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Associated Press
24 March 1999

Decapitations on Borneo Evoke Headhunting Past of Ethnic Dayaks
by Christopher Torchia

SINGKAWANG, Indonesia (AP) -- As his friends hastily concealed the severed head of a victim, wrapping it in a cloth, a sheepish fighter explained to a reporter why he didn't want the trophy on film.

"If you broadcast that, what will the world think of us?" said the participant in a week of ethnic bloodletting that has claimed up to 200 lives in a coastal region of Borneo island. The scene a few days ago was an anomaly. Most of the indigenous Malay and Dayak warriors who decapitated migrants from Madura island were less worried about their image.

Head-severing, a symbol of barbarism in many cultures, is a centuries-old practice on Borneo that surfaces whenever there is a major conflict. Dayak tradition holds that there is no better token of victory than the head of a foe. In the past, some indigenous groups kept their grisly trophies in a special head house.

In recent rejoicing in western Borneo, young men kicked around the heads of slain Madurese in the street. They also mocked them in other ways, shoving fruit in their mouths and cigarettes in their ears and nostrils.

"This is proof that we have defeated our enemy," said a Malay man whose community has adopted the Dayak custom of decapitation.

Headhunting was once common in other parts of Indonesia, including the remote province of Irian Jaya. There, it is said, rival tribes tallied the score in war by counting the heads of slain warriors. Possession of a brave enemy's head was believed to enhance the courage of the owner. Slain lesser foes were left on the field of battle, their corpses intact.

Decapitation emerged last year on Indonesia's main island of Java, where a wave of mysterious killings and vigilante attacks left more than 150 people dead. Some suspected assassins, who were said to dress in ninja-like black clothing, were beheaded. Indonesian media have not dwelled much on the decapitation of Madurese. But in the capital of Jakarta, far from Borneo villages, many disapprove.

"It's brutal. It's sadistic. It's unacceptable," said Rudi, a street singer. The image of a severed head permeates Western culture as far back as the decapitation of Medusa in Greek mythology. William Shakespeare's Macbeth suffered the same fate. On Borneo, an expert on Dayak culture said the recent atrocities were undermining his efforts to cast off an image of the indigenous people as primitive.

"These people are actually peaceful. ... I have no idea how to present this," said Stephanus Djuweng, director of the Institute of Dayakology in Pontianak, a provincial capital. In Malaysia, which shares a border on Borneo with Indonesia, the tourism office in Sarawak state has no qualms about the Dayaks' history as headhunters. Its World Wide Web site advertises a "Headhunters' Theme Party." Dressing up in traditional costumes, it tells tourists, evokes this "style of celebration of the past."

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