Pastor Jacky Manuputty smiled at a note that read, Belajar yang rajin. Jangan kecewakan pasien (Study hard. Do not disappoint the patients) posted by Ronald Regang on the wall of his room at a rented house.
At the time of Jacky’s visit, Ronald was a nursing student at the Health Science College (STIKES) in Ambon, Maluku. The pastor never imagined that Ronald, who was one of hundreds of child soldiers during the bloody conflict between Muslim and Christian communities in Ambon in 1999, would study there.
“They [child soldiers] were ready to kill or to be killed,” Jacky said.
Jacky recalled that Ronald, who is a Christian, was not just part of the troops.
Ronald was a commander skilled in operating Soviet AK-47 and American M16 assault rifles.
Jacky remembered asking Ronald why he had decided to change his life.
“[Ronald said to me]: ‘Father, in the past, I killed many [Muslim] people and at that time, I could not save many lives. Today, through nursing education, I want to help many people,’” Jacky recalled.
At the National Library of Indonesia in Jakarta, Jacky recently spoke during the launch of the book Keluar dari Ekstremisme (Get Out of Extremism), to which he contributed an article about his experience in deradicalizing Ronald.
“By assisting Ronald, I also transformed myself. I am involved in peacemaking because I want to [atone for my past sins]. During the [Ambon] conflict, my contribution was radicalizing people like Ronald,” he said.
Provoked by pastors like Jacky, the Christian community, including child soldiers, treated the conflict like a holy war.
“Although I never held a gun, I advised them, prayed for them and boosted their spirit,” he confessed.
Written and published by the Wakaf Paramadina Foundation’s Center for the Study of Religion and Democracy (PUSAD), the book features eight real-life stories about the transformation of extremists and terrorists into peacemakers.
Keluar dari Ekstremisme was written as an alternative to books and research publications that focus only on radicalization, and examines why people choose the path of violence and how worshippers turn into extremists.
Before Jacky came into Ronald’s life, he hated Muslims after the ethno-political Ambon conflict ended in 2002.
For Ronald, who is now 28, it was hard to move on from the horrific violence he saw and endured. He saw dead bodies on the streets, his Christians friends killed and his house attacked by Muslims. He himself confessed that he had lost count of the number of Muslims he slaughtered.
When Jacky first approached Ronald to urge the latter to join the deradicalization program at Gadjah Mada University (UGM) in Yogyakarta in 2004, Ronald was suspicious of the pastor.
“He thought that I was a spy who wanted to arrest him because he once burned down a Muslim school,” Jacky said.
But Ronald decided to join the program. At UGM, he not only met psychologists, but also Muslim children who were victims of conflicts in Aceh and Poso in South Sulawesi. Their interaction began to change his mindset.
In 2006, Ronald and children from across Southeast Asia participated in a youth interfaith dialogue in the Philippines, during which they shared their experiences being part of violent sectarian conflicts.
“In the Philippines, he met child soldiers from Mindanao,” Jacky said.
The interfaith event proved to be effective. One day, as Ronald and Jacky were having dinner, Ronald burst into tears and confessed that the way he had been feeling about Islam was wrong.
“During the conflict, combatants were considered heroes, but after it ended, they were isolated by society,” Jacky said.
Ronald then decided to join Young Ambassadors for Peace (YAP), an inter-religious and intertribal youth community for peace in Ambon.
He used his house as a gathering place where former Muslim and Christian child soldiers wrote poems, painted and sang together, not only to understand each other, but also to build mutual trust and confidence.
Ronald, who likes to dance, also teaches street dance to children in Galunggung, a Muslim area in Ambon.
“Ronald’s transformation [from combatant to pacifist] happened at the community [level],” Jacky said.
He was therefore shocked to hear that in 2011, Ronald was jailed for six months.
“He was imprisoned, not because he was fighting against Muslims, but because he defended a Muslim.”
Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) director Sidney Jones, who spoke during the launch of Keluar dari Ekstremisme, praised the book, saying that it might be the first effort to connect separatism, terrorism and conflict.
The eight stories are also intimate and inspiring, she added.
“I have to admit that I am actually deeply skeptical about interfaith dialogues because they are usually NATO; No Action Talk Only. But, Jacky is exceptional,” she said.
Jones said that the book was not just about eight people who managed to get out of extremism, but it was also about how they could live in harmony with their former enemies.
She encouraged the government and nongovernment organizations, including mosques and church caretakers, to use the book as a teaching tool.
“The challenge is to scale up these stories to transform other bigger groups,” she said.