
by Thomas Fuller, International Herald Tribune

AMBON, Indonesia - Agus Lekatompessy survived the massacre at the Wainibe plywood factory because he ran faster than the mob with machetes.

A former high-school track star, Mr. Lekatompessy ran for an hour and a half without stopping, past offices and workshops, under a barbed-wire fence, over a 5-meter (16-foot) zinc wall and into the jungle.

He not only saved his life but also ensured that a massacre in December of at least 70 people would not remain the secret of the mob that slaughtered fellow employees, their spouses and children.

Today, Mr. Lekatompessy and two other survivors tell their story from the relative safety of refugee camps near the burned-out buildings of this once-tranquil city.

Their accounts provide a rare, detailed glimpse into the religious violence that has wracked these former Spice Islands over the last 12 months, violence that has been so far-flung that it has often been reported secondhand or not at all.

The massacre at Wainibe seems to have been motivated, on the surface at least, by religious hatred: The victims were Christians and the mob that attacked them Muslims. But the three survivors also spoke of professional jealousy and resentment that the Christians supposedly held all the good jobs at the factory.

The story of Mr. Lekatompessy's escape and that of his colleagues is the stuff of a Hollywood thriller: They spent hours trapped by an angry, machete-wielding mob on a remote island.

The three men and one woman escaped by hiding in a closet for more than 24 hours and then dashing for safety, two of them crawling for eight hours under a pile of logs that stretched for a kilometer (a half mile) before they escaped into the jungle.

But the brutal reality of the massacre makes any comparison with an action movie perverse: Mr. Lekatompessy's wife and two young children were slashed to death.

As Mr. Lekatompessy lay hidden in the top floor of the factory's mess hall, he heard cries for mercy, children screaming for their mothers and, later, the familiar voice of the head of the factory's labor union, an accomplice in the killings, saying: "There are already 38 bodies in the hole!"

PT Wainibe Wood Industry, as the factory is formally known, is on the northern coast of Buru, one of about 1,000 islands in the two Indonesian provinces known collectively as Maluku.

Although the site is remote even by the standards of Indonesia - the factory has no telephone - Wainibe's 2,000 workers were plugged into the global economy, producing $1 million worth of plywood a month.

The wood found its way into homes and offices in the United States, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea and China. Ships left the factory four times a month for destinations like Savannah, Georgia, and Long Beach, California.

But something went horribly wrong three days before last Christmas.

By one account, the trouble began when two employees were punching their time cards at the lunch hour on Dec. 22. For reasons that remain unclear, a tussle broke out between the two men, one a Christian and the other a Muslim.

Soon after, hundreds of Muslim workers, who made up about three-quarters of the employees at the factory, attacked Christian employees with traditional hunting and harvesting tools - spears, machetes and homemade swords.

As the mob roamed the streets, throwing stones at Christian houses and shouting "God is Great!" Christian employees and their families were instructed by security personnel to gather at the factory's mess hall.

Mr. Lekatompessy, who arrived at the hall with his family late in the afternoon, has since drawn up a list of the people he remembers seeing there. The totals: 29 employees, 15 spouses and 27 children. Also present were four Malaysian employees who served as technical advisers at the factory.

Soldiers hired by the factory's management several months earlier guarded the perimeter of the compound. But their absence later that evening - during the massacre - remains a mystery to the survivors.

As the Christians gathered inside, an agitated mob surrounded the compound. The Christian employees waited into the night for help to arrive. A company dump truck came and went, escorting the Malaysian employees to safety, but leaving the others still trapped inside. Four men who tried to flee with the Malaysians were caught and killed by the mob.

At 4 o'clock in the morning, when the mob began throwing rocks through the mess hall windows, three of the survivors - Mr. Lekatompessy, Igo Balubun, a manager at the factory, and Yoke Refwalu - ran to the second floor with their families and some friends. They huddled in a small closet and concealed it with a large cabinet against the door. In the early hours of Dec. 23, they heard screams of "God is Great!" followed by cries of "Ampun! Ampun!" - "Mercy! Mercy!" and the sound of metal clanging on the floor.

Several minutes later all was quiet.

The silence was broken not by the mob downstairs but by the babies among the group in the closet - one of them only a month old. In the stifling heat of the windowless room, the babies began to cry and the mob realized that there were people still alive on the second floor.

"We heard voices downstairs saying: 'We're only looking for the men,' Mrs. Refwalu remembers. 'Women and children will be spared.' So we discussed it and decided that the women and children would go downstairs."

Mrs. Refwalu was the last in the group down the stairs. She stopped and quickly returned to the closet when she saw that two of the women at the bottom of the stairs were being hacked with machetes.

The five men had moved to a hiding spot between the ceiling and the roof.

In the heat of the tropical afternoon, Mrs. Refwalu and the five men waited for hours, listening to what they thought were the sounds of bodies being dragged across the gravel outside.

"This one's not yet dead," they heard people say.

"Cut him up!"

And then the sound of a machete hitting the floor.

They heard voices they recognized.

Mr. Lekatompessy said he remembers hearing Jaka Latupono, head of the labor union, say: "Work faster! Cover up the trail."

"I know Jaka's voice," Mr. Lekatompessy said. "I dealt with him many times."

Then there was silence, hours of silence.

At 3 P.M. on Dec. 23, four of the men, including Mr. Lekatompessy, became restless.

The heat was overbearing and they had not had anything to drink for 24 hours.

The four came down from their hiding spot and cautiously walked downstairs. Then they ran for their lives.

Fifty meters into their sprint they were spotted by members of the mob, who were sitting under a nearby mango tree.

Two of the men made it to the safety of a neighboring village. The other two were slaughtered.

In the mess hall, Mrs. Refwalu and Mr. Balubun were planning their escape.

At 9 P.M, after spending 28 hours without food or water, they ventured outside, crawling and running until they reached a giant pile of logs supported by wooden rails. With barely enough room underneath, they crawled on their elbows, military-style, under the kilometer-long pile.

Eight hours later they emerged at the other end, ran across a river and through the jungle, arriving at 9 o'clock that night - Christmas Eve - in the safety of a neighboring town.

In the two and half months since the massacre, the Wainibe plywood factory has been shut, and its owners in Jakarta say they do not know when it will operate again.

"We feel deeply sorry for the families of the employees who died," said Soenato Kaharudin, general manager of the factory, by phone from Jakarta. Asked about compensation for survivors and victims' families, Mr. Kaharudin said the details were still being worked out.

from: http://www.iht.com/IHT/TODAY/FRI/FPAGE/indo.2.html

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