Outside magazine, December 1997
Mourning in the Land of Magic
Rampant in the island nation of Indonesia is the idea that everyday life is governed by forces unseen, administered by the true leaders of the country, sorcerers known as dukuns. Among the residents of the Sumatran village of Aman Damai, a dukun named Suraji held preeminent sway, blessing marriages, warding off evil, fattening pocketbooks, and seeding
romances. Suraji’s role was sacrosanct. That is, until the villagers’ daughters began to disappear, one after another after another.
By Mark Levine
The sky was yellow, the sky was white. The sky was custard and glue. Fighter planes glanced across the sky in daunting pirouettes, and the beggars sprawled on their straw mats looked up, and the streetside vendors of sugary pancakes
looked up, and children playing with slivers of magnets outside the mosque looked up, but the sky yielded no information. It was the sky of black-and-white movies, grainy and misleading, as if the ashy fibers drifting to the ground were the residue of some vengeful primeval volcano and not of latter-day slash-and-burn agriculture. Here, a few degrees above the equator, in Medan,
the rambling, anarchic capital of North Sumatra, Indonesia, the days were almost equally divided between daylight and darkness, but that distinction had grown obscure beneath a sky that marked the passing hours in a succession of sooty grays. Laundry dangling from clotheslines was mottled by the breeze. Men steered their motorcycles over the rutted sidewalks wearing surgical
masks. Women stretched their veils across their mouths. A plane went down in the smudged midday air outside town, leaving bodies swaying from charred trees, leaving a jagged trail of bodies impacted in the muddy delta. Ships collided off the coastline, and an earthquake jarred a nearby island, and everywhere people prayed and chanted and meditated and burned incense, offering
chickens, cigarettes, ornate wood carvings, livid yellow flowers — any token that might persuade forces celestial or profane to bring rain and wind and to dissolve the shadow that had thrown their island into a state of eclipse. The sky was dun.
Out of the murk strode an apparition equal parts flesh and phantasm, its gait pigeon-toed, its ribs outlined against its muslin shirt, the thin strands of its mustache brushed with pomade. He had the power to change the direction of the wind, they said. He raised his arm and the hovering birds stopped in midflight; he lowered his eyes and the sickly stream that ran near his
house reversed its course. He was versed in numerology and counted the glass beads that he carried in his pocket; he counted the steps from his house — a 20-by-20-foot shell of plywood and bamboo thatch — to the rice paddy where he spent his days turning the mud. His mother had named him after the Javanese holy day on which he was born, some 45 years ago, around the
time that Indonesia itself sprang into modern nationhood, but since Indonesians are fond of the processes of self-transformation, he adopted a changing series of names over time: He was the rogue Nasib, meaning “Fate”; he was the husband and lover and chaste Muslim Amat Suraji, the name by which I came to know him; he was the maverick Datuk Maringgi, earning a respectable place
within Indonesia’s vast subculture of faith healers and spirit mediums and manufacturers of curses and blessings, empowered to mingle with the unpredictable legions of the invisible; he was the Dukun A. S., elevated to the alphabetical status reserved for icons.
He led a seemingly unremarkable farmer’s life with his three wives and six children in Aman Damai, a hamlet of 300 families on the semirural outskirts of Medan whose name means “Peaceful and Secure,” but he might as well have materialized out of the union of an astral body and the jungle loam. When he was four, he was hauled back to the earth’s surface in a wooden bucket from a
cistern into which he had plummeted, and it was clear that he had vigilant guardians in the spirit world. In his youth, restless and uneasy, he wandered from home, joined a street gang, practiced delirious thuggery, gambling, drinking, pimping. His friends gave him the name Dagger. He did time for cattle theft, and while confined he was stricken by the irresistible fever of his
mystical calling, a legacy passed on to him by his long-dead father, a master of shadow puppetry and a necromancer of wide renown. He fasted. He muttered strings of incoherent syllables that alarmed his jailers. He drew an elongated flame from a mound of sand, knelt over the flame, and extinguished it in his mouth. A water stain appeared on his cell wall in the shape of his
ancestral island of Java, and when he was freed from prison he ventured there, to the isolated highlands, apprenticing himself to a sorcerer who led him into the dense jungle, who instructed him in the curative powers of bark and moss, who transmitted to him a litany of spells that could enchant or burn.
He rambled the countryside like a forlorn prophet, finally making a prodigal return to Aman Damai, where he turned his attention to his neighbors, offering to fatten their chickens, locate lost bracelets, increase their rice harvest, restore waning potency, undermine their rivals. Word spread quickly of Suraji’s talents as a dukun — a sorcerer, a wizard, a shaman, a
priest of darkness — and he joined an unofficial vanguard with roots in ethnic animism that had managed to adapt itself to waves of Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, and Christian conquerors.
“I had never visited a dukun before,” said one neighbor of Suraji’s, making a typical disclaimer. “But it was a Sunday, and I had a horrible toothache, and the dentist’s office was closed. He invited me in. He spoke softly, soothingly. He examined my tooth and fixed a hot drink of bitter yellow herbs. Then he placed his hand on the back of my neck and said a spell, very
quickly, that I vowed never to repeat. He went to the table and drove a long rusted nail through a banana. My pain vanished.”
“I was starting a business,” began another testimonial to Suraji’s wizardry, “selling crackers and meat snacks.” Financial services were Suraji’s particular area of magical expertise, and the residents of Aman Damai, astray in a crumbling agricultural economy, listened intently to the claims of Suraji’s wives that their husband could multiply money. “There were no buyers. My
wife called me a failure. I confided in the dukun, and he told me to return to him the next day with three bunches of flowers, some incense, and a box of mango candies. I complied. He took the gifts from me and told me to wait outside his house. I could hear him chanting; it sounded like a sick bird. Soon sales increased. Every day I would empty my basket of crackers and meat
A steady stream of local businessmen appealed for Suraji’s services. So did government agents, Suraji boasted, who followed a dirt track to his house in cars with red official license plates, concealing their movements beneath the encroaching dusk, the dull sky streaked with watery traces of moon and stars. The unsteady mechanisms of power in Indonesia were corruptible by magic
and money, by shamans and strongmen who were often draped in the same ambiguous finery. One day the stable currency might collapse; one day the world’s biggest gold strike might suddenly evaporate; and the impermanent luster of real events grew dull and improbable against a magical backdrop. “None of us has outgrown the old beliefs,” one German-educated Indonesian whispered to me.
“Not even our dictator.”
Amat Suraji had a vision. It was 1986, not long after his return to Aman Damai.
Perhaps he had drunk from the jar of grain alcohol that he was known to keep buried behind his house. Perhaps he had risen like a sleepwalker from the colorful plastic mat on which he lay, had navigated a path around his sleeping wives and children, winding barefoot
through the dew-soaked grass. Fallen palm leaves carpeted the thin trail leading away from the village toward a bordering plantation. He staggered past a plywood hovel slanted in the wind, past the sour vapor of burning trash. A splotch of hives rose on his chest, and he scratched himself fiercely. He bled. He removed his damp sarong and stood trembling with outstretched arms
beneath the night. A mouse edged along a tangle of vines, and he knelt and faced the mouse, pressed his cheek to the ground and eyed the mouse, a few inches of dirt between them, and he emitted a high-pitched call, and he smelled on the mouse a scent just beyond his recognition — sumac? mint? — and in a violent gust an owl dropped to the ground and swept up the mouse
in a flourish of dust and hot fur.
“Father!” cried Amat Suraji. Now he was running, past the twisted silhouettes of darkened fruit trees, past lettuce patches and the cracked mildewed tiles of grave markers. Insects flew into his mouth. He looked back, fearfully, and saw the disembodied sheen trailing him, its tail fluttering like an inflamed gown, and he fled into a field of sugarcane, and he fell to the
ground. Worms retreated into the mud. He cowered beneath the looming cane, and his father approached him: bald, waxy skin, a thick white mustache, the papery smell of the long dead.
“Father.” Amat Suraji’s memory of his father was a knot of fragmentary sensations: a powdery hand, a wavering shadow. His father had died, of dysentery, in an emaciated blur of candles and lamentation, when Suraji was an infant. Suraji had often scoured the spirit world for his father, praying, supplicating, imploring, but his father had always remained secreted beyond some
elusive boundary. Now, as the old man neared, he raised his voice in an aggrieved rasp, scolding his impious son, haranguing him, berating him, and Suraji could barely stand to look at him, to register the message he was being given. The old man spoke, the old man made demands, and Suraji nodded like a dutiful son and then collapsed in the field, unconscious.
When Suraji woke, surrounded by buzzing flies at daybreak, he recalled his father’s command — that he kill 70 women and drink their saliva in order to attain invincibility — and he folded himself into a fetal crouch, cursing his father and praising God.
Seventy women, his father had instructed. And so Suraji began.
“Indonesia is a magical place,” said big Steve, a British expatriate machinist who was drinking his sixth pint of formaldehyde-preserved Bintang beer one lunch hour in a cafë behind Medan’s Great Mosque. The call to prayer blared over the muezzin in a great staticky wave; the cafë’s stereo responded with “Knights in White Satin.” Big Steve,
who liked to open his stories with lines like “When I was in Iran, working for the Shah,” was offering a blustery anthropological riff on the persistence of magical belief among Indonesians of all social and educational classes. “Droughts,” he said. “Explain that scientifically. Earthquakes. Volcanoes. Floods. Jungles that shielded them from contact with outsiders; jungles that
were leveled so the Dutch could smoke cigars. The blot above us that we call the sky.” There was no stopping him. “Colonial occupation. Civil war. A military coup. The magical vanishing of a million bloody communists.” I had come to Sumatra in search of exotic beliefs that had survived the scourge of modernity; what I found, instead, was a frayed and desperate bag of tricks,
tricks that were gradually losing their ability to subdue their audience into frozen attitudes of amazement.
Similarly, Aman Damai would not reward a Westerner’s fond hopes of finding placid rural backwardness in the Third World. True, one did not have to scan the horizon for long before spotting filthy children running naked in the streets or old women slouched over
hoes in meager fields of beans and corn and cabbages. But Aman Damai offered other sights, too, that might blemish the appealing scene of pastoral destitution: a mill in the center of the village that planed timber from the nearby jungle, an expansive factory just beyond Amat Suraji’s rice paddies where the thick white goo that dribbles down rubber trees into cups made from
coconut shells was processed into a material suitable for the treads of your Goodyears or the soles of your Nikes.
The ten-mile drive from Medan to the village passed through uninterrupted urban sprawl. Farmers sold stacks of pineapples on the edge of the highway. Women washed their dishes, their clothes, and their children in a mustard-colored stream whose surface ran thick with garbage. Until the 1860s, when Dutch colonists began clearing the surrounding jungle to plant tobacco, Medan was
a tiny settlement ruled by a Malayan sultan. By the time the Dutch were expelled from Sumatra more than 50 years ago, the city’s population had grown to 60,000. Now Medan had swollen to accommodate more than a million residents, its shantytowns absorbing a continual influx of rural workers displaced by a shrinking plantation economy, its bustle spilling outward like a dark stain,
overtaking Aman Damai, undermining the simple certainties of village life, testing the resources of one of the village’s security chiefs, the dukun Amat Suraji.
On the afternoon of April 23, as Sumatra’s long drenching rainy season was winding down, Sri Kemala Dewi left her home in Aman Damai to run an errand. Dewi, who had just turned 21, had been lured into a pyramid scheme by a friend she’d met at the History Inn, a seedy hotel on the highway to Medan, a hundred yards from her home. “You sell, you make me
rich,” her friend had told her.
The product was cosmetics. Dewi told her mother that she was headed to a nearby town to buy glossy lipsticks by the dozen, wrinkle creams and nail polishes and rose water to dab between one’s breasts and to spray behind one’s knees, products to make a girl feel fresh. Dewi and her mother giggled.
Dewi’s father, an unemployed gas station attendant named Paimun, turned toward his daughter, remembering how, when she was a newborn, he had cured her of a raging colic by chanting a mantra over a glass of boiling water. His family was in need of magic once more; the $2-a-day work he occasionally found as a field hand was rarely available anymore. Somehow he had scrounged up
400,000 rupiah — about $160, the family’s entire savings — to contribute to Dewi’s enterprise, and he was hoping this investment would turn his luck around.
Sri Kemala Dewi, too, was in need of a little luck. Until lately, she had led what appeared to be an ordinary life of impoverished domestic bliss, surrounded by her parents, seven younger siblings, her husband, and her two-year-old daughter. Dewi’s husband, however, was a moody, alcoholic soldier, and the couple had separated two weeks earlier. “When your heart is broken, go
see the dukun,” her friends teased her; but Dewi harbored loftier fantasies of flight, of anonymous refuge in the nation’s capital, Jakarta, some 900 miles distant, where jobs paying upward of $150 per month were said to be plentiful.
For the young women of Aman Damai, mired between the blight of joblessness and the glittering allure of Western-style consumer goods, luck seemed to be elsewhere, anywhere but at home. How often one would succumb to desperation or boredom and slip away from Aman Damai in darkness, giving no indication of her whereabouts, becoming another entry in the town’s growing log of
disappearances. Everyone in the village knew of the case of Anik Yus, for instance, whose four sisters had vanished in 1991. I spoke to a teenage boy, housed with relatives since the age of ten, when his mother had left without a word, and to a man in a New York Giants baseball cap named Masdiono whose three sisters-in-law could not be accounted for. It seemed that there were
holes in nearly every family in Aman Damai. Occasionally a querulous husband or father would show up at the offices of the district police clutching a photograph of his missing relative, and a report might be filed, to no effect.
The dukun Amat Suraji was frequently approached by neighbors who sought missing family members, and they would stop by his house after dark, choked with shame, offering him a few ears of corn or some batteries for his radio. Suraji would jerk his head toward the sky, dilate his eyes, and fall into a trance state. He might gag or spit or release bursts of what sounded like some
archaic language. Suddenly he would return shaken from his journey, grab hold of his visitor, and offer a sympathetic report of his findings: Your daughter, he would say, has crossed the Strait of Malacca to work as a housemaid in Malaysia; your sister, he would say, has gone to Malaysia to work in a plant assembling stereos for Americans, cell phones for the Japanese. You will
hear from her in time; she will return to Aman Damai on election day.
Dewi was anxious to run her errand. She glanced around her family’s concrete house, at the discolored walls decorated with plastic flowers and a cigarette ad torn from a magazine, at the lizards clinging to the ceiling overhead. The rain subsided. She packed a bag full of catalogs from the cosmetics firm, applied a thick layer of bright red lipstick, and, ignoring her mother’s
reminder to carry an umbrella, stepped beyond the concrete sill into a faint drizzle, crossed a gutter running with open sewage, turned past papaya trees and lime trees and patches of vibrant wildflowers, and disappeared into the day.
Now you see her, now you don’t.
Wedding preparations were under way at the house of Amat Suraji’s next-door neighbors when the hosts were startled by the sudden appearance of the dukun, ambling toward them against the backdrop of a garish sunset, bearing his karaoke machine. “No rain will mar this great event,” Suraji shouted. Indeed, the skies were uncommonly clear. Suraji tended
to maintain a slightly imperious social distance from his community, to the satisfaction of all involved. The villagers of Aman Damai were a bit daunted by the dukun’s brooding entanglement with occult forces.
Could he tap into the remotest channels of their souls? Did he know of this man’s theft of his neighbor’s goose, of that man’s cache of forbidden alcohol, of the paternity of that woman’s children? Could he see through the brittle walls of his neighbors’ houses,
through the brittle folds of their skin, to the unguarded chambers where their direst secrets originated? They could barely look at him without feeling they had been pried open.
Suraji milled among his neighbors, testing the food, fingering the fabric of the bride’s dress. He demonstrated the use of his karaoke machine, singing a version of the locally popular song “Hotel California” in a languid, mournful baritone. Night fell. Neighbors stood in a hushed semicircle around Suraji. Incense was lit.
A few people began to sway, shuffling like marionettes in the stiff, attenuated gestures of Sumatran dance. Suraji’s voice rose to a tremulous falsetto. A pregnant woman entered the room with a tray of hot tea and noticed a villager cowering against a wall. The man had streaked mud across the floor. “Remove your shoes, you old fool,” the pregnant woman said. The man beckoned
the guests and ran from the house, panting through silent fields, and Suraji trailed, with others close behind.
They followed the man past a schoolyard where children were playing soccer in darkness, into the thick red clay of State Plantation Company Number 2. A sliver of moon threw dim purple light into the row of sugarcane, and they saw a slender wrist reaching through the ground like a wayward root, studded with scabs of soil, whitened against the mud. The fingers bore dim flecks of
pink polish at their tips.
“God help us,” wailed Suraji. “A curse upon the enemies of Aman Damai.”
The police who followed the glow of kerosene lamps to the sugarcane field in Aman Damai in the dark early morning hours of April 27 might have recognized the site: Several villagers told me that the previous summer another body had been found there after rain had washed away a shallow layer of topsoil, and the year before that yet another set of
unidentifiable human remains had been uncovered in the same field. This newest corpse, still buried up to its chest, was decomposing rapidly in the withering humidity. Police removed the body from its muddy grave, handling it with rubber gloves: a young woman, stripped naked. Though the victim gave off a rank, vinegary smell, a few officers couldn’t help but comment admiringly on
At four in the morning Dewi’s parents were awakened and brought to the sugarcane field. “She was curled up in the same position she always slept in,” Dewi’s mother told me. Dewi’s hair was matted to her face, her throat stained with bruises. “Right away I noticed her crooked pinkie finger, which she had broken twice as a girl playing ball games at school.”
Watched by a ring of onlookers who huddled beneath the leaves of the towering cane, Dewi’s parents fainted onto their daughter’s body. Among the neighbors who carried them home, remained with them through the night, and helped them face the next day was the dukun Amat Suraji. Dewi was buried later that day in a Muslim graveyard, and Paimun ordered that her grave not be visited
until the murderer was found. “I knew that her spirit would be in pain,” he said later, “and would reveal the murderer. Over the next days, her spirit moved through the village and entered many of us — all through the village I could hear people speaking in her voice. But I couldn’t make out what she was saying.”
On Wednesday, April 30, a week after Dewi left her parents’ house for the last time, a doe-faced 16-year-old ricksha driver named Andreas came forward with a meek admission. On the afternoon Dewi disappeared, Andreas said, she had asked him to take her to the house of Amat Suraji, following a circuitous route to avoid notice by neighbors. Tell no one of this journey, Dewi had
instructed the boy.
The police approached Suraji’s house timidly, with weapons drawn, though they feared their ammunition would be useless against the dukun. He greeted them warmly and stood aside with his wives while the police picked through cardboard boxes. The dukun’s house was a trove of women’s clothing. “I have three wives,” Suraji acknowledged. “Three lovely wives.”
The police found dresses with floral patterns, dresses with stripes, pleated dresses, strapless dresses, stained dresses, dresses that had been shredded for mops and tablecloths and curtains and bandages; and they found blouses; and T-shirts printed with Australian flags; and panties; and bras; and glasses, horn-rimmed, aluminum, some with the lenses removed; and earrings; and
bracelets; and lipstick — lots of lipstick; and wallets, empty wallets, made of plastic and leather and cloth; and the police found a bag of dull gold coins.
While Suraji and his family waited outside in five police cruisers, Dewi’s parents identified their daughter’s handbag, two of her dresses, and a charm bracelet. “The dukun was a good friend,” Dewi’s father told me, “but whenever we visited him we brought our own coffee.” Hundreds of villagers stood nearby. The parents wandered across the dukun’s yard in a daze, clutching
Dewi’s effects, and staggered past the line of police cars, too bleary to recognize Suraji, who had mourned with them hours earlier.
Some weeks after Suraji’s arrest, the suspect was trundled back to Aman Damai by investigators and forced to lead them through a reenactment of his peculiar magical technique. In the course of “intensive interrogation” by police — the kind that leaves a suspect dotted with cigarette burns — Suraji had confessed not only to killing Dewi, the daughter of his longtime
family friends, but also to a series of murders, beginning in 1986, whose number jumped day by day — first nine, then 13, 18, 23 — until police and Suraji finally settled on an impressive tally of 42 victims. “I think this qualifies him for the Guinness Book of World Records,” Kusbianto, the director of the Medan office of LBH, the
Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation, and Suraji’s lead lawyer, told me. “I suppose he will die,” said another member of the defense team.
Back in Aman Damai, Suraji crossed the field drunkenly, trailing his shackles, and stooped over a shovel. He dug a rough hole, about four feet deep. His lawyers took notes. Photographers took pictures. A radio announcer narrated the event in hushed, reverent
tones. Suraji dragged a mannequin over to the hole, stripped it, and wedged it into the ground. (“The victims trusted him completely,” one of Suraji’s lawyers told me.) Suraji whispered a prayer to the mannequin. “Do it, do it,” said the voice in Suraji’s head. He leaned over the mannequin from behind, covered its mouth with one hand, and choked it
with his forearm.
It was over very quickly. Suraji showed the spectators how he would twist the victim’s head and, with a quick slurp, drink the victim’s fortifying spit. “I only regret that I didn’t kill all 70,” he told police. Had he reached the required number, he believed, he would have been beyond all human powers of detection.
When Suraji completed his demonstration, he is reported to have said, “I terrify myself.”
The acrid fumes that hovered like an ethereal veneer over Medan seemed to block my access to the city’s underworld. No one I spoke to would deny that the alleys of Medan, awash in burned trash, were home to scores of channelers and wizards, conjurers and bonesetters, but gaining entrëe to their salons was no easy task. The shadow world of dukuns
is one of whispers and furtive glances; they win their clients by word of mouth, and they protect their vulnerable powers as fervently as opera singers protect their vocal cords. It took some scrambling before I could find a dukun willing to talk, but a meeting was finally arranged for me by a woman named Idjah, a jittery professor of American literature at a Medan university who
changed her stylish veils daily to match her shoes. Idjah spoke in furious bursts of shattered English and liked to drive her aged Toyota in reverse through heavy traffic. She was a devout Muslim, often interrupting our conversations with a frantic announcement of her need to pray. Like most Indonesians, though, Idjah had calculated a private method for reconciling sorcery with
strict monotheism. She told me of a friend whose husband, a successful businessman, had recently been felled by a curse laid by the dukun of an envious rival. “Immediately death,” Idjah reported. “Vomiting, seizure, and death.”
One dingy morning Idjah met me in the lobby of my hotel, where a soft-rock version of “Love Potion Number Nine” was playing over a loudspeaker, and brought me to a compound on the edge of Medan that was home to a 38-year-old dukun named Asmin Lesmana. Lesmana, Idjah explained, specialized in healing the hopelessly ill and was said to have had a 99 percent success rate with the
90,000 patients he’d treated over the past five years. Lesmana’s gift for harnessing supernatural forces had cured breast cancer and diabetes and brain tumors and heart disease; he had revived a man who had languished in a coma for months and who thanked him by buying him a car; he had rid two patients of AIDS. A crumpled note was displayed in which a well-known physician referred
his patient, a woman suffering from a stubborn uterine cancer, to the dukun. “In a few hours, complete cure,” said the dukun’s wife. “My husband understands how to extract the batteries of the disease.”
Lesmana’s wife presented the dukun’s instruments to me on a small plastic tray: a chicken egg, a leaf from a common plant, tweezers, a lump of turmeric, a penknife. The egg, she said, was the core implement of his diagnostic insight. “With the egg he has much more power to see and to know than he would with a computer or with X rays,” she assured me. “He uses the egg to both
see the problem and to sense the problem, and he has studied the path of all of the body’s 999 nerves.”
Suddenly the dukun made his entrance. He was a slight man with a thin goatee, and he wore argyle socks and a beeper on his belt. He looked at Idjah. “You have stiffness in your legs,” he announced.
“Yes,” said Idjah, nodding vigorously in my direction. “It’s very true.”
He gestured for her to lie on the sofa, and then he pulled at her toes until she screeched. He gave his wife a knowing look, and she disappeared for a moment into the kitchen, where the sounds of deep frying provided a muted soundtrack, returning with a syringe. The dukun gave Idjah a quick injection — it turned out to be rubbing alcohol — and then made a shallow
three-inch incision in her calf. “There is a small bean in her blood,” he explained to me. “It must be removed.” He laced a few broad stitches over the cut, tapped her foot, and had her drink a redolent cup of herbs. “This time,” he said, “I cure by cutting. But cutting, prayer, and the recitation of spells are all equally important.” He lit himself another cigarette.
“When I wanted to become a dukun,” he recalled, “I had to fast and go without sleep and devote myself to prayer. People spat at me and humiliated me, but I had to learn to bear humiliation with patience.” He stared at me. I felt nervous. “Your neck gets stiff,” he said.
“Sometimes,” I agreed. Idjah nodded at me with pleasure. I was instructed to take her place on the sofa. “No needles,” I said. “And no cutting.”
In that case, the dukun said, he could offer me only a temporary cure. As I lay on my back, he approached me, somewhat menacingly, egg in hand. “I’ve heard about your Heaven’s Gate and your David Koresh and the stargazer employed by your Nancy Reagan. Interesting country, America.” He rubbed the egg rapidly across my forehead. It felt like a stone. I winced. The dukun laughed.
I looked at myself in a mirror, and my forehead had a bright red stripe across it. “You will let Americans know that I am available to them for healing,” he told me.
My head was throbbing. Idjah was grinning broadly. “You know,” the dukun said, “the police had me visit the fraudulent Dukun A. S. to measure his power. I was ready to combat his karma, but I took his hand and pressed my finger into his pulse and could tell that he was a fake, a common criminal. I reported this to the police. It’s too bad I didn’t meet him much earlier, to cure
him of his evil. He gives dukuns a bad reputation.”
“The dukun was a divided personality,” asserted Suraji’s lawyer, Kusbianto. A psychologist in Jakarta said, “It’s clear he’s no more schizophrenic than anyone else.” Any American who wondered what the O. J. Simpson case might have looked like to a foreigner had only to visit Sumatra this year and to stand by as the spectacle of the Dukun A. S. plunged
the society into fits of alternating introspection and absurdity. Indonesia, divided against itself by the competing impulses of industrialization and tradition, by the uneasy fit between officially sanctioned religion and the personal touch of incantatory seers — Indonesia, it turns out, was no more or less schizophrenic than anyplace else.
Hordes of small children roamed through Medan’s traffic, selling a dozen newspapers that sprang up overnight to feed the public’s appetite for stories about the so-called killing field. Deadpan articles reported that police bullets had bounced harmlessly off Suraji’s body during interrogation, and that Suraji’s wives were under the spell of black magic (one was said to have
slid free of her handcuffs following her arrest), and that Suraji had long lent his powers to the Indonesian armed forces. Why, editorialists wondered, had Suraji not escaped prison by drifting into invisibility? (The answer, competing pundits reasoned, was that police had threatened the safety of Suraji’s children.) A group of dukuns held a press conference in which they
announced that Suraji’s magic emanated from one of his goats and that it was imperative that police search Suraji’s goat pen — built by a neighbor whose wife Suraji was said to have murdered — to locate the mystically endowed animal and starve it, gradually, thus diminishing Suraji’s powers.
It seemed that all other news was pushed to the back pages. I was told that when President Suharto’s daughter came to Medan in May to campaign for the ruling Golkar party in the upcoming national elections, more people were at the killing field in Aman Damai than at the political rally. Of course, there was little doubt that Golkar would be returned to power, since Golkar had
magically engineered the removal of the popular leader of the main opposition party, and since opposition parties are discouraged from organizing at the village level, and since all civil servants and members of the military are expected to vote for Golkar. But an uneventful campaign season was surely in the government’s interest, and with the Dukun A. S. to distract them, the
people of the volatile island of Sumatra were unlikely to engage in the kind of bloody riots that had marred political events in Java and West Kalimantan. One Medan intellectual, who asked not to be named, said, “I don’t believe that the case of the Dukun A. S. was a ploy, as some of my friends believe, created by the government to divert attention from the election. But there’s
no doubt that once the crimes were revealed, the case was used to this effect by authorities.” Golkar won reelection on May 29, a month after Suraji’s arrest, with 74 percent of the vote.
Dr. Alfred Satyo, a forensic pathologist who recently found himself burdened with a heavier-than-average workload thanks to the alleged handiwork of the dukun Amat Suraji, spoke with a mixture of pity and scorn of those members of the “lower classes” who persist in supernatural beliefs. “A dukun is a good market for desperate and stupid people,” he
told me in his office at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Medan, where he sat beneath a crucifix and a framed photograph of his meeting with President Suharto. As a man of science, Dr. Alfred, as he called himself, explained that he was committed only to observable fact, like the fact that my President Clinton’s government was controlled by the Jews or that the American economy was run
out of corporate boardrooms in Tokyo. He knew of cases, documented in the medical literature, in which men swallowed razor blades and drove nails through their flesh without suffering medical consequences, but in general he was bound to a vigorous modern skepticism of all things mystical, with the exception of all things Catholic.
Shortly after the discovery of Dewi’s corpse, police had stumbled on a second fresh body in State Plantation Company Number 2, and Dr. Alfred had been summoned to be on hand for the anticipated unearthing of further bounty. When he arrived, he found a scene of carnival-like enthusiasm and mayhem. Thousands of curiosity-seekers swarmed over the field. Opportunistic vendors were
selling drinks and fried bananas and hastily produced postcard collages featuring Dukun Maut — “Dukun of Death.” Dr. Alfred was also astonished to see a ring of about a dozen other dukuns, summoned to lend their psychic powers to the police effort, trolling through the field and searching out the energies of hidden corpses. But no more fresh graves could be found, and the
police grew weary of poking about with spades and shovels in spots indicated by the itinerant dukuns — who later claimed to be thrown off by competing psychic frequencies issuing from Suraji — and soon bulldozers were trucked in to tear apart the field.
“Perhaps this isn’t how you do an investigation in America,” Dr. Alfred suggested. The crime scene was excavated with abandon, and in due time the yield from the sugarcane field showed a dreaded increase. Some bodies had been buried under ten or 12 feet of dirt. “I stayed there for three bodies,” Dr. Alfred remembered. “I must tell you, I started to lose my appetite for it.”
Police stopped digging after about ten days when they dragged the 42d skeleton into daylight. The field now looked like a grandiose Technicolor ant farm, pocked with mounds of dirt from which the occasional clump of grass sprouted and decorated with bright red numbers indicating the chronology of the finds. Some skeletons were found reclining in pairs or groups of three.
A crowd of angry mothers began to hold vigil outside Medan’s police headquarters, waving photographs of their missing daughters, demanding to know how a mass murderer could have operated undisturbed for so long. Amid the outrage and recriminations and rumors and storms of magic dust rose a grim statuary of cold hard bone. Bones clattered percussively across the public
imagination. Yellowed bones traced with thin gray filaments. Bones hollowed to a crisp shell by meandering insects. A latticework of bone, scarred by the encroaching light. Bones slivered by the blades of errant scythes, bones dented by thumbprints of scavengers, bones laid like a rug across the deep corridor of the earth. Eerie triangular flakes of bone. Bones seething with
chemical process and bones melded with other bones into obscene totems. Eager bones, indifferent bones, bones whining with accusation and remorse. Bones mapped by a dumb geography of fissures, the stiff parchment of bones stamped with impious messages. Anonymous bones like the ruins of anonymous towns beyond the threshold of history. Bones seized into daylight in postures of
On the 52nd anniversary of Indonesia’s independence from 350 years of foreign occupation — mainly by the Dutch but with the occasional aggressive display of interest from the British, the Japanese, and even the Americans — I decided to venture to the pantheon of the Indonesian spirit world by climbing Mount Sibayak, a semiactive volcano in
the highlands west of Medan whose prehistoric eruptions had carpeted the region with fertile soil. Sibayak is revered as a place to which the spirits of the dead gravitate, and I was drawn there, too, as if beckoned by the murmurings of 42 shallow voices. I took the bus to Berastagi, a former Dutch resort in the shadow of Sibayak, and strayed through a town that was in the throes
of its national celebration. Suharto, I’d heard, typically made an Independence Day gesture of magnanimity by bestowing pardons on a handful of criminals, but this year the reported request for presidential mercy from Amat Suraji was not given much chance of being granted.
My guide, a spunky college student named Supiah, led me out of Berastagi past banners declaiming national unity. Supiah was from a nearby farming village, and she told me with embarrassment that her mother was crippled by the old beliefs. “When I was young, my mother always would take me to the dukun,” Supiah said. “There was no doctor in my village, so I was delivered by the
dukun, and I would go to the dukun for remedies when I was sick. Every few months we brought a speckled chicken to the dukun, and he would recite a mantra over me.”
The path up the mountain, through the dense matrix of jungle greenery and webbed sunlight and the calamitous echoes of piercing birdcalls, was heavily trafficked by weekenders from Medan and by older people from nearby villages bearing lemons or flowers or silver coins to appease the spirits of their relatives and to purchase themselves some earthly luck. I had begun to realize
that luck was often the last recourse for ordinary Indonesians confronting an unsettling future. Supiah, who stepped nimbly over slick rocks in a pair of borrowed sandals, would soon be a college graduate in a country where higher education was an uncommon privilege, but when I asked her what she intended to do after she finished her degree, she looked at me with distress and
incomprehension. “I’d like to get a job,” she said, “but that’s not very realistic. I’m from a poor family. We have no connections, no money to buy me a job. That’s how it’s done here.” She hoped she might be taken back by the hotel where she was currently spending her school vacation, working 15 hours a day, every day, in return for food and a bed.
As we neared the top of the volcano, a thick fog moved across the landscape. The soil, streaked in dramatic pastels, grew porous, and rocks crumbled to pasty white clay beneath my boots. The jungle was stunted: Plants that had loomed 15 feet above me a few minutes earlier now reached to my thigh; tiny red flowers grew in patches of moss. I asked Supiah, who had ridiculed her
mother’s trust in the supernatural, whether she believed in the powerful spirits said to reside in Sibayak’s core. “I don’t want to believe in the spirits,” she admitted, “but I can’t help it.”
Even Suharto — the nation’s self-described Father of Development, whose accumulation of wealth and whose reign of power, longer than that of any current world leader except Castro, could surely be ascribed to factors more temporal than magical — even Suharto was said to be steeped in Javanese mysticism, relying on the counsel of a circle of dukuns. Occasionally the
government would hear calls to outlaw the practice of black magic, but such measures never got very far. One man told me that a few years back the military had promised to break up a conference of dukuns in Java but had relented when threatened with curses.
Supiah had to pull me by the hand across the top of Sibayak. The thin trail had disappeared, fog had diminished visibility, and a yellow sulfurous cloud was now part of the mix. We scrambled over rocks to the edge of the volcano’s cone. The fumes seemed to carry with them an insistent noise, like a monstrously amplified moaning. Supiah walked me to a spot where previous
climbers had planted two-foot lengths of bamboo and inserted cigarettes, tobacco leaves, and betel nuts into slots in the sticks as gifts to the spirits. My hair was frosted with sulfur. I couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of me, and suddenly Supiah released my hand and left me standing there amid the smoke and tumult of the spirits. When I called out to her, my voice
seemed distant. I thought of the notices, posted in every shop in Berastagi, listing the names of Westerners who had disappeared while climbing Sibayak over the past several years. I stood there for ten minutes, 15 minutes, turning around and around in place, listening to the volcano, calling feebly for my guide, squinting toward the obscured horizon. I had no plan. I thought of
Sri Kemala Dewi, crouching in a hole in a sugarcane field, awaiting the magic that was about to be visited on her. Then, without explanation, Supiah materialized at my side. “What do you think of our spirits?” she asked.
I had no idea whether Supiah had been playing a game with me, or whether she had gone off to commune with the dead, or whether she had gone off to make a bathroom stop. But I recalled a wonderfully cynical piece of advice I’d received in Medan when I had complained to a local journalist that each person I talked to about the Dukun A. S. seemed to contradict the previous person.
“If you think you understand the situation,” I was told, “you’ve obviously been badly misinformed.”
As I’d lie in my Medan hotel room at night, watching music videos from India, the frail embattled figure of Amat Suraji would sometimes drift down to me from the opaque heights of his imprisoned celebrity, whisper a few unintelligible phrases, and retreat into the smog, refusing to give up his secrets, sending me out once more into the whirl of
second- and third- and fourth-hand accounts that constituted the fabric of Medan’s public imagination. I would loiter outside the high fence of Medan’s whitewashed police prison, avoiding the stares of guards whose knives dangled from their belts, trying to glimpse the phantom in his lair. Did he console himself through a rigorous devotion to silence? Did he refuse the scraps of
mutton that were left for him in a bucket? Was he severing his ties to the corporeal realm; was he verging toward transcendence?
In his one appearance before reporters since his arrest, Suraji had said little of interest, reading a tepid statement to the effect that he was prepared for his punishment. Since then, he and his wives and children had been isolated in their prison cells — the wives as possible accomplices, the children “for their own protection” — and prevented from granting
interviews. The uproar was abating, or entering a new and predictable phase. Indonesian movie producers were searching for an actor with enough star power to bring the dukun to the big screen, civic authorities considered plans for transforming Aman Damai into a permanent tourist site, Dr. Alfred prepared to take center stage as an expert witness, and the lonely crusaders for
human rights at the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation outlined chapters of the book they would write about defending a pariah. In the background, if you listened closely, you could hear the rifles being polished for Suraji’s anticipated firing squad.
I returned again and again to the haunted landscape of Aman Damai, prowling past bean patches and trees laden with the stinking globes of durian fruit, waiting for Amat Suraji to take shape before me in a luminous instant. I met a boy who told me he used to spend long afternoons fishing with Suraji and who now suspects that Suraji murdered his mother. I met a man who still
carried a charm Suraji had given him, wrapped in a banana leaf, believing it protected him from enemies.
On one visit I spent hours rooting around in Suraji’s house, which had been picked through and pulled to pieces by some of the estimated 30,000 visitors who had beaten a path to Aman Damai before me. The concrete floor was littered with torn clothing, magazines, shattered picture frames, cans of biscuits, rice: the mundane detritus of domestic life. A teacher’s evaluation noted
that one of Suraji’s sons needed to concentrate more on his homework. A man knelt in a corner, fingering a burned shoe, and told me that his wife, too, was among the dead.
Goats grazed the rubble behind Suraji’s house, and I followed the footpath on which Suraji had allegedly led his victims, through his rice paddy strewn with trash, to a run-down cluster of three houses where Suraji’s elderly mother lived. On my previous visits, the old woman had fled as I approached, beating the side of her house with a stick. This time I came bearing bags of
coffee and sugar and bread and was led tentatively into the dim bamboo warren.
The thatched walls were lined with paper, and a small fire burned on the dirt floor in a back room. The old woman wore a striped shirt and a sarong and a blue ski hat, and looked exactly as one might imagine a sorcerer’s mother should: toothless, deeply wrinkled, her left eye adrift, her battered nose flattened against her face and punctured with a single hole through which she
breathed. “I’m afraid to go out,” she told me. “Maybe in time things will change, but for now I stay here, close to my house, counting my beads and praying.”
Suraji’s mother had been brought to Sumatra from Java with her family, shortly after the First World War, in a kind of indentured servitude. She’d worked first in pineapple fields, then in tobacco fields. She’d never been to school and couldn’t read or write. “I was a beautiful girl,” she remembered, “with long dark hair and light skin, so I was brought to Medan to take care of
the children of a Dutch family. Medan was so different then — the Dutch rode through the streets in horse-drawn carriages. My Dutch boss used to call me Little Maid.
“When I was 15 a man who worked in the fields began to flirt with me, and when I turned him away he put a spell on me to make me crazy. I had fits. My parents had to tie my arms and legs together so that I wouldn’t run off. I was tied up in their house for a year and a half. When the man saw me again, he threw a stone at me and crushed my nose. But I prayed to God, and this man
was later killed in a car accident.”
She spoke of her arranged marriage, at age 17, to the man who would appear to Suraji half a century later with instructions to commit murder. “He was a kind man,” she said, “but we didn’t know what happiness was. All we did was work.” She had no picture to show me of her husband. She couldn’t recall what he looked like. She offered little in the way of sentimental memories
about Suraji, who she claimed had been stubborn and unruly since childhood. She also insisted that she had fallen out with him when he took a second wife and later a third — all sisters. “I told him that these marriages were forbidden in heaven and on earth, but he wouldn’t listen. His first wife preferred to share him with her sisters, rather than have him go to strangers.”
Suraji’s arrest, his mother said, was divine retribution for his disobedience. “I hope I’ll see Nasib again,” she said, using Suraji’s boyhood nickname. “I can forgive him everything.”
If the accounts given by police and Suraji’s lawyers were accurate, the Dukun paraded his 42 prospective victims past his mother’s house, past a small graveyard decorated with flowering trees, through a cornfield, beneath the leaves of palm trees and banana trees. Did they speak as they moved through the darkness? Were they silenced by the metallic grinding of cicadas? They
glided past a second small cluster of graves and continued beyond the courtyard of the local schoolhouse, through patches of watermelons and pumpkins barely visible behind wildly overgrown grasses, until they crossed the boundary onto state-owned land planted with stalks of sugarcane. Suraji believed he was on a mission. His victims must have imagined that only magic could repair
If anything is to be believed in the landscape of Aman Damai — a landscape made and marred by violence and subjugation and toil and fear, a landscape infiltrated by the bewildering flux of transient forces — if anything can be believed in such a place, where reality and fantasy met, without resolution, in a swampy field, it is the names of the vanished, like Aluh
and Sriyani and Hartini and Meli; like Rosmiati, who was last seen in Medan in 1996; or Erni, who left nearby Sei Semayang for good in 1994; or Ermayanti, thought to be skeleton number eight, who is remembered in Aman Damai as a 17-year-old though she would be nearing her 23d birthday around now. The list goes on: Novi and Farida and Iyem and Nuriati — all said to be
prostitutes afraid of losing their looks or lonely women desperate to attract husbands or jilted lovers seeking revenge or women eager to accumulate the money to book passage to Malaysia. Where had these women gone? Into the far-flung channels on the periphery of storytelling, places reserved for the truly luckless, the truly faithful? This was no place for them. I trudged through
the field where Sumarni and Sariawati and Jumona and Halimah and Adelita were said to be found, a field that had been jungle before the Dutch planted it with tobacco and before the Indonesians planted it with sugarcane and before the police came with bulldozers and before the crowds came with cameras. I could understand, almost, why this land had attracted businessmen and
governments and armies from halfway around the world: Anything would grow here, a myth, a modern nation, a shrine, a new and unfathomable crop. I approached a man at the edge of the field who was gathering grass beside a spot marked with a red number 4 — Nuriati, from Sawit Sebrang, age 25, missing since 1990 — and asked him what the field would be used for next. “I
don’t know,” he said, “but we’ll have to plant something. Unused land goes to waste.”
Mark Levine wrote about China’s Three Gorges Dam in the October issue.
Photographs by Wolfgang Kaehler