issue 318 - November 1999
photo: ANOUK RIDE
The secrecy of Aceh’s hidden war is startling. Few in the West know
that the local Aceh Merdeka rebels in Indonesia’s northernmost
province have been fighting the military for as long as Fretilin
in East Timor. The news portrays the Indonesian military as the
villains. But I found another story that nobody wants told.
‘If you ask who committed human-rights abuses in Aceh, that’s a hard one to answer. You should talk to the refugees. The refugees will tell you the truth.’
I did not know it then, but community worker Afrizal had just given me the most useful piece of advice I could have wished for amidst the fear and violence that dominates Aceh. During a 25-year civil conflict – between the Indonesian military, who are notorious for their repression, and Aceh Merdeka, a well-armed rebel group demanding independence – a once proud and vibrant people have seen massacres, ‘disappearances’, schools destroyed and now 100,000 traumatized refugees living in makeshift camps.
The interview with Afrizal is difficult. Suspicion and anxiety seem trapped inside the four walls of the office. Afrizal and the others sitting in a circle around me have at least as many questions for me as I have for them: what can I do for them? Do I support Aceh Merdeka? What do I intend to write about?
It is my first talk with an activist in Aceh; I hardly know what I intend. I have heard the unanimous opinion of Java-based and international organizations and ‘experts’ on Aceh – that the military is responsible for the vast majority of human-rights abuses. I have read the daily newspaper reports – man shot down in the street, no-one knows who is responsible; 100 schools burnt in villages, culprits not found. I tell Afrizal that I am confused about what is happening in Aceh.
‘It’s not just our friends in Australia who are confused,’ he says, ‘We are all confused.’ Yet I’m left with the impression he knows more than he’s willing to tell.
As we leave he suddenly becomes apologetic: ‘Sorry if we are suspicious of friends from other countries. We have exposed information before but until now it hasn’t been reported; it hasn’t helped and we’ve been disappointed. If we take the wrong step we’ll be hit by Aceh Merdeka. If we pass on the wrong information we will be chased by the military. So we’re in this difficult position.’
I ask if he can give us figures: the number of people killed, missing. ‘You can go next door,’ says Afrizal. ‘We used to be able to provide figures but we don’t any more.’
And so we go next door to another coalition of non-governmental organizations. The cool of the air-conditioned office is in marked contrast to Afrizal’s office, as are the computers and the fact sheets. So is the English-speaking journalist there, Wiratmadinata, who is keen to talk about the period when Aceh was under ‘military operation status’ (under which the army has extra powers) from 1989 to 1998: ‘During these bad years at least 5,000 or 6,000 people died because of the military, there were many cases of torture, raping, kidnapping and other violence. It’s only in the last two years that this information is being collected and presented to the public.’
What about the current human-rights situation? ‘According to the data for the past three months there are almost 100 victims of mysterious killings, hundreds of school buildings and local official buildings have been burnt down and there have been massacres as well. Even the raping by the special riot troops is worse now. If you ask me who does all these bad things; the massacres and rapes are obviously the military. But the mysterious killings and burning down of schools it’s just a mystery.’
Wiratmadinata suddenly becomes animated: ‘Why can’t the police and military catch even one mysterious killer? They can arrest people who keep morphine or marijuana so secretly... Yet mysterious killings happen in the middle of the market and nobody is arrested. I think the central government plays games; they set the scene for this scandal.’
And Aceh Merdeka, is it responsible for human-rights abuses? ‘Since 1976 Aceh Merdeka has been fighting for the people and they never kill the civilians. We have no reports of them killing civilians. The military say Aceh Merdeka did these bad things – the school burnings, the mysterious killings – but they have no proof. At least until now.’
That night I ponder the difference between these two activists I have met. Afrizal fearful, suspicious but apologetic, wanting to say more perhaps: ‘Aceh Merdeka is not all of Aceh, but that’s only my opinion.’
And then there was Wiratmadinata who was pleased to talk but insisted Aceh Merdeka had committed no human-rights violations: ‘Aceh Merdeka came to the refugee camps to care for the people. They organize them and they help them and the refugees support Aceh Merdeka.’
‘Talking’ to the refugees
The next day I travel to Sigli, in Pidie district, where my confusion is to turn to terror.
In Sigli care workers are getting ready to go to the refugee camps. It’s a busy day – 28 babies have been born and there is much to do. But there is a delay – the military has set up a checkpoint and is questioning people leaving the town. ‘We’ll go soon but the back way,’ says one female worker. ‘Today we are going to play cat and mouse.’
So we leave, eventually, through the back roads and arrive at a refugee camp. People have crowded into a mosque and a few empty buildings while the most unlucky ones are sweating and shooing flies under tarpaulin shelters. As I walk towards the refugees to talk to them a large man with a badge approaches me and demands I sign in, and ‘report all information that the refugees give to me directly’. Initially I think this is my first confrontation with the Indonesian Government. But no, this ‘official’ is from Aceh Merdeka. And so the farce begins...
Any attempts I make to talk to the refugees are stopped immediately by my Aceh Merdeka minders, mostly silencing the refugees with looks or occasionally a touch on the arm loaded with intimidation. The officials do not carry guns but these refugees, already traumatized by the military, are clearly terrified of their Aceh Merdeka minders as well.
I am steered towards a woman under one of the tarpaulin shelters. The woman’s eyes are stretched wide with fear. Nevertheless, she feigns enthusiasm about talking to us and repeats the answers to questions that the officials whisper in her ear. She is a good and trusted performer, unlike the hundreds of silent onlookers.
The heat is incredible – in these camps most deaths are due to heat exhaustion – and the stench of rubbish melting and festering in the sun makes me feel faint. Finally the stage-managed interview is over. My frustrated translator and I are ready to leave – we have seen enough. But we are presented with a group of women – ‘Look, look, photo, photo!’ say the officials – wearing white-and-red Aceh Merdeka T-shirts and headbands. ‘Merdeka, Merdeka (Freedom, freedom),’ they shout, raising their clenched fists in the air. They are emotional, on the verge of tears and my stomach turns at the sight of their manipulation. Then just to make the performance even more obvious one official says ‘Come on!’ and hits the children on the legs so that they leap into the air and squeal ‘Merdeka!’
I am taken to another camp, where they are obviously expecting me, as all the refugees are standing waiting under the shelter of the half-built mosque. Again, Aceh Merdeka officials lead the show. As I talk to one woman, a minder butts in and says: ‘She doesn’t speak Indonesian, only Acehnese.’ The woman looks surprised at this statement; when asked a question she replies dutifully but in perfect Indonesian: ‘I don’t understand your question.’
The refugees will tell you the truth
The manipulation of the refugees is so obvious, so farcical, that by this stage it seems surreally humorous – until we reach the birthing centre. A young girl of around 15 years of age has been crying and is now at the stage where no sound can express her sorrow, where only her tear-weary restless eyes can portray what she is feeling. Beside her, under a mosquito net, is a tiny blue baby that has obviously been dead for some time. No-one has the courage to take it out of its bed and bury it. So young mother and baby sit suspended in death and despair.
They are trapped in Aceh Merdeka’s public-relations war. In the past year Aceh Merdeka’s power has grown but this has not been acknowledged by the outside world that continues to see the Indonesian military as the only significant perpetrators of terror. Aceh Merdeka has itself prompted refugee flows: these typically begin when Aceh Merdeka tells villagers that a military raid is imminent and organizes transport to the camps. The rebel group has taken over the refugee camps and ‘pooled’ the refugees’ resources so they are left without the means to go back to the villages. It has then attempted to indoctrinate the refugees and now seeks to use them to present to the world Aceh Merdeka’s view of the truth – that the military has created a refugee crisis, should withdraw from Aceh and allow it to be independent. In Aceh Merdeka’s mind the UN and Western nations cannot ignore 100,000 refugees dying and sweltering in camps. So the refugees are being controlled, even created, and their image manipulated into a humanitarian plea for independence.
An Aceh Merdeka representative in the refugee camp explains: ‘When the military goes back to Java then the refugees can go back. It is better that the refugees die here than go back to the villages when the military is there. Two people have died here this week. We are ready to wait a long time till our demands are met.’
I am presented with an ultimatum rather than an invitation to interview the Aceh Merdeka Field Commander. So, like the refugees, I comply, reluctantly getting on the back of a motorcycle that weaves its way through the jungle to his ‘secret location’.
Commander Abdullah Syafi’i greets me theatrically, shaking hands with one hand while holding his gun with the other. When asked about Aceh Merdeka’s human-rights abuses, he addresses the crowd that has assembled around us: ‘Has anyone been killed by Aceh Merdeka? Has anyone been raped by Aceh Merdeka? Has anyone been harassed by Aceh Merdeka?’
They shout in unison: ‘ABRI! (military!)’.
Commander Syafi’i continues: ‘We are not forcing our people. The people of Aceh want their own nation; we have the ability to govern ourselves. It’s a long time that our nation has been butchered; tens of thousands of people are victims of the military’s human-rights abuses. It’s a pretty big price to pay for the struggle for freedom, but we are proud like any other nation. We don’t want to become children of colonialism. Aceh Merdeka is prepared for independence now. We have money, we have resources.’
Commander Syafi’i sees no need for a referendum to give the Acehnese people a choice over their political future. The answer is simple: ‘All the Acehnese people are Aceh Merdeka.’
That night, as a guest in an otherwise empty hotel, I try to digest the horror of what I have seen, of a refugee crisis being created and manipulated to gain the world’s attention. All reports on Aceh concentrate on the Indonesian military’s brutality and mention Aceh Merdeka only as the military’s justification for terrorizing people – few of these reports present Aceh Merdeka as a source of terror itself.
I remembered that my minders seemed to sense what I knew and had become edgy. And I had asked some very straightforward questions to the Field Commander: ‘You’re obviously armed, how can you say you’re not responsible for human-rights abuses?’
Shortly after midnight, two jeeps pull up outside the hotel. I hear the rattling of guns slung over shoulders as between 10 and 15 men get out of their vehicles. The hotel owner is woken up and there is much shouting as they ask him questions about me.
When I hear the hotel owner walking to my room with rattling keys, the armed Aceh Merdeka men behind him, my heart seems to be constricted so I cannot breathe or move. There is only a wooden wall, door and large glass-shuttered window between me and a group of armed men in a town with no police or airport and in a room with no telephone.
The key turns in the lock. Opening my eyes I realize the keys are opening not my door but the room next door. The men enter, turn the furniture over, hit the hotel owner and finally get into their cars and leave.
What did Aceh Merdeka want? To silence me? To take me hostage and further promote the cause? To give us a taste of the fear the refugees live with? They only achieved the last.
The next morning one of the care workers who had taken me to the camps and then recommended the hotel, berates me for staying in a hotel that was not ‘safe’. She says she could not sleep all night and shows the stress of having been interrogated. When we go to get a taxi from the town of Pidie back to the provincial capital Banda Aceh, all taxis are mysteriously busy in a place where normally they are hungry for custom. Images of buses – the only alternative transport – that I had seen burnt and abandoned by the side of the road start to fill me with dread.
I have a story that the world needs to hear but I begin seriously to question whether it (and I) will ever get out of Aceh. Finally I find someone who is prepared to give me a lift but just as the car is about to drive off, another man jumps into it without even asking the driver where he is going. Throughout the hour-long journey he reveals insights such as: ‘That’s an Aceh Merdeka vehicle carrying weapons to support the people’s struggle against the human-rights violations of the military. You should write about the human-rights abuses of the military.’
Students speak out
Back in Banda Aceh, I visit Muhammed Nazar (pictured left), the Central Co-ordinator of SIRA, the Acehnese Referendum Information Center – set up by students to promote a peaceful resolution to the conflict. I tell him what Commander Syafi’i had said, that ‘all the Acehnese people are Aceh Merdeka’. He laughs. ‘It’s really important to realize,’ says Muhammed, ‘that the movement for a referendum is the genuine desire of student activists and youth as well as community workers. Aceh Merdeka is not us and our concept is different. They think they’re fighting an ethnic war, but we’re just working for democratization. There are only two groups influential now in Aceh – the student movement and Aceh Merdeka. The local and central governments do not have an influence any more with the people. I think we, SIRA, need to publicize the referendum amongst all the Acehnese and then we will empower our people to make a choice. Our action is for democracy and human rights – not for this war.’
Muhammed realizes that a referendum cannot be held till the conflict eases and people are free to make a choice. Given the need for the Indonesian military to withdraw from Aceh but the dangers of allowing Aceh Merdeka to fill the power vacuum, some form of third-party international intervention seems essential to stop the conflict. Indonesian military sources say Aceh Merdeka now has four times as many armed soldiers as in the early 1990s – though they still say the total is less than a thousand. Aceh Merdeka’s forces are supported by weapons smuggled through Thailand and Malaysia from Cambodia; they are believed to be funded by entrepreneurs in Malaysia and southern Thailand as well as having received training and support from Libya.
But actually Aceh Merdeka’s influence spreads far wider than these few hundred fighters – through the ‘spies’ that follow me from the moment I arrive to the informers that monitor what the Acehnese people say and do. The fact that no-one is able to attribute blame for the mysterious killings, the school-burnings and disappearances is in itself telling. Would you be able to speak out against Aceh Merdeka when you know it is listening in every village, street and office and when you know people who collaborate with the military authorities are liable to be found dead by the roadside? And even if you did stick your neck out, where would you turn – to the military whose treatment of the Acehnese has been at best patronizing and at worst deadly? To a West eager to rescue Christian East Timor while characterizing Aceh as a problem of Islamic fundamentalism?
‘The refugees will tell you the truth.’ And because they know the truth of what the military and Aceh Merdeka have done to them, the refugees are silenced. The events that fill their nightmares continue to be played out around them but to survive no-one dares remember out loud.
I was never allowed to speak openly with the refugees. But through the murk of Aceh’s civil conflict, I have at least seen the truth about the refugees. It is in their eyes. In the depths of their pupils, the reddened whites, their earthy irises and twitching lashes, I saw what they could not say – a plea, a need, a desperate dream:
‘We want to be free from fear.’
ACEH – a short history
After the Second World War, Aceh joined the new independent Republic of Indonesia but quickly became disillusioned with the central Government which they saw as corrupt, exploitative and un-Islamic. Economic exploitation of Aceh’s fossil fuels and forests, coupled with Suharto’s transmigration policies, also became a grievance for the Acehnese. In 1977 rebel group Aceh Merdeka (Free Aceh), led by local entrepreneur Hasan Di Tiro, proclaimed independence – though Di Tiro was later forced to flee to Sweden. In 1989, the scale of rebel activity and government attacks increased and during a military operation which lasted till 1992, 2,000 people were killed. Care Human Rights Forum lists around 1,300 civilian deaths, about 2,000 missing and 16,000 orphans; around 3,500 cases of torture, 130 rapes and 600 house burnings.
Suharto’s fall gave the Acehnese the ability to begin a peaceful movement for a referendum demonstrated through banners and public meetings. The military, facing international and national condemnation for human-rights abuses and UN scrutiny in East Timor, loosened control in Aceh at first. But violence has worsened this year since April when Indonesian troops opened fire on a crowd, killing 45 people in Lloksemawe. Indonesian Minister of Defence and Security General Wiranto (who is also army commander-in-chief) has promised an investigation into human-rights violations – but only those since May 1998, the period after ‘military operation status’ had ended. This year’s national elections in June could not be held in most districts because of the violence. After the elections, the military announced a new crackdown on Aceh Merdeka and began offensive operations using two battalions of locally based troops backed by 1,700 paramilitary police. More than 200 people have been killed so far this year.
Source: Far Eastern Economic Review 29 July 1999.
For more information: www.aceh.org/forum
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