Casualties of the War in Aceh

Children in Aceh
Acehnese children hold up hands dirtied by salvaging materials from their school, which was burned during fighting between the Indonesian military and separatist rebels (Photo: Choo Youn-Kong/AFP-Getty Images).

Dressed in a black-and-white head scarf and a pink, embroidered shirt, Nuraini immediately strikes one as a gentle soul. Her soft speech and mild mannerisms confirm the impression.

But this 27-year-old Indonesian woman’s calm and serene presence conceals the scars of an ordeal that, according to the testimony of other nongovernmental organization (NGO) representatives and refugees trickling out of the restive province of Aceh, paints a dark picture of the near-total breakdown of civil society in the province, where a separatist group is fighting to break away from Jakarta’s rule.

Since martial law was declared after peace talks between the insurgent Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and the government collapsed on May 19, 2003, the Indonesian military (TNI) and police officers have locked horns with the rebels on the resource-rich westernmost tip of Sumatra. Reports of violence against civilians—including rape, displacement, and extrajudicial killings—have emerged from the affected area. On Nov. 19, 2003, the state of martial law was extended for another six months. Yet because of strict rules governing press coverage, the war is being fought away from the media spotlight and from the scrutiny of foreign and local NGO observers.

Nuraini—who, like many Indonesians, goes by only one name—was one such observer. She first worked for People’s Forum, a local NGO dedicated to investigating reports of atrocities against civilians. Later, she joined the local branch of the Commission for Disappearances and Victims of Violence in Indonesia, or Kontras.

She quickly learned the dangers of conducting NGO work in Aceh. “Whenever there’s an arrest or detention of a civilian in Aceh,” she told World Press Review in an interview at Kontras’ Central Jakarta headquarters, civil-society workers “don’t investigate right away—to ensure that they don’t get arrested as well.”

The conditions in this province of some 4 million people are such that those seeking to aid civilians are kept far away from military flashpoints, where their help is needed most. Unclaimed bodies, sometimes decapitated and often mutilated, frequently lie untouched for days, she and other eyewitnesses said, because anyone who came to claim the body could be detained indefinitely by TNI or police officials as a GAM sympathizer.

Nuraini was arrested by Indonesian officials on June 19, 2003. Soon after her arrest, she was offered a choice between going into TNI or police custody. She chose the latter, recalling reports of worse of human-rights abuses under the TNI’s command.

It didn’t make much difference. After being allowed to be interviewed by a reporter from Indonesia’s Channel 7, she was shunted away to a military kodim, or base. Once there, she said, TNI soldiers ripped off her head scarf and shirt while she was forced to fondle a another soldier’s genitalia, all the while being accused as a member of GAM. In between interrogations, five TNI officers threatened to gang rape her if she didn’t admit to being an imong bale, or a female GAM fighter.

Nuraini said that as the day wore on, she was punched, kicked, and slapped repeatedly, at times by men in civilian clothing from the feared TNI Intelligence Unit (SGI). At one point, one such agent grabbed her by the neck and choked her for five minutes, demanding a confession; as she struggled to breathe, her bra was torn off.

“They pulled at me from every direction as I tried to break free,” she said, folding her arms, recounting her ordeal as if shivering at the memory of the events which ended with her release on July 2, 2003.

Oto Syamsuddin, a worker for the Indonesian National Commission on Human Rights who helped monitor the shaky five-month-long Cessation of Hostilities Agreement between the military and GAM before fighting resumed, affirms that such stories are common in the province.

“The people are scared of intelligence officers in Aceh,” he said. In 2002, he added “the military set up militias, but they didn’t set up room for the NGOs. Now there’s no room for human-rights defenders there, the military always arrests them.”

Nuraini was later taken to the military base at Delima where she saw and heard other prisoners begging for mercy while being subjected to torture and physical abuse—ranging from beatings around the vital organs with wooden sticks and planks to being burned with cigarette lighters. Even if detainees are found not guilty of association with GAM rebels, she said, it is not uncommon for police and TNI officials to demand payment from families upon the return of their loved ones.

Ibrahim Ali is a 28-year-old former food vendor. As he talks about the war in his native Aceh, a shadow passes across his vaguely aquiline features, which hint at the province’s history as an independent Arab sultanate. On Aug. 16, he set out to buy fruits and vegetables to sell at the market in his hometown of Blang Rieh. Instead, he was struck in the leg by a stray bullet during a shootout between TNI soldiers and GAM fighters along the way.

Local villagers helped him, but secretly, knowing that they could all easily be taken into custody as GAM members if discovered by the authorities. “So many things happen there, searches of houses, dead bodies, decapitated bodies,” he said with a sigh.

Months after his injury, Ibrahim still walks with a heavy limp, even though the bullet was removed from his body.

Both sides claim that more than 1,300 of GAM’s guerrillas have been killed and some 2,000 more have been captured or have surrendered since May. The military has said that a total of 105 soldiers and policemen have been killed, along with some 500 civilians. These numbers are all but impossible to verify. But no one disputes that the civilian population in Aceh has suffered heavily in the conflict. Altogether, some 10,000 people—mostly noncombatants—have been killed since hostilities began in 1976. It has been the largest military operation undertaken by Jakarta since the initial invasion of the former Portuguese island enclave of East Timor in 1975.

Twenty-four-year-old Daun was relaxing in his dormitory room at the Syah Kuala University in the provincial capital, Banda Aceh, at about 5:30 p.m. on June 2 when police stormed his room and took him into custody, alleging that he was a separatist subversive. They tried to bolster their arguments by pointing to books on human rights that he had stacked on his shelves.

True, he was a volunteer for a local human rights group, the Monitoring Committee for Peace and Democracy in Aceh, but insisted that he had nothing to do with GAM. The police herded him into a car and drove him around campus asking him where his fellow members of GAM were. He repeatedly told them he had nothing to do with GAM. After cruising the campus for about an hour, the officers took four others into custody and brought all five in for interrogation.

Daun said he was punched in the stomach and kicked repeatedly in the head and body. He was shown a picture of GAM commander Sofyan Dawod and was asked where he was. If he didn’t supply the appropriate answer by 2 a.m., more than eight hours after his arrest, police threatened to “take him to school,” or kill him. He was released later that morning, shaken, but with no serious injuries.

Gen. Sudi Silalahi, secretary to the coordinating minister for political and security affairs, declined to be interviewed but provided a written statement defending the Indonesian military’s record in Aceh.

“Any negative action by the TNI or police officials in Aceh Province is punished according to the law,” he wrote. “The TNI transparently opens its reports to the public about any negative measures of the military personnel. A number of TNI and police personnel have been brought before military court because of actions such as rape; these instances have been reported in the press.”

“GAM has already committed so many killings and human-rights violations against public figures that Aceh’s people do not support its struggle. Until now, GAM does not want to be responsible for what they’ve done. The concrete example is they still commit kidnappings.” 

The general categorically denies use of torture by the armed forces in Aceh. “There has never been a case of torture of a civilian by the military in its operation to restore security,” he added. Such allegations are “only a cheap and untrue issue to discredit the Republic.”

Journalists, though they operate under stricter rules than aid workers, have come under fire, too. The most recent press casualty in Aceh was Sory Ersa Siregar, a reporter for the Indonesian broadcaster RCTI who was killed on Dec. 29 in what the military said was crossfire. Ersa, his cameraman Fery Santoro, and several other civilians had been held hostage by rebels since June and accused of espionage. Authorities and advocacy groups are continuing to push for the release of the others.

Even during the recent cease-fire, Nuraini said, military and police officials engaged in everything from extorting cash from local businesses to logging illegally, a practice that has blighted much of Aceh’s landscape. Nuraini and others spoke of an atmosphere of fear and intimidation. Many people were so afraid of being labeled traitorous that they avoided casual conversation in public places like restaurants and cafes for fear of being overheard by the omnipresent SGI. Acehnese have charged that civilians have been intimidated into marching in public demonstrations to support the government, often against their will.

President Megawati Sukarnoputri, meanwhile, defends the government’s actions there as necessary to “safeguard the nation,” and to keep the vast archipelago nation of Indonesia intact.

Nor is it easy to know just what the people of Aceh really want for themselves. “Nobody knows if they want to separate,” Oto added, “or if they agree with having martial law.”

As Indonesia’s July presidential elections approach, according to Nuraini, it is has become commonplace to see people wearing T-shirts bearing slogans supporting the Golkar party—the party spawned by former strongman and President Suharto, whose 32-year rule won lasting support from some elements of the armed forces. The idea, she said, is to reduce their chances of being arrested.