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Banda Islands Today

Banda is within the administrative province of Maluku, Indonesia, a part of Eastern Indonesia also known as the Moluccas. Most people in Banda are farmers and/or fisherman, and are of varying ethnic backgrounds, descended from original Bandanese and immigrants from all over the world, especially Java, the Malay Peninsula, Bay of Bengal and Europe. The people speak Indonesian, and approximately 95% are Muslim and 5% Christian. Nutmeg remains an important export crop, along with fish (particularly tuna), cloves, and bananas. Tourism was also an important part of the economy, with several thousand domestic and foreign visitors arriving per year prior to the 1999 conflict. There are hopes of reviving this soon.

View of Banda from Orang Datang

Banda Islands from Orang Datang
Photo by Andrew Lawless

The largest town in the islands is Naira, on the island of Banda Naira which also has the market, high school, museums, government offices and the wharf and air strip that serve all of the Banda islands. Naira is a town of about 6,000 people. Many of the buildings date from the Dutch colonial period, and are very interesting architecturally with polished marble or tile floors and inner courtyards and gardens. Some are in ruins, although there have been some recent efforts to restore some of them. The pace of life is pleasantly slow here, even though it is the most "bustling" town in the islands. The largest island is Banda Besar, which has several small villages along its coast, and a rugged mountainous interior. These islands are accessible only by motor boat. Each has a unique atmosphere and geography, are less "developed" than Naira (i.e. few or no motor vehicles or telephones) and all invite exploration.

The Banda Islands have spectacular scenery, and many visual reminders of the past, like crumbling, overgrown fortresses and colonial-style houses. The surrounding coral reefs are some of the most beautiful and unspoiled in the world, with steep drop offs to the deep Banda Sea basin.

Archaeology crew housing on Pulau Ay 2007
Photo by Andrew Lawless

Since January 1999, thousands of people have been killed in riots and attacks in the Maluku region, driven by Christian-Moslem animosity, but also by other divisions in Maluku society, including anti-immigrant feelings and resentment over central government rule, exacerbated by hardships suffered by most Maluku people in the Asian economic crisis. The reasons behind the violence are complex, and poorly understood. The results, however, are tragic and real. In Banda in April 1999, a mob of as many as 2000 people destroyed buildings in Banda Naira, Pulau Hatta, Pulau Ay and Banda Besar. Many of the historic colonial houses in Banda Naira were destroyed, and the Dutch church on Pulau Ay, the second oldest in Indonesia, was burned down (the oldest church, in the village of Hila on Ambon island, was also destroyed in January 1999). Most of the Van dem Broeke family in Banda Besar was massacred, including Wim's wife, her sister, his son's wife and their two daughters, ages 9 and 12. While there has not been an outbreak of violence since then in Banda, tensions still exist  and an influx of refugees from Ambon and other parts of Maluku has strained Banda's society and environment (some estimates report 4000 refugees in Banda--an increase of 30% over the normal population).

Despite these problems, Banda is safe to visit, with very low crime compared with American cities. It appears that the violence of the late 1990s has had an end result of more cohesive communities, and a Christian-Muslim peace agreement signed in 2003 has largely held.

Smiling Children of Pulau Ay

Smiling Children of Pulau Ay
Photo by Andrew Lawless