AMBON, Indonesia — With homemade bombs in their school bags and cans of gasoline in their hands, the boys of this shattered city go to war in the name of religion.
The youths of Indonesia's Molucca Islands, some as young as 11, hurl homemade bombs at enemy soldiers, drive civilians from their homes and burn down rivals' neighborhoods.
Some fight for Jesus, some for Muhammad. In a conflict that both sides call a holy war, children commit arson and terrorism, mayhem and murder.
"My job is to throw bombs and burn houses," said Arjun Unawekla, a 14-year-old Protestant who has been shot in the wrist and foot since he began fighting at age 12. "I didn't set out to kill, but because they started first, I have to kill them."
For more than two years, Christians and Muslims who once lived as neighbors have waged a cruel war of religious cleansing. Both groups claim that they are the victims of aggression. Both have mounted bloody attacks on their foes.
More than a quarter of the Moluccas' 2 million people have been forced to flee their homes. At least 5,000 have been killed.
With children serving as soldiers, some Indonesians fear that the enmity between the two religious groups could last for ages. "We're not talking about 10 or 20 years, but generations," said Tania Thenu, an aid worker with Action Against Hunger, one of the few relief agencies operating in the area.
The Christians, often outnumbered and outgunned by the Muslims, use boy warriors as an integral part of their military force on Ambon island. The youths, Roman Catholic and Protestant, form disciplined fighting units that are headed by adults and given specific assignments in battle. They are known as the Agas, for a sand fly with an especially nasty bite.
On the Muslim side, the young warriors are usually volunteers who show up spontaneously when a battle begins. Muslim fighters give them bombs to heave at the Christians and gasoline to incinerate the homes of the enemy. They are called the Bakar, the Indonesian word for "burn."
"I just want to fight in the holy war," said Fadli Burhan, a 14-year-old Muslim who said he took part in two battles last year and helped torch 10 houses. "I bring the bombs and burn the houses."
The fighting has turned Ambon, the Moluccan provincial capital, into a rubble-strewn wreck, with scores of gutted buildings in the city center. The two factions live in enclaves separated by manned barricades and burned-out neighborhoods. People from both sides travel by boat to avoid the parts of the island they do not control. Snipers are a frequent danger.
Muslims and Christians who wish to see each other must meet in one of the city's few neutral zones--the governor's office, the airport or the military hospital. Traveling from one side to the other requires going to a safe zone and switching cars and drivers.
With their Nike T-shirts, sandals and baseball caps, the Agas look like members of any church youth group. They laugh and joke as they walk together through Christian-controlled streets or hang out at their unofficial headquarters, the unfinished Saint Francis Xavier Cathedral. Some wear shirts with the Agas slogan: "God is love."
Agus Wattimena, commander of the Christian forces on Ambon, said there are 200 child fighters in the Agas, virtually all of them boys.
"Their houses were burned," he said. "Their parents were killed. They really want to fight. I don't see it as a problem. It's better than their doing nothing."
One young fighter, Bertie Aurisah, doesn't know when he was born but believes he is 13. He began fighting on his own two years ago after Muslims burned his village and his uncle died.
"A lot of my people were killed, so I felt very angry," he said. "I just went into the Muslim village and attacked them. I burned the Muslim houses with gasoline and matches. I also threw bombs at the Muslim people."
Now, as a member of the Agas, he often fights alongside a detachment of older soldiers. The boys carry two to five homemade bombs each, which they throw from behind the relative safety of walls and buildings.
As he hurls his bombs, Bertie said, he yells, "Blood of Jesus!"
Once the enemy has been driven back, the boys move in with their gas cans and set the buildings on fire.
The youngsters seldom see what or whom they hit with their bombs. But Bertie said he was once so angry after a friend was shot that he charged into the fray and finished off three fighters he had wounded.
"I know they were dead because I cut their throats," he said. "When I'm very angry, I just want to cut them. It's unfortunate, but they have made my life miserable."
Like many of the Agas warriors, he said he has permission from his mother to fight the Muslims. "It's OK because our parents let us do this," he said. "It's more fun to throw bombs than to play soccer."