Tourists Return To Former Conflict Zone

JULY 27, 2010

Wahyuni Kamah

When I told my friends about my plan to visit Ambon, an island in Maluku, a province in eastern Indonesia, I was met with some shocked stares and a lot of questions. I’m not in the habit of spending my vacations navigating riots or dodging bullets, so I understood my friends’ curiosity and concern.

Between 1999 and 2005, Ambon Island — along with other areas in the Maluku Islands — were the scene of an outbreak of violent religious conflict between Muslims and Christians that left thousands of people dead and hundreds of thousands of refugees.

As a result the government made the islands off-limits to outside visitors between 1999 and 2005. But a peace pact signed in 2002 between the two warring sides has seen a dramatic easing of tensions in the region.

Today, visitors are welcome in an Ambon that has been peaceful for about five years. While conflict still simmers in some regions, for a growing number of curious tourists, the rewards of a visit to the island far outnumber the risks.

A fresh ocean breeze and distant green hills welcomed me when I stepped off the plane at Pattimura Airport.

The city of Ambon and the airport are situated on opposite sides of Ambon Bay so driving to the capital means circling the water on a ribbon of road that winds its way along the coast, offering staggering views of the ocean below and village hamlets on the hills above.

Taxi fare from the airport to the city is about Rp 150,000 ($17) and the drive takes about 45 minutes.

The city of Ambon has a small-town feel and is easy to explore on foot in a day.

Remnants of past strife can still be seen in some parts of town in the form of ruined buildings, but today most of these sites are under construction as crews work to fix the damage of the past.

The lingering impact of the sectarian conflict in Ambon city is most apparent in the way Muslim and Christian neighborhoods are located in different quarters of the city.

Pak Isaak, a driver I hired, explained that mosques are now only found in Muslim neighborhoods, and churches in Christian ones.

“This was not the case before the conflict. After the conflict we started to see the division,” Isaak said. But despite the division, Ambon has the distinct feel of a city coming back together again.

Merdeka Square, in front of the governor’s office, once a flashpoint of sectarian violence, now houses a quaint assortment of cafes and shops, and is a gathering site where young people play football and basketball and hang out under the watchful gaze of a giant statue of the national hero Pattimura, a Christian Ambonese soldier who led a rebellion against the Dutch.

Rumah Kopi (Coffee House), a town gathering spot, is the perfect place to sit and sip tea or coffee with the locals. It’s located in one of the only traditional-style pavilions in Ambon and offers a great view of the surrounding neighborhood.

“It is kind of a local tradition to gather in Rumah Kopi to drink coffee before going to work,” Isaak said.

And it’s such gathering places that give Ambon a reputation as one of the most ethnically diverse towns in eastern Indonesia.

Javanese, Maduranese, Makasar, Mandarin, Butonese and Padang dialects reverberate through the coffee house and the menu is filled with dishes from just as many regions.

Once you’ve explored the city, ojeks (motorcycle taxis) and angkots (minibuses) offer passage to smaller villages on the island.

It’s the island’s pristine beaches and clear, turquoise water that seduce most visitors, however. I was no exception.

Isaak took me to Pintu Kota Beach, situated between the villages of Seri and Air Louw.

Upon arrival I could hardly catch my breath as the lush coconut and pandanus trees gave way to the sight of giant boulders forming natural private coves where clear, turquoise water lapped at bright white sand.

On the way back to Ambon city, I stopped at another beach, Pantai Santai in Latuhalat. It’s a beach where locals like to gather on weekends to relax. I visited on a weekday and had the strand to myself.

As I walked along, all I could hear were the wind and the insistent, gentle roll of waves hitting the shore. A row of small huts set back under big trees offered the perfect spot to relax and enjoy the serenity.

After a while, the rhythm of the waves and the wind put me in a trance-like state of pure relaxation. All my friends’ questions about the safety of the island floated away into the endless Banda Sea.

It occurred to me that there will always be work to be done here to ensure that the mistakes of the past are never repeated. But at that moment, those bad days seemed very distant indeed.

Getting There

Garuda Indonesia offers a daily flight from Jakarta at 9:30 a.m.

Batavia Airways has daily flights from Jakarta at 1 a.m. and 6 a.m.

Lion Air has a daily flight from Jakarta at 1:30 a.m.

Getting around: Car rental (Rp 450,000-500,000 per 12 hours);

angkot (set price depending on the distance); ojek (based on negotiation)