The killings began in February, 1998 in the Indonesian town of Banyuwangi.
Located at the easternmost end of the island of Java, the town was long-known as a centre for "black magic" in Indonesia where many residents openly practiced an exotic combination of Islamic and pre-Islamic religious traditions. This included numerous alleged sorcerers or dukuns who offered various services such as the laying and lifting of curses, divination, and magical healing. All of which brought them into regular conflict with local Islamic preachers as well as making them targets of occasional "witchhunts" aimed at eliminating the threat they were believed to pose.
When word spread about masked murderers dressed all in black attacking Islamic leaders, particularly leaders were belonged to the Nahdlatul Ulama movement, panic broke out across east Java. Though nobody knew the identity of these killers, they were quickly called "ninjas" due to their black clothing. Even as government forces began a crackdown to stop the killings, including imposing a curfew on Banyuwangi, local mobs began to seek their own form of justice. Though none of the "ninjas" were ever identified, their behaviour suggested that they had military training. Not only did they operate in groups of eight or more but they always wore clothes that hid their identity and, in some cases, even cut electric power to the villages where their intended victims lived to reduce any opposition.
As rumours flew about who was responsible for the killings, the local sorcerers became the first targets for mob attacks. Over the course of the summer, dozens of suspected "ninjas" were beaten, tortured, and killed. Despite efforts to rein in the mobs and end the killings, the lack of real information about who was responsible added to the uncertainty. A local group identifying themselves only as "Hang" even put up flyers around Banyuwangi urging people to continue the killings as a way for villagers to stay in control of their lives.
It was the economic unrest gripping much of Indonesia at the time that helped feed the hysteria. Though most of Asia had been effected by the economic recession, Indonesia fared even worse with more than 80 million of Indonesia's 200 million people living in poverty along with soaring unemployment and an inflation rate topping 75 percent for much of that year. East Java was particularly hard hit due to crop damage caused by drought and a collapsing currency that made imports impossibly expensive. This meant that food riots and looting had become common and, with mobs actively hunting for scapegoats, nobody was really safe.
As Muhyudin Suwando, then-head of the Nahdtatul Ulama said in a media interview, "Some people think the murderers are paid assassins hired to take revenge on people refusing to pay debts caused by the crisis, and others are blaming the black magic men for causing their suffering." But suspected sorcerers weren't the only ones being killed. Other victims included clerics, ordinary farmers, and, in many cases, people suffering from mental illness whose bizarre behaviour made the into natural scapegoats. .
With this rising mob violence, there were more preemptive strikes aimed at people considered to be responsible for the terror. Two men living in Probolinggo village barely escaped with their lives as hundred of rioters attacked their home because they were suspected of being black magicians. Though they managed to escape out the back, their house was set on fire.
But they were the lucky ones. For many others, there was no escape as mobs often chopped the bodies of victims into pieces after decapitating or disemboweling them. The pieces were either hanged from trees or, in many cases, thrown in to mosques. As more suspected ninjas were killed, mob behaviour became even more bizarre. In one instance, a mob paraded through their village with the head of a suspected ninja stuck on a pole. Another eastern Javan village had someone dragging the headless, naked body of another suspected ninja using his motorcycle as he shouted, "the ninja is dead!".
Meanwhile, Javanese living in targeted areas kept their homes barricaded at nights or else formed vigilante groups to patrol their neighbourhoods. But the killings still continued despite the best efforts of vigilante groups and the military. By December, an estimated 182 were killed across Java though, again, this was only the official death toll. Though Western observers and political opposition leaders suspected that the original killings were by rogue military units trying to undermine the Indonesian government, no real proof could be found.
Slowly, the killings subsided by the end of 1998 though the mystery of who had been behind the first deaths was never solved. In the final weeks of 1999 however, a new wave of killings began around the east Javanese town of Malang. The new deaths bore all the trademarks of the "ninja" murders of the previous year with victims being slashed to death and hanged from trees. Once again, many of the people killed were clerics, suspected black magicians, or simply farmers attacked for no known reason. Though there were less than a dozen deaths this time around, local religious leaders urged the government to prevent more murders. As a leader of the local Muslim Scholar's League told media, "We cannot underestimate the killings. Whoever is behind this is using similar methods...This could grow bigger." Police detained dozens of suspects but no charges were ever laid.
Still, despite fears of the violence spreading, the hysteria died out once the killings ended. Though murders continue to occur in east Java, they no longer had any of the earmarks of the organized killings of 1998. As to who had been originally behind the first deaths, there are numerous theories but no real evidence. While the familiar tensions between Islamic clerics and dukuns still persist, the memory of the East Javan Ninja scare provides a graphic lesson of what how easily this tension can erupt into graphic violence.