Living with the dead: Indonesia’s Torajans downsize burials amid pandemic

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Mourners clad in black wore face masks in compliance with the health protocol. (Lisa Saba Palloan)
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A relative mourns on the deceased's coffin. (Lisa Saba Palloan)
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Updated 21 June 2020

Living with the dead: Indonesia’s Torajans downsize burials amid pandemic

  • The Torajas inhabit two administrative areas — the North Toraja and Tana Toraja regencies — in the South Sulawesi province
  • A burial ceremony is central to the lives of the Toraja ethnic group

JAKARTA: She had been dead for two years and was ready to be buried. After restrictions to curb the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) were imposed in March, however, villagers in the La’bo village of the North Toraja regency in Sulawesi Island had no choice but to suspend the ceremony at the last minute.

On Saturday, they were finally able to hold a proper burial for the deceased village elder in a toned-down version of the elaborate, centuries-old ceremony known as Rambu Solo. The ceremony is central to the lives of the Toraja ethnic group, who are predominantly Christian but hold some animistic belief.

The Torajas inhabit two administrative areas — the North Toraja and Tana Toraja regencies — in the South Sulawesi province.

The burial ceremony is a large family affair involving the entire village and would last for up to a week in pre-COVID-19 times. It requires the sacrifice of dozens of buffaloes, following years of preparations, while the mummified corpse remains unburied in the family’s tongkonan, or a Toraja traditional house."

"We conducted the burial in compliance with health protocols by providing a hand washing station at the entrance. All mourners who came in had to wear face masks," Yohannes Limbong, a family representative, told Arab News.

The family was supposed to hold the ceremony on March 25, but it was suspended after the regency administration issued a stay-at-home order on March 23, advising citizens to hold off on any events involving large gatherings of people such as the Rambu Solo.

As of Saturday, the regency has not reported any COVID-19 deaths, but there were four confirmed cases, all of whom were travelers from virus-infected areas, including the provincial capital, Makassar, about 317 kilometers away. 

The province has had 3,635 confirmed cases so far or about 8 percent of the 45,029 national caseloads. North Toraja, which has a population of 230,000, has lifted some restrictions in recent weeks after the region was considered an area where the risk of infections is low, allowing for religious events. Participants are nevertheless required to observe health protocols.

"There were less than 100 mourners who attended the ceremony. Normally, it would be double that amount or more," Lisa Saba Palloan, a local tourist guide, told Arab News.

Romba Marannu Sombolinggi, chairwoman of the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago Toraya chapter, said that families who conducted the burials recently had to compromise between the obligation to perform a respectable send-off and compliance with social restrictions.

"A complete ceremony could take at least five days," she told Arab News.

"But we are obeying government regulations. There are some disappointments, but we understand the situation. We do not want people to be infected because we insist on having the long ceremony."

A few people had died who were under treatment but who had tested negative for COVID-19. They had to be buried in accordance with health protocols as soon as possible, which meant that the surviving family members could not keep the deceased embalmed in their houses as they would traditionally do.

"The families still performed the most essential rituals, including sacrificing at least a pig or a buffalo before the burial," Sombolinggi said.

"It is very much about the family’s dignity. They would otherwise experience social repercussions if they were not able to hold a presentable burial," she added.

Sombolinggi said that buffaloes are sacrificed to mark the symbolic passage to death since they would serve as the deceased’s "carriage" in the afterlife.  

Her mother, who passed away in June 2019, is still kept mummified in the family’s tongkonan in the village of Lembang Madandan, in the Tana Toraja regency.

Her corpse is laid down with her face and the body facing east to the sunrise, which symbolizes life. For Torajans, the deceased are not dead yet; they are seen, rather, as sick. Family members still talk to them, bringing food and drinks and keeping essential items nearby.

"I greet her good morning or goodbye when I visit the family tongkonan. When my father died, he was mummified for three years before we held the Rambu Solo for him," Sombolinggi said.  

The death is only considered official once the buffaloes are slaughtered in the ceremony. Family members must save up enough money to buy the animals, which can cost at least 20 million rupiahs each ($1,400).

"The extended family chips in to bear the costs together. It is a communal obligation that binds the Torajan people together," Palloan said.


US official warns Taliban attacks could derail Afghan peace

Updated 20 October 2020

US official warns Taliban attacks could derail Afghan peace

  • Khalilzad urges militant group to honor ‘historic opportunity’ and end decades of war

KABUL: The US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation warned on Monday that increasing attacks by the Taliban could undermine the historic peace deal signed between Washington and the militant group in February.

Zalmay Khalilzad also said the strikes could derail the ongoing intra-Afghan talks in Doha, Qatar, that look to end the protracted conflict in the country.

“Continued high levels of violence can threaten the peace process and the agreement, and the core understanding that there is no military solution. Violence today remains distressingly high in spite of the recent reaffirmation of the need for a substantial reduction,” he said in tweets on Monday.

Since last week, the Taliban have unleashed a series of attacks in parts of Afghanistan, particularly in the southern Helmand province, where more than 35,000 people have been displaced over recent days, Afghan officials told Arab News.

In response, US forces in the country launched several airstrikes on Taliban positions, which the insurgent group described as a breach of the February accord on Sunday.

Responding to the Taliban’s accusations, Khalilzad said they were “unfounded charges of violations and inflammatory rhetoric,” and “do not advance peace.”

Washington also accused the Taliban of breaking the historic agreement, which, among other things, looks to finalize a complete withdrawal of US-led troops from the country.

Khalilzad said the airstrikes were conducted to support Afghan troops as part of Washington’s commitment to defend them, if necessary.

He added that the Taliban attacks in Helmand, including some in the provincial capital that targeted Afghan security forces, led to a recent meeting in Doha where both sides agreed to “decrease attacks and strikes.” And while levels of violence in Helmand have fallen, it “remains high” across the country, the Afghan-born diplomat added.

Some Afghan observers said the motive behind Taliban attacks was to gain an “upper hand” in negotiations.

However, Khalilzad warned of the risks involved in using this strategy.

“The belief that says violence must escalate to win concessions at the negotiations table is risky. Such an approach can undermine the peace process and repeats past miscalculation by Afghan leaders,” he said, urging all sides to honor the “historic opportunity for peace, which must not be missed.”

Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, told Arab News on Monday that the group had “no comment” on Khalilzad’s statements and that US forces had “violated the Doha agreement in various forms by carrying out excessive airstrikes.”

Mujahid added that he had “no information” on the state of attacks in Helmand province.

However, Omar Zwak, a spokesman for Helmand’s governor, told Arab News that “fighting subsided in various parts of Helmand” over the past two days.

Meanwhile, an anonymous senior official in President Ashraf Ghani’s government praised Khalilzad for “beginning to get realistic” and “breaking silence over repeated Taliban attacks.”

Another figure, Kabul-based lawmaker Fawzia Zaki, said: “The government and Afghan people, in general, insisted on enforcement of a cease-fire or a drastic reduction of violence before the beginning of the intra-Afghan dialogue.”

For it to be effective, Khalilzad and Washington “need to exert growing pressure to make them listen to the righteous demands of ours,” Zaki added.

However, experts have warned of the “growing impatience” of both sides.

Shafiq Haqpal, an analyst, told Arab News: “Khalilzad’s comments clearly show that Washington is becoming impatient with Taliban attacks and the lack of progress in the talks.”

He said that US President Donald Trump is “hoping to see a breakthrough soon,” so that he can “portray it as a success of his administration for his re-election campaign.

“But that is not happening. Maybe Washington has realized that won’t happen, so they are beginning to come out and warn the Taliban against the consequences of their attacks,” Haqpal added.