Jakarta. In April this year, a video about two former child combatants who fought against each other in the bloody sectarian conflict in Maluku from 1999-2002 – but have now overcome their differences to become fast friends – went viral.
The video, published by BBC News, showed how hard it was for Ronald Regang and Iskandar Slameth to forget decades of hatred, prejudice and desire for revenge to make peace.
So how were they reconciled? How did the two young ex-soldiers, who lost their childhood to war, get deradicalized and earn their place back in society?
Reverend Jacklevyn "Jacky" Frits Manuputty, who mentored Ronald in his deradicalization program, said child soldiers are often neglected in studies of war or violent conflict.
"There are rarely studies on children as both perpetrators and victims in conflicts," he said during a discussion held by the Center for the Study of Religion and Democracy (Pusad)-Paramadina at newly opened independent bookshop Kios Ojo Keos in South Jakarta on Wednesday (25/07).
Jacky, who started Gerakan Provokator Damai (Provocateurs Make Peace Campaign), estimated that out of hundreds of ex-child soldiers in Maluku, only 30 to 40 have been in deradicalization programs.
He said Ronald and his friends were led to believe they were fighting a holy war between Christians and Muslims.
Jacky himself was one of the priests who blessed children before they went off to war.
He said people like Ronald fought because of him too, and that his peacemaking and interfaith activism now is an attempt to redeem himself.
"Religious leaders who legitimize war have more power than any kind of weapon," he said.
Ronald’s and Jacky’s stories form parts of "Keluar Dari Ekstremisme" ("Getting Out of Extremism"), a book published in February this year that compiles eight real life stories from people who have been deradicalized.
Born in 1989, Ronald was only 10 years old when he joined the war in mid-2000. Ronald lost contact with his father after traveling by boat with him to Ambon. His mother and siblings fled to Manado in North Sulawesi.
Ronald joined a children's troop called Pasukan Cicak ("The Gecko Troops"). He saw his cousin die hugging a bomb to protect other child soldiers – a traumatic event that fueled his desire for revenge.
Ronald was soon appointed as a troop leader and allowed to operate assault rifles, including AK-47 and M16.
The Maluku conflict petered out after the second Malino Charter was signed on Feb. 13, 2002.
After that, Ronald's family sent him to an elementary school in Ambon.
Breakdancing was popular with the kids then, and Ronald found himself a new hobby.
In 2004, UNICEF was looking for young people in Ambon to take part in a peace-building program at Gadjah Mada University (UGM) in Yogyakarta. Jacky, who worked with the UN organization, told them they should take Ronald after hearing good things about him from a local priest.
In Yogyakarta, Ronald met two Muslim children from different conflicts. That was the first time he had the chance to share his war experiences with other ex-child soldiers.
After the program was over, Ronald was brought to Jakarta to see a psychologist, who helped him to see that he was a war victim all along.
The revelation shocked him emotionally, but it helped him rebuild his life.
Ronald was sent to many peace conferences after his trip to Java and finally met Iskandar Slameth, a former Muslim child soldier, at the Young Ambassador for Peace (YAP) program in Ambon.
To say that it was tense between them at first would be an understatement, but eventually they understood and forgave each other and soon became fast friends.
In 2009, Ronald went on to study nursing at Ambon’s Sekolah Tinggi Ilmu Kesehatan (Health Academy, or STIKES).
He told Jacky he wants to learn how to save lives to atone for those he had taken.
Jacky said in spite of Ronald’s transformation, trauma takes a long time to heal.
Ronald still has nightmares about his old battles and finds it hard to be himself in front of others.
"He experienced severe trauma…. One thing about healing is that we are told to forget, but actually the healing process starts when we've reconciled with our past," Jacky said.
The Other Side of the War
Also present at the Pusad discussion was screenwriter Irfan Ramli, who won a Piala Maya for Best Original Screenplay for Angga Sasongko's "Cahaya dari Timur: Beta Maluku" ("Light From the East: I Am Maluku," 2014).
Irfan revealed he was another child victim of the Ambon conflict.
When the war broke out in 1999, 10-year-old Irfan, who had just completed fifth grade, had to flee his village with his pregnant mother and two younger sisters as the adult men in his family defended their village from attacks.
His village, Batu Merah, was located in between a Muslim village and a Christian one, so it suffered from constant bombardment.
"I used to go to sleep with my shoes on and already wearing my backpack, ready to flee," Irfan said.
Irfan said the war forced everyone to be involved in some ways. Though he never joined the fighting, Irfan helped supplying food for the Muslim army.
"The women made nasi bungkus [rice wrapped in leaves] and the kids brought them to the borders," he said.
After the war, Irfan went to university to study Law. In 2012, singer and film producer Glenn Fredly, who is also from Ambon, asked him to accompany director Angga to do research in Ambon for Cahaya Dari Timur.
Irfan was eventually asked to write the script for the movie, parts of which were based on his real life experiences. It took him almost two years to finish.
"I always say that I'm grateful to be born and raised in Ambon and to have to go through the conflict. Not to disrespect the victims in any way, but the war became a big turning point in my life," Irfan said.
The Power of Art
Jacky said there are two important elements in deradicalization: mentorship and integration to the community.
Ronald had two mentors: Jacky himself and journalist-cum-poet Rudi Fofid, who won the Maarif Award in 2016 for his work in promoting peace.
Rudi was also a survivor of the Ambon conflict.
Returning Ronald into his community was a vital step, and it didn't happen overnight.
Ronald had a stain on his reputation as a former combatant.
Parents of the "good kids" – children who didn’t join the war – told them to stay away from Ronald.
When this happens, Jacky said, mentors have to be there to give moral support to the ex-child soldiers and to make sure they don't give up trying to fit back in.
"The transformation process must happen within the community. He [Ronald] cannot be separated from his community," Jacky said.
The hope is that after a personal transformation, a deradicalized extremist can help inspire a social transformation – and Ronald has accomplished just that.
Ronald now runs Red Home, a community where youngsters learn art, dance, music, theater and poetry.
Studies have shown that art initiatives are one of the most effective ways to help form friendships among young people from different backgrounds.
Ronald started by teaching the one thing he loves the most: breakdancing.
Radicals or Extremists?
Dyah Ayu Kartika, the editor of Keluar Dari Ekstremisme and a Pusad-Paramadina researcher, said stories like Ronald’s can inform government policies, especially deradicalization programs.
During the discussion at Kios Ojo Keos, someone asked whether the child suicide bombers in the recent Surabaya church attacks can be considered as child soldiers.
"When children are involved in a conflict, whether as combatants or in other roles, say as spies, they can be considered soldiers," Dyah said.
She also said further studies of the Surabaya church bombings are required to examine the role of the children involved in them, pointing out that this was the first time children were used as suicide bombers in Indonesia.
Dyah said radicalism has been spotted in children before, but not extremism.