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In 1998 This Indonesian Town Lynched Dozens Looking for ‘Ninjas.’ Now it’s Happening Again

People in Banyuwangi have reported seeing people dressed in ninja costume, prompting fears of a repeat mass panic.

by Ikhwan Hastanto; translated by Jade Poa
30 July 2019, 8:15am

Mob violence in Banyuwangi in 1998 via Reuters

In most places, knocking on a stranger’s door and running away is considered harmless fun, but not in the East Java regency of Banyuwangi. Here, the age-old prank seems terrifying and completely reckless.

For the past week, a mysterious group of people dressed in ninja outfits have been ringing residents’ doorbells around the town. At first, residents thought it was a simple prank, until it was observed that the perpetrators were wearing ninja costumes—and were adults. These factors reminded everyone of a horrific case of mass hysteria in which residents believed ninja sorcerers were targeting members of Nahdlatul Ulama, a traditionalist Sunni Muslim movement between February and August of 1998. The ensuing witch hunt cost the lives of between 115 and 150 people.

Many theories surrounded the door-knockers. Some believed the whole thing was a politically-motivated clandestine military operation meant to destabilise Nahdlatul Ulama leading to the regime’s fall. Indeed, a rumor arose claiming the ninjas were highly-trained military personal, with witnesses claiming they saw people in ninja costume using walkie-talkies.

More than 20 years later, the case remains unsolved and utterly bizarre. But the lynchings are still fresh in locals’ minds.

“My nephew saw four of these men come up to his door,” claimed one resident named Nehrawi, who like many Indonesians goes by a single name. The mysterious figures knocked on Nehrawi’s door last Wednesday. The next evening, his they visited his nephew’s home, who saw them scurrying away into the night.

Amidst these latest door-knockings comes a fresh wave of paranoia. Many residents have been arming themselves with homemade weapons fashioned from sticks, hoes, and stingray tails. Others have also been consulting witch doctors and fortune tellers, which is considered a normal course of action in hyper-superstitious Banyuwangi society.

One such resident met with a mystic who claimed that the masked perpetrators were on a quest to achieve the power of invisibility. Apparently they have 40 days to complete a number of tasks, one of which apparently requires knocking on strangers’ doors and scaring them senseless.

It’s worth noting that even though this theory may sound implausible to the average VICE reader, it’s wouldn't be considered unreasonable in Banyuwangi, which remains deeply superstitious.

In his book The Banyuwangi Witch Doctor Killings: A Study of Collective Violence from a Constructivist Perspective, sociologist Hasan Ali wrote, “Regarding all important things related to daily life, most Using people (Banyuwangi natives) will consult a paranormal.”

Sutrisno, another local, is positive that the recent spate of ding-dong ditchings have nothing to do with those in 1998, but remains wary. “No one’s been killed, but the whole situation is making us all worry,” he told local media.

Indonesian site Detik News has detailed some of the ways in which people are venting their fears. A local named Busairi has even taken to the streets with a loudspeaker demanding the perpetrators “stop disturbing us.”

“For the perpetrators, please don't bother us anymore. The poor people don't know anything,” Busairi has been preaching. Then, more alarmingly, he’s been counseling residents to “break the legs and break the hands” of anyone found ringing doorbells. “This is an order,” he adds.

This article originally appeared on VICE ID.