Four years a single parent and three months a widow, the first wife of slain Indonesian militant Santoso is struggling to raise their three daughters in the town where he once lived.
To scratch out a living, Suwarni, 35, runs a small shop in front of her house in Poso regency, just off the main road that runs along the east coast of Central Sulawesi province and not far from where Santoso – the leader of the Eastern Indonesia Mujahideen (MIT) and the country’s most wanted militant – was killed in July after an 18-month manhunt.
She last saw him in 2012 and learned of his militant activities when police billboards with pictures of wanted fugitives started going up in Poso two years ago, according to Yusmanto, the head of Bakti Agung Village.
“For sure Suwarni was shocked, as were other people of the village,” Yusmanto told BenarNews.
That same year, security forces began stopping at Suwarni’s house, he said.
“Many of them came, asking where Santoso was hiding and what he was doing. Suwarni could only answer ‘I don’t know,’ because indeed she did not know,” he said.
Hundreds of police officers and soldiers began scouring the mountains and jungles of Poso regency in January 2015 in an effort to find the MIT. It numbered about 30 individuals at the time, including six ethnic Uyghur men from China, three women, and several former members of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), al-Qaeda’s Southeast Asian affiliate.
One of the women, the widow of a former militant, traveled hundreds of miles from her home in West Nusa Tenggara province to join the MIT in 2014 and became Santoso’s second wife.
Jumiatun Muslimayatun, 22, was arrested on July 23, five days after Santoso was killed, and named a terrorism suspect. Only 10 of Santoso’s followers remain at-large in the rugged terrain of Central Sulawesi.
During a recent visit to Bakti Agung Village, a BenarNews reporter was accompanied by village officials or police at all times. Yusmanto said he had relayed an interview request to Suwarni, but she had declined.
“Suwarni is sick again, so she doesn’t want to see anyone. What’s for certain is that she’s waiting for help from the government or charitable individuals,” Yusmanto said.
Suwarni suffers from diabetes and has often been sick in recent months, according to Yusmanto, who said she had given him permission to speak on her behalf.
“Seeing other villagers is not a problem. But she doesn’t want to meet new people, especially journalists,” Yusmanto said.
Suwarni married Santoso in 1998, when she was 16 or 17 years old. He was four years her senior. She gave birth to three daughters between 2002 and 2009.
“After leaving four years ago, Santoso never came home,” Yusmanto said.
Suwarni became increasingly dejected and withdrawn after learning of his death, he said.
She was tasked with identifying his body at a hospital in the provincial capital, Palu, according to the Jakarta Post.
"Suwarni was hear to burst into tears minutes after she entered the hospital mortuary. She was accompanied by two of her relatives and under a tight security guard. The woman, wearing a black chador, gave no statements but directly entered a vehicle after examining her husband's corpse," the newspaper reported.
Villagers have not ostracized Suwarni but have tried to help her cope with her fate, local officials said.
“If there is support from the village, Suwarni is prioritized,” said Kahar, the head of the village-level police force.
Suwarni and her children were recently issued government cards that confer health and education benefits to low-income Indonesians, he said.
Bakti Agung Village has 1,650 residents, including Christians, Muslims and Hindus, he said.
“Here, people respect each other. Including Santoso’s wife. Though they know she is the wife of the leader of a radical group, they still accept her and do what they can to help her live well,” Kahar said. He claimed the same was true for her children.
Santoso in his youth
Santoso, the son of Javanese trans migrants, lived in Bakti Agung from his teenage years. People knew him as someone who drank and gambled, but worked hard and was kind, according to Daeng Ala, a Bakti Agung resident.
Santoso did various types of work, including selling books, making utensils and plates, carpentry and stonework. He helped build a temple that is used by Hindus in the village today, as well as several houses, Daeng recalled.
“He was a creative person, and lived here for about 20 years. He married Suwarni in this village,” he said.
Villagers were stunned to learn that he had abandoned his family to join a radical Islamist group, he said. Growing up, Santoso didn’t care much about religion.
“Never mind the five daily prayers. Santoso never even did Friday prayers,” Daeng said.