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Refugees on the run from their own protectors

By Nicole GaouetteStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 23, 1999



ULEE GLE, INDONESIA

On June 6, Abdullah Teuku Makam had visitors. The village head of a small farming community, he felt obliged to receive them - they came wearing guns.

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"The soldiers came the night before the [national] elections," says Mr. Abdullah. In this separatist province, Indonesia's elections were largely ignored. "They said, 'If you don't go vote, we'll shoot you.' Well, we didn't vote - we left."

Abdullah and his neighbors took what they could carry, walked to a town near the main road of the province, and settled down in a local elementary school. They are part of an exodus of about 27,500 people taking refuge in schools and mosques in north and east Aceh, creating a crisis for local aid groups.

While officials offer conflicting reasons for their presence, it is a clear indication of the increased tension across Aceh. Farida Haryani, a local aid worker, says 30 villages have pulled up stakes..

Thick with children underfoot and adults sitting aimlessly, the camp smells of burning banana peels one rainy day. "I've gone to the governor of Aceh," says Ms. Haryani. "But he said he has no control over what's happening."

Military officials say separatists have terrorized these villagers. The separatist group Aceh Merdeka says these people are fleeing an increasingly threatening military presence. Villagers say the same, many adding that increasing violence and arson attacks on local schools and buses have created an atmosphere of fear.

"I'm afraid of the military, that's why we're here," says Nurlelah, a farmer's wife, who uses only one name like many Indonesians. "They came with a lot of trucks, they've been beating a lot of us up lately." Nurlelah doesn't want to return to her village. "Not until our safety can be guaranteed somehow," she says. She and her neighbors hope deliverance might come from abroad.

And so on one overcast, rainy day, they pour out of their new makeshift home and put on a show for a lone visitor. They wave flags, chant "God is Great," pose for photos, and hoist crisp white banners imploring the United Nations to rescue them. "We can't ask Indonesia," says village head Abdullah.