An unsolved case of three missing children in North Sumatra is causing controversy in Indonesia, sparking a clash between local police and shamans and resulting in authorities banning all paranormal activities in the area to restore calm.
Police Sub-Inspector Sukadi, head of the intelligence team coordinating the search for the children, told This Week in Asia that paranormal investigators from all over Indonesia had descended on the village of Naman Jahe in Langkat.
“We had three weeks of rituals, none of which produced results. The parents of the children were at risk of further psychological trauma as the shamans often recorded the events and uploaded them to their YouTube channels,” he said.
The three children – Alfisah Zahra, 7, Yoghi Tri Herlambang, 8, and Nizam Aufar Reza, 7 – went missing on Oct 18 after playing near their homes.
At around noon, their mothers started looking for them. “I went to get them so that they could come home and have a bath before lunch,” said Masdiani, the mother of Zahra.
When she could not find her daughter and the two boys, she assumed they had wandered to a local lake in which they often swam. The three families and neighbours continued searching and called the police late that afternoon.
Once the alarm was raised, a number of shamans in the area came forward to perform rituals at the various places where the children were last seen, including an oil palm plantation and the lake.
“They said that the children were taken by a bunian into the forest and hidden there,” said Susilawati, the mother of Yoghi.
In Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei, bunian are thought to be jungle-dwelling spirits that take the form of miniature people whose legs are backwards on their bodies. It is thought that bunian like to take small children to keep them as pets, showering them with affection, food and gifts.
“We believe that they may have been kidnapped, but we believe more in the bunian theory,” said Susilawati.
Initially only local shamans, known in Indonesia as dukun, were involved in the search. But once news of the missing children appeared in national media, shamans from across the country started to arrive in Naman Jahe.
Jumaan, the village head, said there were too many shamans in the area and that it was making residents uncomfortable. “Every time they performed a ritual, the paranormal investigators asked for the children’s clothes so they could channel their spirits and find their whereabouts. In the end, the parents did not have any clothes left because of the rituals.”
One shaman from the village, Supeno, told This Week in Asia that the rituals were not producing results because the lack of unity among shamans was angering the local spirits.
He also said he believed that the local “creatures” who guard the area, including bunian and other spirits, were refusing to cooperate with the process because they were unhappy about the increased paranormal activity.
“I performed a ritual with seven other shamans, and saw a creature as tall as a telephone pole which was covered in fur. But when I went to ask where the children were, the ground started to shake and the other shamans got spooked and ran away, so the ritual was a bust,” he said.
Supeno, 66, became a shaman when he was 13, and is known for helping people find lost items, diagnosing illness and dealing with family problems.
He said he was bestowed with paranormal abilities after being born prematurely. “When my mother was pregnant with me and went for a check-up the technician told her that there was no baby in her womb, but a large snake instead. I didn’t meet my father until I was seven years old, as he was in prison, having beaten the technician to death,” he said.
In the area, belief in bunian is widespread. Local resident Nurainun Sembiring said she had an encounter with a bunian when she was a child.
“I was taken by a bunian, but only for one day because I refused to eat. If people don’t want to eat the food provided by the bunian, they are sent home. That is the test. I was given food and refused it. I asked to go home and so they let me go,” she said.
Intelligence officer Sukadi said the police were not entertaining any theories of paranormal activity and were instead focusing on collecting evidence and interviewing witnesses. He said it was possible that the children were kidnapped, or that they may have had an accident in the area surrounding the village, which is covered in palm plantations and thick jungle.
Another possibility is that the children may have drowned in the nearby lake. But Sukadi said that the lake had been searched three times by divers from Basarnas (the Indonesian Search and Rescue Agency), and that teams of local volunteers, including village chief Jumaan, had combed through the thick grass at the bottom of the lake on several occasions.
“Bodies usually float to the surface after a few days if people have drowned, so we would have expected to have found the children by now if they were in the lake,” he said. “We are surprised that we have so few leads in this case.”
As the search for the missing children continues, their mothers are trying to stay positive, and believe their children are still alive.
“We worry about them missing school and falling behind their classmates,” Masdiani said. “We already bought them their new school uniforms and their shoes, but now they are not here to wear them. We just want to go and pick them up wherever they are. We miss them so much.
“I always think, they still haven’t had their bath yet.”
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.