Aceh civilians caught in middle

Despite a cease-fire extension into February, battles between rebels and Indonesian military persist.

Aceh human rights activist Cut Syamsurniati is in the middle of saying how relieved she is that the military has stopped burning houses on Fishermen's Street when a boy bursts into her home. "It's started again," he says.

Out everyone runs, down the rickety gangplank over Pusong Baro's tidal flat to the beach, where three warehouses are burning, taking the livelihoods of a few dozen fishermen with them.

The crowd points toward the joint Indonesian military and police post up the beach. A police helicopter had taken off, flown lazily down the shoreline, dumped gasoline bombs onto the buildings, then gone home.

"If we hadn't hated Indonesia before," says one man in the crowd, who like almost everyone in the neighborhood asked not to be identified by name, "we would now." Ms. Syamsurniati just shakes her head. "Who's going to protect these people?"

Welcome to Aceh, where Indonesia's hearts and minds campaign looks more like propaganda ordered up by the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) rebels. While most Acehnese say they support independence, there was some hope as recently as last year that they would settle for less if it meant an end to almost 20 years of brutality.

But incidents like the one in Pusong Baro are driving the Acehnese further away. The attack capped three days of terror in the poor neighborhood of Lhokseumawe, the Aceh town that hosts a sprawling Exxon-Mobil natural gas plant.

Troops began the rampage after GAM attacked their post Jan. 13. Frustrated by the rebels' clean escape, soldiers turned on the neighborhood, destroying about 200 homes. Now 2,000 refugees are living at the local mosque.

The local police and military offered only excuses when asked about the attack. "I wish we could have done something to help them, but no one came to make a report, so we didn't know," says Muryanto, the deputy head of the national police in Lhokseumawe. "Every time we try to make an investigation, they say they're afraid of us. So there are no witnesses."

Incidents like the bombing have driven many villagers, who say they want peace above all things, into the arms of GAM, which has begun to cloak itself in the mantle of protector.

About 60 people have been killed in January alone and most are noncombatants. In the capital, Banda Aceh, four students have disappeared this month. University rectors blame the police. It's also small things: Dozens of villagers interviewed say soldiers routinely use the pretense of searching for rebels to go through their homes and take money and possessions.

All the while, peace talks have been ongoing between the government and GAM. In Geneva earlier this month, they extended a cease-fire until Feb. 15. But those talks have occurred in a vacuum, disconnected from the daily killing in the province by both sides.

The cease-fire, called here a humanitarian pause, has been "made into a mockery," says Asmara Nababan, the chairman of the national commission on human rights. On Tuesday, Indonesian Defense Minister A.M. Mahfud signaled the government was backing away from further talks. He demanded that GAM disarm immediately or "we will launch sweeping raids."

The loss of resource-rich Aceh could have devastating consequences for Indonesia. Unlike East Timor, which won independence in late 1999, Aceh has been a part of the country since independence. The Acehnese, famous for heroic resistance to Dutch colonialism in the 19th century, were some of the most fervent of the early Indonesian nationalists. Some analysts believe Aceh's independence could herald the wholesale breakup of Indonesia.

President Abdurrahman Wahid has said his top priority is to find a way to keep the province in the fold and slow the growth of GAM, which has become better armed and better supported in the past two years.

"What the people want is independence after so much abuse," says Amni Ahmad Marzuki, a GAM spokesman in Banda Aceh. "It's too late for Indonesia to win them back."

Still, quelling Aceh's independence movement is seen as a crucial task for Jakarta by countries like the United States. They fear an independent Aceh could spark regional instability and threaten shipping in the Malacca Strait, one of the globe's busiest shipping lanes. The relative fervor with which Aceh embraces Islam also makes Western governments nervous.

But also making Indonesia's allies nervous are the continuing, massive human rights violations that could ultimately threaten their support. Mr. Wahid's announced strategy had been to stop abuses in the province and give the people of Aceh a greater piece of the province's oil and gas wealth - almost all of which now flows to Jakarta.

Yet military abuses have gone up, not down. Wahid's control over the military, which is trying to win back the political power it lost when the dictator Suharto fell in 1998, has once more been called into question.

There are few good explanations for the military's behavior, which is at odds with Wahid's goals. The best guess is that the 30,000-odd troops in Aceh view the local population with both fear and hatred, and are acting accordingly.

"The soldiers see the people as identical to GAM," says Nurdin Abdul Rahman, the head of the Rehabilitation Center for Aceh Torture Victims. "So the people are their enemies - it's like the US soldiers in Vietnam."

Many in Aceh say the military believes it can terrify the people away from independence. That was stated policy in the early 1990s and it involved the systematic murder, torture, and displacement of civilians. The top brass candidly called it "shock therapy."

Back at Pusong Baro's mosque, the refugees say they don't have any explanation for the apparently senseless act. But they all say they have a solution. "Send the UN and give us a referendum," says one man, a fisherman.

That chorus is growing.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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