It's pretty safe here, reassures a local driver, ushering his car past a group of Indonesian soldiers. The sun glints off flooded rice paddies and silver-domed mosques tucked away in tiny villages.
Then he issues the warning: "Don't go out after 9." As for the surrounding villages: "I wouldn't go," he says.
The signs are as black and white as the headlines in Serambi, Aceh's leading daily newspaper. This deeply Islamic province has plunged back into the maelstrom of violence that gripped it for most of the 1990s. This weekend alone, 10 civilians living in villages scattered across the province were shot and three were abducted, victims of fighting between the Indonesian Army and the rebel Free Aceh Movement known as GAM.
The government of President Megawati Sukarnoputri which now refers to the rebels as terrorists in an effort to draw parallels to the US war on terror is considering declaring a state of emergency that would expand the military's powers. But to observers, the Indonesian military has already launched a war: Human rights abuses are surging and the military is clawing back the domestic political role it lost when former dictator Suharto was ousted in 1998.
"It's as bad as it ever was under Suharto,'' says Rufriadi, the director of Aceh's Legal Aid Institute. "The government in Jakarta has abandoned legal, democratic and peaceful roads to solving the conflict in favor of force."
As a result, Aceh is coming to represent one of America's starkest choices between a commitment to human rights abroad and post-Sept. 11 realpolitik, which argues that the Army of the world's largest Muslim nation is too big to ignore.
The US congress has been edging closer to restoring ties with the military, severed in 1999 because of concerns about its human rights record. Last week, the Senate Appropriations Committee voted to end restrictions on military aid to Indonesia. But, as one US diplomat says: "If (the violence) continues it is going to make it very difficult to make the case to Congress that the military has changed."
In addition to the Indonesian military and GAM, formed in 1975, the province houses 4.5 million mostly peace-loving people. Though millions of Acehnese either want special autonomy or independence, that doesn't translate into support for GAM.
"I'm very angry at the Indonesian government,'' says Syarifah Rahmatillah, an Acehnese women's activist whose raspberry lipstick precisely matches her Moslem headscarf. "But I'm also very angry at GAM. Neither side is interested in peace."
Sometimes referred to as an Islamic movement, GAM insists it is inspired by secular nationalism. Today the group keeps about 1,800 men armed, according to Indonesian military estimates. They currently face about 21,000 Indonesian soldiers and 12,000 police. Major General Yusuf, the commander in Aceh, says he'd like about 3,000 more troops.
Both armies routinely steal from civilians and execute alleged informants and "traitors." The Legal Aid Institute's Rufriadi says 771 people were killed in the first six months of the year, up from 500 in the same period last year most of them civilians. The military commonly kills civilians in reprisals for GAM attacks, reasoning that it will scare the population away from supporting GAM.
When President Megawati came to office last year, she was expected to pursue a peace process. But she has largely abandoned that plan, convinced, according to one aid, "that we can win this war by force." She has called GAM an enemy of the state and senior officials have taken to calling the rebels "terrorists."
Reports of abuses shouldn't surprise US officials. As the Bush administration began to lobby Congress to restore ties early this year, arguing that Indonesia's military has improved and that the country could become an Al Qaeda haven, the State Department issued a report that found "numerous credible reports that the Army and police continued routinely to torture detainees."
Torture methods detailed in the report include "pulling fingernails off with pliers, rape, electric shock, and whipping." So far in 2002, "the abuses are worse," according to Maimul Fidar, the executive director of the Aceh human rights coalition. Mr. Maimul, Rufriadi, and other lawyers in Aceh say there hasn't been a trial of any soldier in more than two years. "The effect of that is they do whatever they like,'' Rufriadi says.
The roots of the insurgency in Aceh go back 200 years to its sultans' legendary resistance to Dutch colonization. The province overlooks the Straits of Malacca, a vital conduit for trade between Asia and the Middle East for more than 600 years. Arab traders brought Islam to Aceh, before the rest of the archipelago, accounting for the relative fervor with which it's embraced here.
By the time the Dutch arrived to claim Indonesia for their empire in the 18th century, the Acehnese had grown wealthy and relatively sophisticated over hundreds of years of commerce with the rest of the world. They refused to submit, and were only really pacified by Dutch forces in the early 20th century.
"We're special,'' says Abu, a portly motorcycle taxi driver waiting behind the capital's stately grand mosque. "We never surrendered."
That feeling of difference was combined with growing dissatisfaction after Indonesian independence in 1945, particularly after the rise of Suharto in 1965. His highly centralized regime bled billions of dollars out of the rich province and gave little in return.
"We were so happy when Suharto fell," says Abu, whose uncle was killed by Indonesian soldiers a few years ago. "We thought the war was going to end. But it's only getting worse."