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From head-hunter to organ-thief: verisimilitude, doubt, and plausible worlds in Indonesia and beyond.


In April 2014, I sat on the porch of Tali, a ritual leader in Buli. (1) I was in the last stages of finishing a book about witchcraft in Buli--a predominantly Christian village cluster on Halmahera, the largest island in the Indonesian province of North Maluku--and I had come to visit because I wanted to hear Tali's reaction to my argument that witchcraft was a condition of doubt rather than a system of belief and that a deep epistemological uncertainty informed people's relations to witches (Bubandt 2014a). Tali was over 80 years old and almost blind. His favourite granddaughter, Adelina, a teenage girl I had known since she was born and who was serving us fried bananas on a rickety plastic table, joked loudly and to Tali's face that he was also increasingly senile. It was true that Tali was struggling to remember things.

But when it came to matters of tradition (adat re atoning), (2) he was sharp as a knife; a bit like my old aunt in Denmark who could sing all Christmas carols flawlessly even after a stroke had robbed her almost entirely of the ability to speak. Tali might be searching for words at times, but he still spoke of life and tradition in Buli with great eloquence and alacrity. Invoking a proverb often used about witchcraft, he agreed that witches belonged to a realm of life where uncertainty ruled: 'We cannot know whether to trust and believe these things, or whether not to' (Itet fatoto pa, bot dela fare dela pa). Then, unexpectedly, Tali went on to talk about head-hunters:
   It is the same with head-hunters (yal boboka). I don't know whether
   to believe or not to believe what I hear about them either. But I
   have heard they are in Weda, in Tobelo, in Ternate. In Patani they
   kidnapped a child in March this year and cut it open to steal its
   heart and kidneys.

Tali used the Indonesian, rather than Buli, words for heart (I. jantung) and kidney (I. ginjal). A nickel mine had opened in Buli in 1997, attracting thousands of mining workers, traders, and adventure seekers from other parts of Indonesia, transforming the formerly remote village cluster into a pioneering town. The story of the head-hunters, it seemed, had circulated mainly in Indonesian in this changing social environment. Tali, however, continued his account about the head-hunters in the Buli language:
   They caught eleven of them, all Javanese, in the village of Bicoli.
   The men had come into the village to top up the SIM cards on their
   mobile phones, so that they could make calls to their employer to
   arrange for the sale of the organs. But the owner of the store in
   Bicoli, as you know, is Javanese, loo, and he had eavesdropped on
   them and alerted the police. You should talk to the police about
   what they did to the men after they arrested them.

I had heard about mysterious head-hunters--called yal boboka in the Buli language, literally 'takers of trophy heads'--in the forests of Halmahera many times before. (3) In 1993, I remember how for over a week most villagers had refused to go to their swidden gardens in the forest behind the village because of the 'white-skinned' head-hunters in black army clothes who were said to be on the prowl for victims there--perhaps, so some people claimed, at the behest of the Indonesian government. And during fieldwork in the late 1990s Tali himself has recounted to me how Gares, a friend of his, in the 1930s had been ordered by the Dutch owners of the coconut plantation in Tilope to procure a human head for a bridge the company planned to build. The bridge, so Tali had concluded, as if by way of proof, was still there. The notion that head-hunters conventionally worked in the employ of the Dutch was an old one in this region. In the 1870s, Dutch missionaries on Halmahera complained in letters to their mission society that locals suspected them of paying a bounty of 48 Dutch guilders (around 460 US dollars in today's money) for human heads. In spite of these precedents however, Tali's story of the head-hunters in 2014 was different in several ways. First off, the terms of employment of this new breed of head-hunters were uncertain. Unlike the Indonesian government officials or Dutch missionaries who employed their predecessors, the employers of these new head-hunters were, as in similar accounts from Africa (White 1993), unknown. More striking and novel, however, was their modus operandi. It was the first time I had heard that head-hunters (referred to as potong kepala, 'headcutters', in the regional Indonesian dialect) had turned to organ harvesting.

This article explores the new species of organ-stealing head-hunters and the verisimilitude of the accounts about them by following their trail from Buli via Ternate, the main city of North Maluku, to Java and into Indonesian media. Fundamentally doubtful, the plausibility of the organ-stealing head-hunter in each place is bolstered by accounts from elsewhere. The contemporary Indonesian organ-thief is a deferred reality, a travelling and mediated verisimilitude that requires analytical following rather than merely localised contextualisation. It also requires a basic reconsideration of the truth-value of head-hunting accounts. Comparing the organ-thieves of the new millennium to earlier analyses of the government-paid head-hunters of the twentieth century, I suggest the organ-stealing head-hunters do not simply pose a problem of historical analysis, i.e. that of aligning changing myths to changing times and social conditions. Rather, and more acutely, they pose an epistemological challenge to the study of rumour and narratives of the occult in general, namely the challenge of what kind of veracity to accord to them in the first place and how to include this in our analysis. While previous anthropological accounts of head-hunting rumours from the late twentieth century managed to contain--albeit uncomfortably so--the head-hunter within the analytical categories of 'the mythical' and 'the allegorical', contemporary accounts of organ theft occupy, not a mythical or representational 'outside', but rather a globally shared, plausible-yet-opaque reality. As I will show, accounts of organ-stealing head-hunters travel effortlessly between villages, regional centres, national newspapers and NGO reports as part of a shared but uncertain world of bio-piracy, trafficking, body commodification, anti-terror simulations, migrant labour, and election manipulation. Every bit as outlandish as its headhunting predecessor, the organ-thief of the twenty-first century nevertheless belongs to the realm of plausible reality. This outlandish but plausible reality prompts the need for an analytical reassessment, not merely of the latest incarnation of the organ-stealing head-hunter but also, I argue, of classical accounts of mythical head-hunters.


The stories of 'classical' head-hunters that I had heard in the 1990s were not unique to Buli. Throughout Indonesia rumours of head-hunters, who were said to be in the employ of the government or other figures of authority in order to acquire human heads for use in so-called 'construction sacrifices' to ensure the durability of bridges, roads, buildings and other development projects, have been widely reported for more than a century. At the height of New Order rule in the 1980s and 1990s, such rumours were particularly rampant, and a series of fascinating analyses, both in the pages of Oceania (Barnes 1993; Drake 1989; Erb 1991; Forth 1991; Pannell 1992) and elsewhere (Hoskins 1996a; Tsing 1993) documented fearful accounts of head-hunters in communities across Indonesia. Spurred by an ambition to add a Geertzian-inspired anthropological perspective to sociological studies of rumour (Allport and Postman 1947), these studies did what anthropologists do so well; they sought to locate rumours within the social and historical conditions of the local communities in which they occured. Richard Drake initiated these studies by suggesting that headhunting rumours in Borneo were 'expressive of local anxieties about objective social conditions (Drake 1989:269). Local historical practices in Borneo that ritually used enemy heads to solicit the support of spirits served, so Drake argued, as the cultural 'motif for headhunting rumours. The rumours were a 'hidden mode of signification' (ibid:275), 'a symbolic means of expressing the persecution aspect of anti-state ideology' within a history of political oppression and the loss of local autonomy (ibid:111). Drake's argument sparked a string of further analyses that disagreed on some of the details, but which on the whole maintained a 'representational' approach that saw the rumours as local 'efforts at meaning', narratives that expressed local cultural contexts and political histories. Among the Nage in Flores, Gregory Forth argued, the fit between rumour and local tradition was less clear than on Borneo.

Amongst the Nage, there was no indigenous practice of headhunting and no tradition of human construction sacrifice that could serve as a 'motif. The use of heads in construction rituals, so Forth's informants insisted, was a real practice introduced by the Dutch in the 1920s. At the same time however, the Nage had a local word for these head-hunters (N. mo gele), a term that seemed to be etyinologically related to circumcision rituals. In an attempt to adjudicate these contradictory pieces of evidence. Forth opted for a diffusionist and historical interpretation, speculating that the rumours may have been introduced through mediation by the Lio people who did, in fact, have a practice of ritual child sacrifice (Forth 1991). Maribeth Erb, meanwhile, reported that European Catholic priests were the suspected head-hunters among the Manggarai in Flores. She argued that this suspicion expressed 'the Manggarai's ambivalence towards foreigners, which may be particularly understood also, in light of their experience with slave-raiders' as late as the early twentieth century (Erb 1991:114). Headhunting rumours, it seemed, were circumscribed allegories of actual, but different, historical realities. Based on material from Lembata and elsewhere in eastern Indonesia, Robert Barnes pushed this historical interpretation further, noting that head-hunting rumours seemed to predate Dutch colonialism and could be seen as a historical memory of both colonial and pre-colonial assertions of power, including slave-raiding and the ritual taking of heads (Barnes 1993). Still Barnes--like Forth--cautioned against the easy assumption that these were just rumours, and noted 'that head-hunting, kidnapping, and raiding of villages did lake place' (ibid: 155). Anna Tsing, in her account of Javanese oil workers who allegedly turned into government-paid head-hunters in the Meratus Mountains of South Kalimantan during the 1980s, was the clearest voice arguing that the beliefs might, after all. be real. Insisting on the need to 'suspend disbelief in these accounts, Tsing suggested that head-hunting rumours were not 'a confused expression of real anxieties' but rather 'a striking reminder of globally interconnected but locally incongruent imaginings of power' (Tsing 1993:91), a point also explored by Sandra Pannell (1992) and Janet Hoskins (1996a).

There is much to learn from these studies. They demonstrated the plasticity of headhunting accounts, their ability to fit into a variety of different contexts and historical experiences, whether or not these contexts included local practices of headhunting and human sacrifice. At the same time, their insistence on seeing the rumours as a function of local contexts was striking, as was their increasingly troubled insistence on separating symbolic representation from historical reality and social context. The increasing ambivalence about this division gradually moved the analytical position away from one of seeing rumour as being 'literally false but figuratively true' (Drake 1989:275) to insisting on their historical reality as local testimony to colonial violence and the 'terrors of regional asymmetry' (Tsing 1993:91). Rumours might, in other words, not just 'speak' some kind of truth but might even 'be' some kind of truth. This possibility, however, sat uncomfortably with the symbolic and representational analysis that underwrote most of these studies and which continues to inform studies of rumour, in anthropology and elsewhere (Kapferer 1990; Kirsch 2002; Shibutani 1966; Turner 1993). It is this space of discomfort that I seek to widen and explore, for the historical shift from headhunting to organ theft highlights the problems of a representational approach. While it may be possible to contain headhunting, and perhaps only barely so, within the analytical category of the fetish--a symbolic representation of 'real injustice'--the organ thief is, to speak with Bruno Latour (2010), a 'factish', an actant intimately entangled with, indeed inextricable from, the 'real' world of technology and political economy. Therefore, instead of situating head-hunting accounts culturally, as was common in the 1990s, in order to argue that they were beliefs that functioned as a particular community's interpretation of its place in a global landscape, this paper sees the transformation of head-hunters into organ-thieves as a result of their recruitment into a global 'traveling package' (Jorgensen 2014:275; Tsing 2005), a package that contains--at the same level of veracity or truth-value--other aspects of political economic reality. These include, as we shall see later, electoral manipulation, migrant labour, and medical tourism. They also include organ theft, surgical technologies, legal amendments to the notion of death, new drug regimes, and a global trade in body parts.

Nancy Scheper-Hughes has pointed out that advances in surgical technologies and immunosuppressant drug regimes since the late 1990s, legal changes to the criteria of death, and the global commodification of body parts have not only confused the distinction between life and death, body and corpse, tissue and commodity. These changes have also redefined the module that she calls 'rumor/fiction/fact' (2000:193). As Alan Fine and Bill Ellis highlight: 'There is enough discouraging truth in accounts of international organ transfers that one would be naive to suggest that kidnapping for this purpose is impossible' (Fine and Ellis 2010:177). An account of organ theft is in other words hearsay that teeters on the brink of fact. Circulating globally as much in policy reports, academic treatises, and media news as in 'village discourse' since the 1980s (Campion-Vincent 2002), stories of organ theft fail to occupy a neat and delineated space of 'rumour' and 'representation'. Disaggregating fiction from fact in the illicit world of organ theft is, as a result, full of analytical obstacles (Scheper-Hughes 2000, 2009), because the veracity of organ theft accounts is as opaque as the forms of commodification of which they speak. When head-hunters began to steal organs they entered, so I argue, this world of opacity and plausibility. Adjudicating truth and relegating some accounts to mere representation in this universe of verisimilitude --worlds that are at once plausible and doubtful--is as difficult for academic analysts and investigative journalists as it is for Indonesian villagers. It is this doubt, shared by informants and analysts (like myself), that I insist on the need to incorporate in our analysis of worlds of verisimilitude, both the worlds of organ-stealing head-hunters and, more broadly, the worlds of magic, witchcraft and the occult (see Bubandt 2014a).

In literary theory, verisimilitude describes the means through which a piece of fiction achieves 'believability'--the capacity of fiction to call into reality through mimicry the world of which it speaks (Buchanan 2010:481). Initially used to describe works of fiction, the relevance of 'verisimilitude' for this paper is that it has also been used to describe scientific theories of fact, thereby enabling an analysis of the overlap between fictional rumour and objective truth, fetish and fact that occurs in the accounts of organ-stealing head-hunters. The term 'verisimilitude' was thus adopted by the Austrian-British philosopher Karl Popper as part of his logical positivist attempt to establish an ideal but still practical epistemology for science and its pursuit of truth (Popper 1963). Popper argued that while it was impossible to ensure that a scientific hypothesis was objectively true, it was nevertheless possible to objectively evaluate the 'truthlikeness' or verisimilitude of a hypothesis. The scientific community, he suggested, was able to grade verisimilitude and assess whether one theory was 'more like the truth than another' (Zwart 2010:4). The strength of Popper's concept of verisimilitude was to reject banal notions of truth and to recognize the essentially fictional character of all truth claims. By introducing the concept of verisimilitude into epistemological considerations of scientific theory, Popper made it possible to highlight how scientific 'facts' and 'truth' are rhetorical gestures toward the 'real' within a particular genre. The more convincing the claim that 'this happened', the greater its 'reality effect' (Barthes 1989: 139). It is this possibility to see 'facts' as reality effects of particular genres that this paper exploits by tracing how the reality effects, the claim that 'this happened', by NGO reports, media accounts, and police statements cross-fertilize with similar claims by people like Tali. This possibility was, of course, not one pursued by Popper himself nor would it be one he would have endorsed. Instead, Popper famously chose to make the term verisimilitude serve the function of resurrecting a positivist science by asserting that some falsehoods were more truth-like than others (Oddie 2016). It is this same assertion that I find in much rumour theory, which allows rumour to be 'truth-like' but then still claims for itself the ability to judge which accounts of the world are closer to the truth than others. So, too, with most analyses of the occult, including analyses of head-hunting rumours: we are asked as analysts to 'suspend disbelief in order to appreciate the believability of head-hunting accounts as critique of 'the terrors of regional asymmetry'. The problem with this approach as with the analytical trope of 'suspending disbelief--coined by the British poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, founder of the Romantic movement in England--is that it holds on to a principal state of reason and rational insight from which the Western analyst willingly allows herself to lapse (Bubandt 2014a: 16). But the approach makes little sense in a world of organ theft where we are all both believers and disbelievers, as it were, because it is impossible to disaggregate the truth-value of rumour and media news, of village accounts and NGO reports, of local anxieties and policy concerns. A 'more-than-representational' approach (Lorimer 2005), which moves the head-hunter from the orbit of 'fiction' into the global and mediated world of verisimilitude, is necessary. By this I mean an analytical approach that seeks to understand accounts of head-hunters and organ-thieves not as symbolic representations of political realities but as politically affective and effective figures of plausibility and doubt. As we shall see, the verisimilitude of organ-stealing head-hunters is in direct engagement with--informs and is informed by--the verisimilitude of media accounts, NGO reports, and political imaginaries. Travelling across local, regional and global scales, the organ-stealing head-hunters point to worlds that are both plausible and doubtful. To follow how they do so. let me return to Buli where 1 first encountered them.


It is worth recalling at this point that Tali told me about the organ-stealing head-hunters in a conversation about the impossibility of being certain about witchcraft. This is significant, I think. Rumours are too-good-not-to-tell in particular situations, not just in any old moment of crisis. In the autumn of his life. Tali felt besieged by witchcraft (called ungan in Buli). He was convinced that much of his family--his wife and two of his daughters, including the mother of Adelina, whom Tali had subsequently raised as his own--had been killed by witchcraft. Witches in Buli are cannibals. A person who is possessed by a witch spirit (guci) will waylay neighbours, kin and friends, knock them unconscious, and eat their liver. The human witch then uses its long tongue to lick the wound shut, and the wound closes without a trace or scar. The victim, meanwhile, wakes up without realizing what has happened, only to fall seriously ill within a few days. Without proper divination and treatment, most victims die. It is this stealthy nature through which witchcraft operates that makes insight into it and indeed belief about it--so impossible. Doubt is, as a result, the main emotional reaction to witchcraft. Doubt is also for Buli people the only sensible epistemological way of engaging with the reality of witches (Bubandt 2014a).

It was exactly this doubtful relation to something that is plausible but still unbelievable that, as I see it, made Tali think about head-hunters during our talk about witchcraft. After all, the head-hunters' interest in kidneys and hearts was uncannily similar to the cannibalistic interest of witches in livers. In Buli, witches have a disturbing ability to change, to evolve historically, in order to continue to remain elusive and dangerously present at the same time. In 2004, most of the island of Halmahera had been in the grip of rumours that witches (called suanggi in the regional dialect of Indonesian) had turned into 'vampires' and begun to suck the blood of (heir victims, killing half a dozen people in the town of Tobelo (Bubandt 2008a). Vampires are recently introduced figures to Halmahera, but they are well-established entities in Indonesian public imagination and political reality, and stories of vampires who attack people in Java and Bali can be traced back to the 1980s (Siegel 1986:91). In the decades since then, vampires have appeared repeatedly as markers and makers of a political ontology of terror. (4) The politically motivated killing of Papuan community leader Theys Eluay in Jayapura by Kopassus--special forces within the Indonesian Army--in November 2001, for example, was preceded by rumours about roaming vampires, allegedly to terrorize people into staying indoors. Similar rumours had accompanied the murder of Papuan political activist Arnold Ap in 1984 (Manggut and Levi 2002). Spirits frequently do political work in Indonesia, a country where the horror of spirits and the terror of politics mark the same thing (Bubandt 2009a). Spirits and politics, one might say, are constituent parts of the same opaque, plastic, and unavoidable but never entirely believable reality. The possibility that elusive head-hunters had turned, witch-like, into organ-thieves was not so much a changing symbolic narrative that fitted new social realities (cf. Moore and Sanders 2001). Rather, they were means of probing a fundamentally uncertain world for its reality (see Ingold 2000).

Tali's concluding invitation for me to go and ask the police about the head-hunters was therefore not a posturing claim to the truth of his own account. The sub-text for the invitation was not the kind of bluff to authoritative truth that people sometimes attach to rumour in order to sound more believable: 'you can ask the authorities if you don't believe what I say'. Instead, I take Tali's parting words to be an invocation of the opposite: an invitation to dispel the uncertainty, to enquire into a plausible but fundamentally doubtful world. Whereas headhunting rumours have mainly been analysed as a form of political resistance, a 'critique of colonial conquest and postcolonial development' (Hoskins 1996b:41), uncertainty rather than resistance or critique seemed to be at stake for Tali. His appeal for me to ask the police was driven by an urge to probe the world, including the world of government authorities, for an answer to an impossible plausibility. (5) As Fine and Ellis have argued, stories of organ theft are 'plausibility markers. They serve to indicate what people consider to be possible in the hard and challenging world in which they live' (Fine and Ellis 2010:177). The organ-thieves, like witches, are co-producers of political (im)possibility--sites of verisimilitude where the real and the possible met. Tali and I had talked about witches since I first came to the village in 1991. and he had always urged me to help him figure them out. More than two decades later, I seemed to have gotten nowhere. Here was a chance to do better.

Therefore, I took up Tali's invitation and contacted the local police in Buli the next day. The police had not heard about any abducted child in Patani, nor did they have any record of an arrest of eleven Javanese men in Bicoli. According to the officer I talked to, the police had however received a report that a boy had been kidnapped in the village of Baburino not far from Buli on 28 February 2014. Lot of outsiders had flooded into Buli in the previous decade and the population had grown five times between the early 1990s and 2010. A so-called 'mega-project' to build a smelter and a power plant at an estimated cost of 1.6 billion US dollars had begun in 2011 and promised to bring even more newcomers. Buli, in short, was a radically different place from the one I had known in the 1990s. Within two short decades. Buli had gone from being a remote village cluster of some 2000 people, most of whom were fishermen and subsistence farmers, to being a bustling mining and pioneer town with an exploding monetary economy, a busy harbour, an airport, sealed roads, and mobile phone towers. With these socio-economic changes came decidedly urban problems: prostitution, drug use, gambling, AIDS. Cases of child molestation had also occurred. A government ban on direct export of mineral ore had shut down the nickel mine since January 2014, the export ships had stopped arriving, and now hundreds of unemployed people, mostly young unmarried men, remained in the area. A child kidnapping was not impossible in this entrepot.

Although plausible, the police had, according to the officer, not found proof of any child abduction in Baburino. Still, as a precaution, the police had undertaken nightly patrols along the Buli-Baburino road for several weeks following the report. It was these patrols that to Tali had suggested something nefarious was going on. What could not be proven, the patrols made plausible. But verisimilitude also came from other directions. After all, the police officer told me--ending our conversation with a, for me, completely surprising bit of new information--a boy had been kidnapped and killed in Ternate some months earlier. The organs were missing from the boy's body when it was discovered, so the officer had heard. I went to Ternate the following week.


In late December 2013, three days before New Year, a 13-year old boy was reported missing from a suburb in Ternate. The event made headlines in the local media and generated a wave of anxiety. Rumour had it that groups of kidnappers, driving in Toyota vans, toured the island to kidnap children and steal their organs. In the main local newspaper, Malut Post, the provincial head of police cautioned parents to be vigilant about their children, while repeated police searches failed to locate the boy. Almost two months later, in the middle of February 2014, the head and the left half of a body was discovered by a man gathering firewood in a coconut grove not far from the airport.'1 DNA analysis by a forensics team from Makassar confirmed that the body belonged to the disappeared teenager. The police declared it a murder case but the condition of the body made it impossible to tell if any organs had been removed.

In the two months between the disappearance of the boy in December 2013 and the discovery of his body in February 2014, Ternate was repeatedly rattled by recurrent accounts in kidnapping attempts. Mochtar, a taxi driver, told me he had heard that children had been kidnapped in Sasa and in Dufa-Dufa in February. Akilah, who sold the hugely popular green chrysocolla stones from Bacan on the market in Ternate, had heard that a headless body of a boy selling plastic bags had been found in the Gamalama vegetable market. She also told me that a child had been captured and deliberately cut into pieces with the blades of an outboard motor to be used as fishing bait. But the main theme of the many rumours that circulated was that of organ theft. A group of around forty men driving Toyota cars, so people said, were patrolling the entire province for children's organs. The newspaper Malut Post reported the events as they began to escalate. On February 1, a young man was attacked by villagers in the suburb of Kayu Merah after he had approached a young girl. The man, who turned out to have a history of mental illness, had to be taken into protective custody by the police. Outside the police station, hundreds of protestors demanded to see the man and destroyed a parked car when they were denied access (Malut Post 2014a). The next day a public Suzuki minivan was stopped in the Ternatan suburb of Fitu and the driver accused of being a kidnapper. On 20 February, a Toyota car suspected of belonging to the kidnapping group was stopped in Ternate and destroyed. The passengers barely managed to flee (Malut Post 2014b). On 27 February, a human head was reportedly found in the harbour of Bastiong. The police denied the rumour and issued a stern call for calm (Malut Post 2014f). In this atmosphere, a spoof text message began to circulate and ended up on my phone. The text message began by ominously describing how a sack of hearts had been discovered on a truck carrying bananas. Only gradually, the text revealed itself as a joke, a play-on-words. The 'heart' (I. jantung), it turned out. was not a human heart but a banana blossom, called jantung pisang or 'banana heart' in Indonesian. By the second week of February, the same week that the body of the teenager was discovered in Ternate, the rumour of prowling Toyota vans had crossed to the western parts of Halmahera. Here, too, the police initiated night patrols as a precaution (Malut Post 2014e). By late February the rumour had eventually reached Buli (Malut Post 2014d). Whereas organstealing head-hunters in Buli were plausibility markers of witchcraft in a mining community undergoing radical social transformation, in Ternate--as we shall see--organ-thieves manifested the opacity of electoral politics and anxieties about political violence.

In early 2014, North Maluku was a region beside itself. Economically, the government ban on the export of raw minerals meant that exports had dropped 83 per cent in the first two months of the year (Malut Post 2014 g). Politically, the governor's election that had been held in July 2013 had still not been settled. In a repeat performance of every governor's election since the province was created in late 1999 amidst a violent sectarian conflict, the election in North Maluku had been tainted by accusations of corruption and election fraud (Bubandt 2006; 2014b). On 16 November 2013, seven people were wounded by police shots in Sula during a vote-counting session of the local election committee (KPUD) (Nurgianto 2013). The local election committee subsequently declared the winner to be Ahmad Hidayat Mus, but the Indonesian Constitutional Court cancelled the result in December 2013. Citing 'structured, systematic, and massive' election fraud in Sula, the court ordered a recount of the votes in seven districts of the Sula region ( 2013). On 19 January 2014, two weeks after the disappearance of the teenager in Ternate, the ballots for the Sula re-election arrived from Jakarta in sealed and tightly guarded boxes (Malut Post 2014i). The recount, held on 27 January, tipped the balance in favour of Abdul Gani Kasuba, who had lost to Ahmad Hidayat Mus in the initial election count. While Kasuba declared victory, the local election office (KPUD) however continued to insist that Hidayat Mus was the winner, and street clashes between supporters of the two candidates broke out on a nightly basis as the two sides accused each other of election manipulation. Riot police deployed in early February to secure the central road through Ternate, by then dubbed 'The Gaza Strip' (I. Jalur Gaza) (Malut Post 2014c) for being the scene of frequent clashes. The name was not merely a reference to the conflict in the Middle East. More disconcertingly to North Malukans, the name recalled the sectarian conflict in Maluku and North Maluku between 1999 and 2003, where a central street in Ambon, the capital of Maluku, that separated Christians from Muslims was also called The Gaza Strip (Spyer 2002:31; Bubandt 2001:239). In the middle of a political situation that was both intense and undecided, the possibility of repeated violence began to seem decidedly real. So when groups of drunken youth clashed on 22 March 2014 in Kao (Siruang 2014), the very same town where communal violence had started in 1999, people, police, and media confronted a very real ghost. The possibility of a resurgence of communal violence was a spectre called into being by a murky political economy where children, votes, organs, and jobs went missing. Organ-thieves were not just representations of this political context, they were actors in it: makers as well as markers of plausibility.

The logic of political potentiality that characterised head-hunters, child abductions and organ theft in North Maluku was a species of a broader political phenomenon in Indonesia, namely political 'epistemic murkiness' (Taussig 1987:127), the cultivation of epistemological opacity and indeterminancy for political purposes. This was a form of political control developed and refined by the New Order regime between 1967 and 1998 (Heryanto 2006; Schrauwers 2003; Spyer 2006). But political opacity did not dissipate with the end of New Order. On the contrary, politics in Indonesia following the first democratic elections in 1999 has been characterised by its own brand of epistemic murkiness, an opacity that operates through, and not in spite of, the institutions of democracy and transparency (see Bubandt 2009b, 2014b). The dramatic period in Indonesian history after 1999 that saw the institutionalization of free elections, marked improvement of the freedom of the press, and a curtailment of the power of the military was thus also shadowed by ethno-religious violence, renewed elitism, novel forms of political paranoia, and endemic corruption (Aspinall 2010; Bubandt 2015; Hadiz 2010; Klinken 2008). This haunted nature of democratization entailed the substitution of one form of political opacity with another: authoritarian rule for the capture of democratic politics by party elites (Aspinall and Klinken 2011), state cronyism for decentralised forms of corruption (Collins 2007), centralized economic patrimonialism for a new globalized trade-zone economy with its own forms of structural violence (Lindquist 2009). The 21st century organ-waylayer, who steals organs for resale on a global, illegal market in body parts was a figure in this kind of political opacity. As state control decreased, new dark cronies have arisen; as marketization increased, novel markets of unthinkable products have opened up. The organ-thief is a concrete manifestation of this virtual world of political plausibility, where democracy and corruption, political freedom and bodily anxiety, mark the same thing.

Nowhere is this link between political liberalization, marketization, and opacity more evident than in the Indonesian mass media. Since 1998, the mass media has undergone its own process of fragmentation as 'news' changed from being controlled by the state to serving the market as well as a disparate group of politically or religiously positioned publishers (Aragon 2005). It is this shift, in which news became politically opaque and commercially profitable at the same time, that allowed the mass media to play a key role in establishing the verisimilitude, plausible and doubtful at the same time, of the organ-stealing head-hunter. Whereas rumours during the New Order could be said to have been a source of resistance to the truth claims of a state-controlled public media (Hidayat 2002), it is my contention that in democratic Indonesia, rumours--and rumours about the occult in particular--are coopted by the free media market as a form of commercially viable 'news' (Bubandt 2012). Local newspapers do not partake in the production of truths about organ-thief because they are somehow irresponsible or different from global media. On the contrary, the reporting of Malut Post and other regional newspapers merely follows a global trend whereby news itself is part of an imaginary of risk, threat, and potentiality. We live, as Brian Massumi has put it, 'in times when what has not happened qualifies as front-page news' (Massumi 2010:52): from news about possible pandemics to financial reports about the market of options and futures. The same logic of potentiality makes news accounts inadvertent missionaries of the hyper-real, turning occult accounts into authoritative 'hard-copy rumour' (Bubandt 2008b). An article that appeared in the newspaper Malut Post on 3 March may serve to illustrate this incorporation of the occult into the authoritative hyper-reality of news. Under the headline 'Police Continues to Polish Its Capabilities' (I. Poli si Terns Asah Kemampuan), the article begins: 'Four supporters of one of the Presidential candidates have been killed after anti-terrorist forces fire a barrage of hot lead into an increasingly anarchist crowd'. The article, it turns out, is an account of a police tattoo held in Ternate on 2 March 2014. in the very same weeks that also featured a flurry of reports about shadowy kidnappers, prowling Toyota vans, nightly police patrols, missing votes, hearts on trucks, and the possibility of communal violence. The article goes on to describe how 347 police officers performed a variety of counter-terrorist scenarios in front of the Governor's office in the presence of the provincial police chief and other dignitaries. Remarking on their importance in light of the actual election riots that happened less than a month earlier the article lists the various simulations displayed, which included tactical measures against election disruptions, violent demonstrations as well as other threats like 'terrorist kidnappings, attempted murder, and rioting' (I. penculikan teror, percobaan pembunuhan, hingga tawuran) (Malut Post 2014 h).

How does a news item about police simulations of terrorist kidnappings differ from a rumour about organ-stealing abductions in riotous times? Or from a satirical text message about human organs on a truck? Affective energies move between these accounts and drive a logic of potentiality that boosts the verisimilitude of all. The hyper-reality of news and the plausibility of rumour have their own separate histories, but their mutual exclusiveness is only apparent (cf. Englund 2007). In fact, their affective politics are intimately connected by overlapping logics of potentiality, an overlap that also connects magic to modernity, witchcraft to globalisation, capitalism to casinos (Meyer and Pels 2003; Comaroff and Comaroff 2000; Geschiere 2013; Klima 2002). It is a logic that upsets easy causality, transparency, and certainty. For when head-hunters turn into child kidnappers and organ-thieves, they become brokers in a very plausible, but also impossibly opaque, global political economy where crucial objects constantly go missing: election votes, public funds, political opponents, organs, and children.


The fear of child abductions, key to the North Malukan head-hunting stories, had circulated in other parts of Indonesia for years (Samuels 2015). I have been able to trace news accounts of people, and especially children, who were kidnapped and killed by organ pirates in Indonesia back to 2008. In 2010, following TV appearances by victims who claimed to have been tricked into selling their kidneys at a low price to hospitals abroad (e.g. Jakarta Post 2010), the National Commission for the Protection of Children (I. Komnas PA), publicly announced that between 2008 and 2009 it had received reports of 32 children who had been kidnapped and murdered by organ-thieves. The commission, however, went on to complain that the police had failed to bring charges in any of the cases, and that all autopsy reports that might verify whether organs had in fact been removed were withheld by the authorities (Raharjo 2010). As a result, none of the cases could be officially verified.

In his study of 'counter-trafficking' NGOs in Indonesia, Johan Lindquist has argued that data about 'human trafficking', portrayed as one of the world's fastest-growing illegal markets, are not facts that are merely 'procured'. In the absence of reliable statistical data, they have to be 'produced' or 'established' through news reports, documentaries, and testimonials by well-connected NGOs (Lindquist 2010a). The abduction and murder of children by bio-pirates in Indonesia was similarly produced as a narrative verisimilitude, a plausible truthlikeness, through the complicity of an NGO report, a media house, and an unverified but morally alarming statistic. Rumour began, one might say, as statistics in a news account. Although none of the 32 instances of murder and organ plundering could be verified, they were nevertheless eminently plausible in light of what Scheper-Hughes calls a global and 'extensive billion dollar industry' in organs and tissue 'that links elite surgeons to the activities of an organs mafia from the lowest reaches of the criminal world' (2009:13). The illicit procurement of organs is a real, but black-boxed, phenomenon. The WHO estimates that 'organ trafficking', itself a vague term that covers the illegal procurement of organs through abduction, force, fraud or threat, accounts for 5-10 per cent of the kidney transplants performed in the world (Budiani-Saberi and Delmonico 2008), but the nature of the phenomenon prevents any reliable statistics. The verisimilitude of this WHO estimate differs little from the Indonesian NGO report or the story that Tali had told to me in Buli: all speak about a plausible reality, an unbelievable but also very real political economy.

Biopiracy--the enrolment of commodified bodies, especially in the Global South, into criminal black markets--is what Scheper-Hughes (2002:61) calls a global 'subtext' to the medical, technological, and political triumph over the last 30 years of organ transplantation within a capitalist and democratized market. While organ transplants in much of the Global North take place through legally regulated, but also morally ambivalent, forms of anonymous 'gifting' (Strathern 2012; Lock 2004), illicit networks of organ brokers have been documented in Brazil, Argentina. India, Pakistan, the Philippines, and elsewhere (Scheper-Hughes 2002; Budiani-Saberi and Delmonico 2008; Cohen 2001). After 2010, Indonesians, with good reason, began to worry that they, and their children in particular, might be preyed upon by bio-pirates. The focus on children was no doubt pushed by NGOs that propagated global concerns about the welfare of children, but 'children' arguably carry special significance as the embodiment of 'the future of the nation' in Indonesia (Samuels 2015), a country whose struggle for independence hinged on the political value of 'young people' (I. pemuda) (Anderson 1972). Stories of organ theft soon began to spread, and the news trail itself became part of the dissemination process. As news helped produce the plausible reality of organ-thieves, stories of organ theft, in turn, came to organize action.

Within the next two years, at least seven people in Indonesia were killed as suspected bio-pirates. In August 2010, a man in the province of Banten on Java was burnt to death by a mob after a text message had warned of a kidnapper who stole children to harvest their organs (Soebijoto 2010). In January 2011, a letter, allegedly from the police in Palu on Sulawesi, warned that a group of tattooed organ-thieves had been tasked to find 400 victims. According to the letter, which was copied and distributed to schools and disseminated on text messages, the kidnappers drove four vehicles, including a Toyota Avanza. Following weeks of widespread anxiety, a man driving a Toyota Avanza was beaten to death in the regency of Gowa (Hajramurni 2011). In October 2012, five people were tortured and killed by mobs in villages across the island of Lornbok after a text message--circulating on phones and on social media, allegedly from the police chief (I. Kapolres) in the town of Mataram--had warned that kidnappers driving Toyota Avanza vans were targeting children to steal their organs (Setiawan 2012). By the end of 2013, rumours of kidnappers in the same brand of vans reached North Maluku. Since then, media accounts of organ theft and child abductions have continued to circulate across Indonesia, from the metropolis of Surabaya in 2014 (Arilin 2014) to remote islands like Mentawai in 2016 (Akbar 2016)--always mediated (by newspapers, mobile phones or social media), always citing warnings from local authorities, and always articulating an entirely plausible world of bio-piracy.

In their study of global rumours of child abductions and body snatchers. Fine and Ellis note how particular and 'unusual' vehicles--they call them 'kidnap vans'--have been a stable feature of these rumours since at least the nineteenth century, whether in the form of a 'bloody coach', a stylish Russian 'Black Volga', a 'black ambulance', or a 'grey Land Rover' (Fine and Ellis 2010:182; see also White 1993). The Toyota Avanza that features repeatedly in the Indonesian abduction accounts is different. Designed and produced in Indonesia, the Avanza is the opposite of unusual: it is the most common vehicle on Indonesian roads. After more than a decade of uninterrupted economic expansion in Indonesia, with GDP growth rates in excess of four per cent, more than half of all households in the country now boast a car (Lubis 2014). This car is more likely than not an Avanza. Since 2006, the Toyota Avanza model has been a market leader in Indonesia, selling more than twice as many units as its closest competitor. The appeal of the Avanza is its combination of low price and a reputation for being a luxury vehicle in a country where cars constitute one of the most important symbols of success. The Avanza is the car of your successful neighbour; it is the car to which contemporary Indonesians reasonably aspire.

The idea that the icon of your neighbour's conspicuous consumption could become, literally, a vehicle for the occult contains a universal message about the moral ambiguity of wealth accumulation that is carried by witchcraft and sorcery suspicions throughout the world (Geschiere 1998). At the same time, the Avanza that prowls for organs also contains a specifically Indonesian message, for the connotation of the Avanza as an 'everyman's car' points directly to a key figure of dread in the Indonesian political imagination: the mysterious assailant. In her analysis of AIDS aggressor rumours during the 1990s, a genre of rumour that like organ theft accounts centres on anxieties about bodily integrity and limits (Fine and Ellis 2010:142-146; Bennett 2005), Karen Kroeger (2003) notes a marked difference between Western and Indonesian versions of these rumours. Western rumours about the so-called 'AIDS Club', in which innocent victims are said to be deliberately infected by HIV, tend to tell of people who are maliciously infected by a sexual partner during a casual encounter--stories that portray anxieties about sexuality, gender, and intimacy in an age of pandemics. In Indonesian versions of the AIDS Club rumours, meanwhile, victims tend to be infected after being injected with a contaminated needle by an unknown assailant in a public space (Kroeger 2003:247). If the intimacy of sex is the danger in West, in Indonesia the threat comes from the anonymous stranger--a shadowy figure of an unknown and amorphous provenance, often described as being from 'a certain quarter' (I. pihak tertentu) or 'a formless organization' (I. organisasi tanpa bentuk). (7) The anonymous assailant has been central to all violent periods in recent Indonesian history. The 1965-67 massacres in which hundreds of thousands of suspected Communists were killed following the engineered resignation of President Sukarno and the political coup of Suharto (Siegel 1998; Heryanto 2006); the 'mysterious shootings' called Petrus during the 1980s when as many as 8,500 suspected criminals, often identified merely by being tattooed, were stabbed or shot by government death squads (Cribb 2000; Bourchier 1990); the killing of hundreds of suspected sorcerers in East Java in 1998 by so-called 'ninjas' (Siegel 2006; Herriman 2010); and the violence in Maluku and North Maluku between 1999 and 2002 instigated, so people would say, by dark-clad provocateurs (I. provokator) (Klinken 2007): in all these instances of major political and violent upheaval an elusive figure controlled by an unknown but powerful political puppeteer (I. dalang) has played a decisive role. The elusive figure manifests a key feature of the Indonesian political imagination, carefully cultivated for three decades of New Order rule, namely that the body politic is threatened from within by some part of the social body. Complicating this politically cultivated imagination is an equally widespread sense that this elusive figure is somehow politically well-connected, possibly controlled by a political elite (Siegel 1998; Barker 2001; Spyer 2006). The result is a social imaginary in which the world of spirits and the world of politics, though separate, come to inform and co-produce each other (Bubandt 2014b). Like the 'ninja', the provokator, or the mysterious shooter, the AIDS Club assailant and the organ-thief move, witch-like, amongst their victims, hyper-visible and invisible at the same time. As Kroeger puts it, these figures are 'not invisible in the literal sense, but they are invisible in a metaphorical sense; that is, they blend in with everyone else one knows; they could be virtually anyone' (Kroeger 2003:254). The organ-thief does not hide in the forest as the head-hunter, his previous incarnation, did. Rather, the organ-thief hides in the most popular car in the country, in the car of everyman's dreams.


The transition from jungle prowler to car-driving stalker is part of a second difference between the head-hunter that haunted Indonesian communities as late as the 1990s and the organ-thieves of the twenty-first century. Whereas the head-hunter was suspected of being in the pay of the Dutch colonial or the Indonesian government, the organ pirate is suspected of being part of a global network. If head-hunting rumours seemed to speak of injustices in the relations between state and civil society, organ-thieves are part of a much more global political economy and scale of anxiety.

On 5 April 2012, the bodies of three Indonesian migrant workers were repatriated from Malaysia to the island of Lombok. Noticing 'unusual cuts on the eyes, the chests and stomachs' of the three men, their family members suspected that the organs of the deceased had been illegally removed by an organ trafficking syndicate in Malaysia (Nugraha 2012). With the help of several NGOs, the families successfully lobbied for an official investigation (Jakarta Post 2012). As Indonesian politicians began to air the possibility of breaking off diplomatic ties with Malaysia if her authorities did not fully cooperate in the investigation, the Malaysian Minister of Home Affairs, Hisammudin Hussein, angrily rejected the accusation, saying that it sullied the reputation of his country (Pramudatama 2012). A subsequent autopsy found the organs of all three bodies to be intact and determined the cuts and stitches to be the result of the initial post-mortem in Malaysia. But news that the three men had been shot by Malaysian police during an alleged robbery galvanised the suspicion, repeatedly voiced in Indonesian media (Gunawan 2011), that Malaysian authorities deliberately killed Indonesian migrant labourers in order to harvest their organs. The case strained the bilateral relations between Malaysia and Indonesia because it spoke to two overlapping issues, namely the rise of Malaysia as a medical tourist destination and bilateral tensions over the conditions of Indonesian migrant workers

in Malaysia.

Since the late 1990s, the Malaysian medical sector had expanded rapidly in response to the growth of the country's economy. Whereas The New York Times in the year 2000 reported that more than 1.000 Malaysian citizens had gone to China to receive kidney transplants with organs that likely came from executed prisoners (Fuller 2000), Malaysia had grown into a medical tourist destination in its own right less than a decade later. Today, Malaysia receives over 800,000 medical tourists annually, most of them Indonesian patients who are disenchanted with the Indonesian health care system but cannot afford to go to Singapore or Australia for treatment (Ormond 2013). In the same decade after 2000 in which Malaysia became associated in Indonesia with effective hospital health care, the country also grew to become a major destination for Indonesian migrant workers. (8) However, this second dimension of bilateral relations between the two countries is far less rosy. Repeated Malaysian crackdowns on illegal migrants after 2002 soured the relationship for years, and news reports of horrific instances of abuses against Indonesian maids in the lead-up to the 2009 Presidential elections led to public outrage against the conditions for migrants in Malaysia and a two-year ban on Indonesian citizens taking up work as maids in the country (Killias 2010; Nesadurai 2013). The migrant labour market since then has become increasingly regulated, relying on a dense network of state organisations and non-state brokers (Killias 2014; Lindquist 2010b). But the newly regulated market continues to be based on conventional patron-client relationships and new forms of political servitude (Rudnyckyj 2004). Amidst continuing cases of abuse that garner a lot of media attention, the image of the migrant worker remains closely tied to that of the victim of organ trafficking. As Malaysia has become the main destination for Indonesian migrant labourers in search of good fortune and middle-class Indonesian patients in search of good health, every death of a migrant worker under suspicious circumstances conjures up the possibility that the volatile world of migration labourers in Malaysia might, in fact, have dark ties to the medical industry. The new political economy of South-South exploitation that opened for this possibility has, in turn, also transformed the political agency of the head-hunter. In a complex global market of bodies, in which the distinction between the real and the really made-up, the political and the imaginary, has long since collapsed, vulnerability is associated as much with mobility and urban spaces as with the village space that used to be the main stalking grounds of the head-hunter. The organ-thief, as a result, is now also an international political actor who strains bilateral relations, affects Indonesian migration policies, and preys on the 'sacrificability' of the body of the migrant labourer.


Following the links between head-hunters and organ-thieves from the village of Buli via towns like Ternate to regions across Indonesia and migrant communities in Malaysia, this paper has tried to show how the organ-stealing head-hunter is an active co-producer of doubtful but plausible worlds of verisimilitude at various scales. In Buli, a village in the throes of socio-economic change, the organ-stealing head-hunter enacts an affective logic of political potentiality through its relation to doubts about cannibal witchcraft. In the regional political centre of Ternate, the organ-thief is part of a politics of opacity alongside the politician who rigs elections, the provocateur who starts riots, and the hyper-reality of local media. In other parts of Indonesia, meanwhile, the organ-thief probes the new economic realities of migrant labour, medical tourism, and the historical vagaries of bilateral relations between Indonesia and Malaysia. Across these different scales of reality and anxiety, the organ-stealing head-hunter partakes in a particular political reality, at the same time as the reality of this figure in each setting depends crucially on verification from an elsewhere. Plasticity, a feature of the occult throughout the world (Pares and Sansi 2011; Geschiere 2013; Niehaus 2012; see also Evans Pritchard 1937:540), allows the head-hunter to become a political actor across these very different scales of reality and anxiety. The plasticity that allowed head-hunters to find a home in a variety of different communities across Indonesia in the twentieth century now allows head-hunters to turn to organs. (9)

The ability of the organ-stealing head-hunter to traverse these different scales of space and time has invited me to a spirit reading of politics, an attempt to grasp analytically the 'as if qualities, the verisimilitudes, of contemporary political economy. The organ-stealing head-hunter, admittedly an unusual kind of actor, is political exactly because he co-produces 'the political', at various scales, through actions that connect bodily and spiritual concerns with other worlds. The head-hunter was in the twentieth century an elusive figure who connected the world of spirits to the world of missionaries, slaveraiders, and the state. These connections grew from and made a certain kind of politics possible. Now, and still ridden with all the doubt and uncertainty that has always accompanied the world of spirits, the organ-stealing head-hunter links the world of spirits and bodies to different kinds of worlds: media, migration, trafficking, bio-piracy, rigged elections, anti-terror simulations and your neighbour's Toyota. These associations--mediated by mass media and social media as much as by rumour, all accustomed to dealing in affairs that may never have happened--co-produce 'the political' in new affective ways that put villagers, urban-dwellers, and migrants equally at risk. Just like 'anybody'--the main political figure of dread in Indonesia--can be an organ-stealing head-hunter, so by the same token anybody can now become its victim.

The possibility that the organ-stealing head-hunter (and its victim) can be 'anybody' is not just an ethnographic observation about the logic of plausibility and doubt that drives the Indonesian political world. The enrolment of the 'mythical' and 'local' figure of the head-hunter into an all-too-familiar world of global ontological uncertainty also poses, I have argued, an analytical challenge to anthropological studies of rumour and the occult. After all, Indonesians are not alone in this world of uncertainty. We all inhabit the same world of verisimilitude, in which the truth about critically important issues--the political economy of global medicine and organ transplant technologies; the dynamics of democratic politics and elections; migration and the conditions of global labour; the epidemiology of infectious diseases; or the criminal networks that target children--is hard to ascertain, because the opaque, and in Annemarie Mol's sense 'multiple' (2002), nature of these phenomena prevent us from certain and unequivocal knowledge. The shift in modus operandi from decapitation to organ theft brings the head-hunter into this globally shared world of doubt. In order to understand this shift we need to align our analyses of informant doubts and fears about plausible realities with our own (Bubandt 2014a). The analytical challenge of the organ-stealing head-hunter is that he recruits the witch-like head-hunter into the plausible but equally opaque world of organ theft, human trafficking, child abductions, election fraud, and anti-terror simulations, about which all of us--analysts as much as informants, urban newspaper readers as much as Indonesian villagers--are precluded from certainty. Most analyses of head-hunting rumour, as well of theories of rumours and the occult in general, have been content to acknowledge this uncertainty before swiftly retreating back to a representational analysis in which reality and fiction were neatly separated. I suggest the need to embed our shared uncertainty within a more-than-representational analysis of what I have called 'plausible worlds', for it is in the mediated political economy and doubtful verisimilitude of these plausible worlds that we all live.

DOI: 10.1002/ocea.5136


(1.) I use pseudonyms to refer to informants throughout in this article.

(2.) Unless otherwise indicated, italicized words are Buli. an Austronesian language spoken by some 3500 people on the east coast of Halmahera.

(3.) In the Buli language, boboko means 'head', while boboka is reserved to denote heads that are taken as trophies in war. Although headhunting was not practised in a ritual or regular fashion in pre-colonial Halmahera, there are several instances in Buli myth where the heads of dead enemies are removed to be used as proof of death to a political superior or to be placed on rock outcrops as a warning to outsiders.

(4.) See White (2000) for a fascinating account of vampires and political history in colonial Africa.

(5.) Even if head-hunters in the past were often said to be employed by the government, people in Buli would still report accounts about them to the police in an attempt to elicit their help. The state as imagined and the state as institution are often different political and moral entities (Abrains 1988).

(6.) A town of some 100.000 people, Ternate is the historical seat of the most important eponymous sultanate in North Maluku, and it remains the most important economic and political hub in the province even after its status as the provincial capital since 2010 has been claimed by the newly built administrative town of Sofifi.

(7.) While the overall difference between Western and Indonesian versions of aids aggressor accounts seems to hold, rumours about the deliberate infection with HIV by hypodermic needles are not unique to Indonesia. Such rumours have also been reported from Poland, France. Britain and Germany (Bennett 2005:111-116).

(8.) In 2007, for instance, 2.7 million workers from Indonesia had migrated to work for shorter or longer periods abroad (IOM 2010:4). Roughly half of these people had gone to Malaysia, where they made up half of the registered work force of foreign migrant labourers (Kaur 2010:14). An additional one million Indonesians were estimated to work in Malaysia illegally.

(9.) Elsewhere, too, accounts of organ theft may be plastic adaptations of older narratives. Gillian Bennett, for instance, argues that organ theft rumours in Western Europe, North America, China, and Brazil elaborate on abduction and mutilation stories that are centuries old (2005:190, 214).


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Nils Bubandt

Aarhus University
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