In rebel Aceh, neutral isn't safe

Aid groups and nonviolent activists are frequent targets in restive Indonesian province.

Dec. 6, 2000 began like most other days for Nazaruddin: He spent the morning secretly ferrying victims of Indonesian military torture to the hospital.

Lhokseumawe, where Nazaruddin worked for the human rights organization Rata, is at the epicenter of human rights abuses in Aceh province, site of almost daily skirmishes between the Indonesian military and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) rebels.

Nazaruddin expected to make two or three more trips that December day. But as he and three colleagues started another run, a jeep cut them off. A second car quickly hemmed them in from behind, and men with M-16s swarmed around their car. Nazaruddin says they were Indonesian soldiers.

Thus began the latest episode in what is being seen as a campaign to silence nonviolent activists in this troubled corner of Sumatra. As the more than 20-year-old conflict over control of Aceh has heated up, those who reject violence - both neutral human rights workers and the pro-independence activists who frame themselves in the nonviolent tradition of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr.- have become the ones most at risk.

"It's only getting worse,'' says Nurdin Abdul Rahman, Rata's executive director, who spent eight years in Indonesian prisons for his political views before being released shortly after the fall of the strongman Suharto in 1998. Nurdin says activists aren't only at risk from the military.

In a province where a small band of guerrillas is the self-appointed voice of the people, anyone who tries to walk the middle line is immediately cloaked in suspicion as an enemy to both sides, friend to neither.

"The nonviolent independence people are the most harassed," says Beth Drexler, a doctoral student at the University of Washington who's writing her PhD thesis on the conflict.

The rebels and the military have seen to it that the territory's peaceful activists have been frozen out of an ongoing dialog between the Indonesian government and GAM on the conflict.

While GAM insists it will settle for nothing less than full independence, and the government says it will never allow a referendum on the subject in Aceh, the talks have served as springboard to international prominence for GAM.

"You can say that GAM and the military have a stake in prolonging the conflict," says local journalist Murizal Hamzah. GAM gets the international propaganda benefit of more military atrocities and sees more villagers driven to its cause. The military justifies its 30,000 troops in the province and massive expenditures to keep them there. And both sides enjoy increased opportunities to extort money from citizens.

On the day of his ordeal, Nazaruddin says he and his Rata colleagues were barraged with threats and questions as they were taken at gunpoint to two military posts, where their captors sought instructions. He says he recognized one of his captors as Ampson Thayeb - reputed to be an Acehnese cuak, or government informer.

Then, Nazaruddin says, the four Rata volunteers and another man who had witnessed the abduction were driven to a ruined house in the woods above Aceh's emerald rice fields. Two were dragged out of the car and shot in the back of the head, Nazaruddin recounts, as a burly captor filmed the murders with a shoulder-mounted movie camera.

Nazaruddin and the two others were next, but Nazaruddin managed to work his hands free and escape uninjured through a nearby forest. The other two were not so fortunate.

"They wanted to kill us because justice is threatening,'' said Nazaruddin as he recounted the harrowing events in a late December interview, shortly before being smuggled out of Indonesia to the U.S. "They said being a human rights worker is the same thing as working for GAM."

"The murders have had the desired effect. They've scared all of us out of the field,'' says Yusuf Ismail Pase, the executive director of the Human Rights and Environment Forum in Lhokseumawe, who says he rarely leaves the city now.

An investigation has begun into the murders but only, Aceh rights investigators say, because there was a survivor. Had they all been killed, the police would have likely put down the deaths to "unknown persons'' when the corpses were found, as is usual.

While Mr. Thayeb, one of the alleged abductors, has been picked up, no soldiers are yet in custody, and there are no signs of an internal investigation by the military. ``I feel terrible about what happened, but it's a very confused situation up here,'' says Mohammad Iman, the Lhokseumawe operations deputy for the Primob Paramilitary unit that is coordinating Indonesian forces in Aceh. "It's very difficult to keep track.''

Meanwhile, the tug-of-war between the military and the GAM rebels over the future of Aceh continues.

GAM's political aspirations are not universally shared by the independence movement. GAM would like to see Hasan di Tiro, a descendant of Aceh's traditional monarchs who hasn't lived in Indonesia for more than 20 years, named president. GAM says its eventual goal is to regain control of the entire island of Sumatra, most of whose 25 million people are not interested in being ruled from Aceh.

Some Acehnese are upset that the GAM rebels have become the de facto spokesmen for the people by force of arms - and say that they're threatened into silence by the organization.

"GAM is always screaming merdeka [freedom], but most of the women I work with just want peace, any way they can get it," says one Banda Aceh activist who works closely with the thousands of women widowed by 20 years of violence in the province. "They just don't want their sons to end up like their husbands."

The process of sidelining nonviolent voices began with the arrest of independence activist Muhammad Nazar, the head of the Information Center for a Referendum in Aceh. His crime has been simply speaking his mind. Since Nov. 20, he has been in detention as a threat to the state under Indonesia's sweeping subversion law, which President Abdurrahman Wahid had promised not to use.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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