Some Good from the Tsunami in Aceh

By Phan Chien Thang

BANDA ACEH – “Please don’t use my name in the newspaper. I have a family and we have to live here,” said a young man in English. “You know, we are under martial law.”

The expression on the face of the young man, who owns two large shops in the center of Banda Aceh, the capital of Aceh province, no doubt revealed that the safety of his family would be in danger if his true identity were revealed.

After receiving assurances, he carefully began to relate the numerous stories he had heard about the Indonesian Military (TNI). Traveling through Aceh, one meets lots of people like this man, who are so afraid of the military they refuse even to utter those dreaded three letters: “T-N-I”.

Many Acehnese have personal horror stories to tell of encounters with government soldiers, especially following the imposition of martial law in May, 2003, to quell the separatist war waged by the Free Aceh Movement (GAM). (The Indonesian government and the GAM signed a peace agreement in August 2005 aimed at ending the 30-year separatist war in Aceh).

Horror stories

Ainul Mardiah’s (*) story is sadly typical. After more than 18 months, Ainul, who lives in East Aceh, is still unable to forget the days and months spent living under the draconian rules of martial law.

Ainul said that one night toward the end of 2003, five Marines burst into her house looking for her husband, who they accused of belonging to GAM. But her husband was not at home. “The TNI soldiers ordered me take off my clothes. What a strange order.”

Then one of the Marines pointed a gun at her stomach. At the time, Ainul was six months’ pregnant. “I felt insulted,” she says, still unable to conceal her anger. After that night, soldiers regularly came to her house, looking for her husband and insulting her.

Eventually, Ainul had to move to her parents’ house, about 30 kilometers away. This is where on December 24, 2004 she lost almost everything that was dear to her — her mother, father and her months-old baby — after they were swept away by the tsunami. Today, the emaciated Ainul looks much older than her 30 years.

Ibrahim, 45, from a village in West Aceh, lived a quiet life before the imposition of martial law. Although very poor, he enjoyed a peaceful life. He went to work at a rubber plantation each day to support his wife and seven children. However, his life changed with the coming of martial law.

In August, 2003, about 30 armed soldiers marched into his village. They gathered about 20 people, including Ibrahim, and forced them to stand in a line while they questioned them about the whereabouts of the village head. Ibrahim said all of the villagers answered that they did not know where the village head was.

The soldiers became angry. “Do you all support GAM? You are so afraid of GAM that you do not dare answer.” The soldiers told the 20 villagers they would be detained and drove them out of the village. When they asked the soldiers what they had done, the only reply was: “That is marital law.”

Ibrahim was one of the lucky few among the detainees who survived the tsunami that struck more than a year later.

The problems faced by Ainul and Ibrahim stemmed from the government’s imposition of martial law to quell GAM.  During this emergency status, the TNI deployed about 40,000 soldiers to the province to deal with an estimated 2,000 GAM fighters. What the policy really did was bring more suffering to the Acehnese.

Under martial law, the TNI had the right to set up checkpoints, arrest anyone and charge people as suspected separatists, and completely isolate any area. All of the Acehnese were given a special red-and-white ID card. This card, twice as large as normal identification cards, and thus easier to identify, bore the signatures of the head of the person’s village and of the local army and police chiefs. The idea was to help security forces distinguish between non-combatants and GAM members.

However, the stated purpose often differed from the reality, as was the case with martial law. These measures did not bring peace, but only more misery and fear for the people.

New role for TNI

As the Acehnese suffered under martial law, a tsunami swept through their land on Dec. 26, 2004, leaving more than 150,000 people dead or missing. Soldiers, GAM members and everyone else living near the coast suffered tremendous losses.

In the aftermath of the disaster, TNI soldiers took on a new role: humanitarian workers. For some of the soldiers, this proved more difficult than fighting separatists.

Still equipped with guns and knives, soldiers were deployed to collect thousands of rotting corpses, to clear roads of debris and to deliver supplies to survivors being housed at temporary shelters.

“Although we are not on a battlefield there are so many bodies. The scene is terrible. But we have the duty to help the victims, whoever they are,” said Pvt. Joko Songkono.

The Acehnese say that in the days after the tsunami, government soldiers were everywhere, extending a helping hand. “I used to not like the TNI. But since the tsunami, my point of view has changed a little. I think they can help,” one woman said.

However, such positive sentiments remain rare. Nine of 10 displaced persons interviewed just shook their heads when asked about the assistance offered by the TNI during relief operations in Aceh.

When asked about the TNI’s role in the aftermath of the tsunami, the young man who owns two stores in Banda Aceh whispered: “They were everywhere after the tsunami, but the fear they caused people outweighed the help they extended. Some of the soldiers even took advantage of the situation by stealing from the dead.”

Elfian Hamzur, a local journalist, also accused the TNI of capitalizing on the disaster to make a profit. “The TNI controlled everything in Calang, from women’s underwear to drinking water and school supplies for students.”

One local resident said a number of “black businesses” had sprouted after the tsunami. While he refused to go into detail, there are numerous rumors about TNI soldiers offering protection for drug growers and traffickers in Aceh.

However, one positive development did result from the tsunami. The government lifted martial law in Aceh, allowing foreigners to enter the province to provide assistance for tsunami survivors. The lifting of marital law brought joy to many Acehnese, and paved the way for new rounds of talks between the government and separatist rebels that eventually led to a peace deal in the province.

The challenge now is to make peace in Aceh enduring.

(*) The names in this article have been changed

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