Aceh's rebels give up guns, warily

Some 800 Indonesian troops pulled out of the war-weary province Sunday after rebels began to disarm.

For Mahfud and Jaafar, two former Acehnese fighters, life after the rebellion has left time for quiet afternoons like this one, sipping coffee in a cafe.

The two men entered into the ranks of civil society last Thursday morning, joining dozens of other rebel soldiers in a convey of vehicles to the provincial capital Banda Aceh. At a sports field watched by civilian and military officials and jostling reporters, they handed over a batch of weapons and ammunition to international monitors to be counted, catalogued, and destroyed.

For the war-weary province of Aceh, it was a crucial early step in a peace accord signed last month between the Indonesian government and separatist rebels who first took up arms nearly three decades ago. The accord calls for GAM, as the rebels are known, to surrender the rest of their 840 weapons and demobilize 3,000 fighters by year's end. At the same time, Indonesian soldiers and paramilitary police from outside the province are to fully withdraw - some 800 troops left Sunday - clearing the way for elections next year in an autonomous Aceh.

Despite Indonesian quibbles over the quality of GAM's weapons - some appeared homemade and barely functional - the hand over went smoothly, augering well for the new deal. Some combatants raised their guns in a show of bravado for the cameras while others looked pensive and somber as the firearms were cut into pieces by an electric saw.

Now tough questions are being asked over the fate of battle-hardened fighters like Mahfud and Jaafar as they return to their villages and to civilian lives. Their smooth reintegration into society may hinge on the development of trust between both sides and a belief that this time, after two failed truces in the past five years, peace is really here to stay.

"We must build trust, but this is difficult after 30 years of conflict. Both sides are hurting, and it's not easy to solve this overnight," says Kamaruzzman, a civilian GAM negotiator who was released from jail last month under an amnesty for around 1,400 rebels accused of treason.

Amnesty, money, and maybe land

In the Aug. 15 accord, Indonesia pledged to support the demobilization of GAM guerrillas with compensation packages and new livelihoods. A cash stipend is promised to excombatants, and land grants are also being considered. Foreign donors that are already funding aid projects in Aceh for survivors of last December's catastrophic tsunami have quietly offered their support.

GAM members are required to register with authorities to qualify for state support, but few have done so, possibly fearing reprisals if the peace process fails. Monitoring officials say this was expected and would eventually turn around.

"As confidence further strengthens, we expect the names of the 3,000 fighters to be handed over to [the mission] for the purposes of registration so they can receive their entitlements," Peter Feith, director of the Aceh Monitoring Mission, told reporters.

Young, unemployed men

Without an adequate support system, observers warn that restless ex-GAM fighters could become a thorn in Aceh's side. Some are skeptical of the time frame for providing farmland and housing given the strain on resources post-tsunami.

"Anytime you have a large pool of unemployed young men sitting around doing nothing, that's a potential problem. Especially after a conflict like this," says a Western aid worker.

GAM officials say that many fighters went back and forth between the villages and their jungle camps during the conflict, making it easier to return home. They deny that rebels who collected community "taxes" in the past to fund their battles could turn to petty crime, and argue that GAM has renounced violent struggle.

"GAM's weapons have served their duty to defend Aceh's dignity. It's time to let them go," chief representative Yusuf Irwandi told reporters after Friday's hand over.

Back at the village cafe, Mahfud hasn't given much thought to his future. Ten years ago, he secretly joined the rebels living in the green foothills that frame this lush river valley, a GAM stronghold. Last month, after the peace accord was signed in Finland, his district commander sent him back to Lhue where he spends most days idling with his comrades.

Motoring around Banda

In recent weeks, they have tested out their new freedom. They rode their motorbikes into Banda Aceh and visited the tsunami-scoured shoreline. Indonesian soldiers no longer patrol this village or stop vehicles that enter, to the relief of residents who complain of frequent abuses during the period of emergency rule that ended this year.

As the village celebrates the return of its sons, though, some are asking what they will do next.

Mahfud's mother says that her son used to work on the family's land but hasn't offered to help her since he returned home.

"I can't tell him what to do. He's a grown man.... He used to be a farmer but now he doesn't know how," says Cut Rayuek, during a break from rice harvesting.

Jaafar, a quick-witted man with darting eyes and a buzz cut, says that it's too early to make any plans since the peace process isn't a done deal. "Everything depends on our leaders and what they tell us. If we're free to make a new life, that's fine," he says.

His mother, Junaida, says she prayed every day for Jaafar's safety during his three years in the jungle. She lost another son to the struggle, and endured military raids on her home in search of rebels.

Now she's hoping for her own reward. "He's grown up now, so he should support his mother," she says.

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