SIGLI, INDONESIA — Zaitun is a veteran, even if she is still a high school senior. She can take you on in hand-to-hand combat, load and clean her weapon, and if need be, use it to kill.
Ms. Zaitun is a fighter in the Aceh Merdeka movement that is seeking independence from Indonesia. Leaders of Aceh Merdeka, or Free Aceh, won't say how many followers they have, or even how many women fight, but they say with some pride that they are "effective."
In this staunchly Muslim area, it might seem odd that women shoulder AK-47s, but Aceh has a tradition of female fighters. A woman named Cut Nyak Dhien was the fiercest of many Acehnese women who fought against Dutch colonizers. Captured in 1905, Ms. Dhien is an Indonesian hero today, though the generals in Jakarta are probably wishing Acehnese women weren't following in her footsteps.
One recent newspaper report noted that women were behind the kidnapping of an Indonesian soldier in Aceh. "After attending a pro-independence rally at a mosque, hundreds of women launched an operation against Indonesian soldiers," the Jakarta Post said.
Zaitun joined Aceh Merdeka because the Army has killed so many friends and family. She was trained by an Aceh Merdeka member who had been trained in Libya. "It was hard, but good," she says.
Fatimah joined because of more personal experience. Fatimah's parents disappeared after being taken by the Army in 1992. That year, she says, the Army also held her for months, repeatedly torturing and raping her. "There was no place else to go," she says of Aceh Merdeka.
Zaitun usually transports weapons. A compact woman who fastens her veil with a gold pin in the shape of an Acehnese dagger, she made her last courier run to West Aceh with two other women and three men. The military spotted them and gave chase. In the shootout that followed, one of her comrades was hit before they escaped. "We were afraid he might die," she says, "but he's fine now."