POSO, Indonesia – Masked, black-clad and brandishing machetes, the attackers sprang from behind a screen of tall grass and pounced on the four Christian girls as they walked to school. Within seconds, three of the teenagers were beheaded — fresh victims of violence that has turned this Indonesian island into yet another front in the terrorist wars.
"All I could do was pray to Jesus for his help," said 16-year-old Noviana Malewa, who fled with a gaping head wound. "I was streaming with blood." A thick scar runs from the back of her neck to just under her right eye.
Muslim militants are blamed for the October killings, the most gruesome yet in a campaign of terror against Christians on the island of Sulawesi.
Muslim-Christian violence from 2000 to 2002 killed some 1,000 people in Sulawesi and attracted Muslim militants from across Indonesia, including from Jemaah Islamiyah, a homegrown network linked to Al Qaeda, and even from the distant Middle East.
Despite a peace deal, bombings, shootings and other attacks on Christians have continued, especially around the small town of Poso in the heart of the octopus-shaped, Massachusetts-sized island.
Behind the attacks are Muslim islanders avenging their dead in that conflict, and terrorists bent on fomenting a new war, former fighters and security officials say.
"They want to see Poso become alive with the spirit of jihad again," said Fahirin Ibnu Achmad, an Afghan-trained militant who took part in the 2000-2002 war.
"It is easy to recruit people who have seen their relatives slaughtered," said Achmad, who claims to have renounced violence after spells in prison for gunrunning and taking part in an attack on a Christian village.
Sulawesi is one of several islands in what some call Southeast Asia's "triangle of terror" — a porous region encompassing the insurgency-wracked southern Philippines in the north and the Maluku archipelago, itself the scene of sectarian conflict, to the west.
Also close by is heavily Muslim southern Thailand, where a two-year insurgency has left more than 1,100 dead.
The United States is closely watching Indonesia, where Jemaah Islamiyah militants are accused of carrying out a string of suicide bombings on Western targets since 2002, including attacks on the island of Bali that killed more than 220 people, most of them foreign tourists.
Along with the Philippines, the "Sulawesi scene ... is perhaps the major issue right now in Southeast Asia, because there the enemy have the opportunity to gather and train and build cohesive groups and from there deploy outward," said Henry Crumpton, the U.S. State Department's counterterrorism coordinator.
Despite an Indonesian crackdown, militants are still able to move within the region and there is evidence that extremists are honing their bomb making skills at terror training camps, said Maj. Gen. Ansyaad Mbai, Indonesia's anti-terror chief.
The Sulawesi war has never been credibly investigated, and only a few perpetrators have stood trial. The island's Muslim and Christian communities, each numbering about half the population of 12.5 million, nurture their own histories of the conflict, casting themselves as victims. Burned out buildings and abandoned shops, many housing refugees, still dot the region, and aid money for reconstruction is stolen by corrupt officials and soldiers, human rights activists say.
Christian-Muslim relations were generally harmonious until 2000, when fighting spread from the Malukus and quickly took hold. Each side killed hundreds and burned down scores of villages, among them the hilltop hamlet where Noviana and her schoolmates grew up.
Noviana's family, which fled the hamlet overlooking Poso, had recently returned, confident that tensions were subsiding.
Still recovering from the attack, the girl now lives under police guard in the Christian town of Tentena.
In her only interview since the killings, Noviana described how the girls in their school uniforms were taking a shortcut to school through jungle and plantations when they ran into at least five masked, black-clad men.
As she fled bleeding, the assailants collected her friends' heads, put them into black plastic bags and then dumped in Christian parts of Poso, one on a porch, the other two on the street.
"They were killed as if they were chickens," said Hernius Morangki, showing a reporter the spot where his daughter was decapitated. "I keep asking myself, what were my daughter's sins?"
Christians, who represent just 5 percent of the country's overall population of 220 million, have refrained from loudly demanding justice.
"I tell people: Do not retaliate; only God can do that," said Rev. Stephen Dayoh, taking a break from pitching a large tent outside his church for Christmas services. "If we do, it means we are the same as them."