With MIT militants declared gone farmers in Sulawesi region back in fields

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Asmarani Lacege ignored the blazing sun as she and her teenage daughter hiked up a hill to their cocoa farm in a remote village in Indonesia’s Central Sulawesi province.

For years, they had lived in fear of armed militants who had pledged allegiance to Islamic State (IS) and carried out deadly attacks on civilians and security forces in their home regency of Poso and neighboring areas.

But that changed in September last year, when authorities announced that they had finally wiped out the Eastern Indonesia Mujahideen (MIT) group.

For many in Poso, especially in Lore Valley, an area that covers six sub-districts and produces cocoa, coffee, vanilla and other crops, the end of the MIT threat has brought newfound security and prosperity.

“I feel very safe now. I’m not afraid anymore to go to my farm, even though it’s a bit inside the forest and far from the village,” Asmarani, 43, told BenarNews.

Asmarani Lacege wears rubber boots and holds a machete before entering her cocoa plantation in the hills of Alitupu, a village in the North Lore sub-district of Poso regency in Central Sulawesi province, Indonesia, March 19, 2023. [Keisyah Aprilia/BenarNews]

Poso was once a hotbed of sectarian violence between Muslims and Christians that killed more than 1,000 people between 1998 and 2001. A peace agreement ended the conflict, but militants belonging to MIT continued to operate in remote areas.

The group’s last leader, Ali Kalora, was killed along with another member in a shootout in September 2021. Last September, the authorities announced that they had eliminated all remaining MIT members after a long-running manhunt that involved thousands of personnel from various units.

MIT was formed in 2010, rooted in the bloody conflict. It was known for terrorizing local farmers, occasionally beheading them, and as the first militant group in Indonesia to pledge allegiance to the IS in June 2014.

The following year, Indonesia deployed a joint military-police security operation aimed at wiping out MIT, which at the time had about 40 members, including three foreigners. MIT’s leader at the time, Santoso, was killed in 2016.

A child pushes a wheelbarrow filled with freshly harvested tomatoes in Wuasa village, in the Poso regency of Central Sulawesi, March 19, 2023. [Keisyah Aprilia/BenarNews]

In Wuasa village of Central Lore district of Poso regency, tomato farmers also enjoyed a bountiful harvest as they resumed their activities after years of living under threat.

Last weekend, a child pushed a metal cart full of ripe tomatoes that had just been picked from a farm. Ratna Diana plucked tomatoes from her plants with a smile on her face.

 “Our tomato harvest is abundant this year and the price is good, at 5,000 rupiah (less than half a dollar) per kilogram,” she told BenarNews.

 The authorities have declared Poso safe and urged people to resume their normal activities.

 They have also promised to provide assistance and development programs to help improve the welfare of local communities.

 “We hope this is the end of our nightmare,” said Yohanes Larengi, a 50-year-old Christian farmer from Kalimago village who witnessed MIT’s atrocities firsthand.

 “We hope we can live peacefully with our Muslim brothers and sisters.”

 Poso’s economy relies heavily on agriculture, especially cocoa. The regency also produces coffee, vanilla, nutmeg and other crops that are sold to domestic and international markets.

 The conflict took a toll on Poso’s farmers, who lost their income and livelihoods due to insecurity and violence.

 Many of them abandoned their farms or sold them at low prices. Some switched to other crops that required less maintenance, such as corn and vegetables.

Asmarani Lacege (left) and her child (right) trudge up a slope in their cocoa plantation located in the hills of Alitupu, a village in Poso regency, Central Sulawesi, March 19, 2023. [Keisyah Aprilia/BenarNews]

The government has tried to revive Poso’s cocoa sector by providing assistance and incentives to farmers, such as seeds, fertilizers, tools and training. It has also encouraged them to form cooperatives and associations to improve their bargaining power and access to markets.

The police chief of Central Sulawesi province, Inspector General Rudy Sufahriadi, said that with MIT rooted out, Poso and its surroundings were expected to be more secure and peaceful.

He said security operations would continue under the code name Madago Raya, but with a focus on recovery and deradicalization efforts.

He noted that the militant group still had sympathizers in areas such as Tojo Unauna subdistrict, and security forces would conduct religious counseling and social activities to counter radicalism and promote moderate Islam.

“We hope that with good religious activities, there will be no more people exposed to radical ideology in Central Sulawesi,” he said.

Farmer Marson Palada holds a machete after clearing wild grass under his cocoa tree in Kalimago, a village in Poso regency, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, March 19, 2023. [Keisyah Aprilia/BenarNews]

Lukman S. Thahir, a terrorism expert at the State Islamic Institute of Palu, said people in Poso, Parigi Moutong and Sigi regencies needed economic support because they were affected by the counter-militant operation.

“Now that farmers are back to work, the government has to make sure that their lives are improving,” Thahir told BenarNews, adding that those who had difficulty getting fertilizer and selling their crops should get assistance.

“In my opinion, when the government opens up jobs and markets for their crops, I am sure that their lives and economy will really recover,” he said.

Thahir also said community development and deradicalization programs were needed to prevent radical views from spreading, with support from religious leaders who promote a moderate understanding of Islam.

Marson Palada, a 40-year-old farmer from Kalimago village, said his cocoa and coffee crops used to be left unattended and were often destroyed by wildlife. But now they produce bountiful yields, and he can provide for his family’s needs, including sending his three children to school.

“We are very happy and thankful to the police and military because they have finished off the group,” said Marson, who lost four neighbors to MIT’s brutality in 2021.

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