Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Is it safe to travel to the Indonesian island of Ambon?

Families, once displaced by violence, are returning to their home villages on Indonesia's Ambon Island. Read their story Photo: Kim Johnston/Mercy Corps.

A colleague has come to me with this query:
I am thinking about sailing to the Indonesian island of Ambon as part of the Darwin to Ambon yacht race? Should I go or is it still too dangerous?

Background: Ambon is both an island and a city, and is the main centre in the eastern province of the Moluccas, (once known as
the Spice Islands). It was once a easy-going tranquil place off the beaten track - but was well known to sailors - particularly those who competed in the annual Darwin to Ambon yacht race. In 1999 violence broke out.. Ambon became another of Indonesia's flashpoints after the fall of President Suharto, when law and order disintegrated across the archipelago. (You can read about this in my book RUNNING AMOK). Once peaceful Christian and Muslim communities were turned against each other.. and the violence escalated into a bloody civil war which claimed at least 6,000 lives up until 2003. Many parts of Ambon have been destroyed - I have witnessed the fighting, arson and looting and seen the terrible trauma left by those who have been tortured or mutilated.

Suffice to say the Darwin to Ambon Yacht race was halted - but crews are once again ready to sail. So has the violence stopped? Is it safe to travel to Ambon for a yacht race, or even fly in as a tourist?

Generally, calm has returned. However there ARE sporadic acts of violence that should be noted:
  • On May 2 this year a grenade exploded as worshippers were gathering outside Ambon's
    Al-Fatah Grand Mosque in preparation for morning prayers. There were no injuries.
  • A grenade exploded on April 25 at a bus station, followed the same day by a grenade which was hurled at a house. Six people were injured in the earlier attack. April 25 was the 56thKedaulatan Maluku or FKM. This group is not widely supported.. but it could be growing in strength. anniversary of the founding of a Christian separatist group, the Moluccas Sovereign Front - the Front
The bottom line in considering whether to visit Ambon at this time is that overall the situation is much calmer, however take every travel precaution - don't do anything you wouldn't do at home (travel in seedy neighborhoods, wander alone at night - particularly in central Ambon city, or go partying in loud tourist groups). If you do go - enjoy the wonderful sail!

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