Female backers of Aceh's rebels now battle to rebuild lives

Ex-combatants and activists in the Indonesian province face discrimination, and most have received very little aid.

With her payments book and bundle of patterned sarongs, blouses, and head scarves, Juayriah bin Abdurani is rural Aceh's equivalent of the Avon Lady. Every week, she hops on a motorbike and makes the rounds of nearby villages to show off her wares and collect payments from her customers, who are happy to pay a dollar a week for a new dress.

It's a departure for Juayriah – she goes by her first name – who used to farm chilies beside her family home. That was her day job: At night, she gave food and shelter to rebels fighting Indonesian troops for control of Aceh Province. In April 2005, she was arrested, beaten, and jailed for her part in the independence movement, known as GAM. Four months later, after a peace deal, she was released.

Now, she's trying to start over. "This business is like beginning a new life for me," she says. "I wanted to do something new, not just growing chilies."

Women like Juayriah are the hidden face of an armed struggle that tore Aceh apart during three decades. As the male-dominated rebel movement lays claim to the economic spoils of peace, female ex-combatants, activists, and widows are trying to rebuild lives and find a political voice. Today's struggle is against discrimination and hardship as well as lingering mental scars.

"Without women, GAM is nothing. During the conflict, the women fed the men, and they hid them," says Liza Fitri, an activist in the Aceh Women's League, an advocacy network created last year. "Women were also combatants and were trained to fight. There's been almost no assistance to women since the [peace accord]. So now we want to see how women are treated in the future. We want women active in politics."

Under the 2005 accord between GAM and the Indonesian government, 3,000 rebels surrendered their weapons in return for amnesties, a drawdown of Indonesian troops, and a sweetened autonomy package for their resource-rich province on the northern tip of Sumatra Island. The province bore the brunt of the catastrophic 2004 tsunami, an event that spurred the pace of the peace talks. The accord also saw the release of more than 2,000 political prisoners – including Juayriah, who was charged but not convicted of sedition.

Helping rebels return to society and find long-term jobs has become one of the toughest challenges in the peace process. That process passed a crucial landmark in December with the largely trouble-free election of Irwandi Yusuf, a GAM member, as provincial governor. His three-year term starts next month.

But internal wrangling over millions of dollars in government aid earmarked for reintegration has slowed the disbursement of funds, leaving many ex-fighters out of pocket and out of work. Another handicap is that GAM's ranks of combatants is several times greater than the 3,000 stated in the peace deal, splitting available money. Analysts say the lowball figure was agreed on by both sides for political reasons.

For female ex-combatants, who were known within GAM as "Inong Balee," the Acehnese word for widows, this has led to frustrations, as most have received only a trickle of aid. Activists say discrimination in Aceh's conservative Islamic society makes it harder for them to rebuild their lives.

"Because of the conflict, women in the villages suffer trauma. They remember the fighting. They lack confidence, they don't have the motivation to study or improve themselves," says Sabariah, a mother of seven who joined GAM after her husband, a rebel fighter, was shot dead by Indonesian soldiers in 2001.

Aid workers say targeted livelihood programs, which combine skills training with career guidance, offer one way to tackle these disparities.

Juayriah started her clothing business after receiving training and a $1,000 grant last year from the International Organization for Migration, which had facilitated her return from prison. The IOM began a similar effort last month for 3,000 ex-combatants, one third of whom are women.

Juayriah originally wanted to invest in her chili business, but lost her crop to flooding. IOM advisers suggested she try selling clothes door to door from her motorbike, both as a way of earning more money and spending more time away from the house she shares with 14 family members.

It seems to be working: officials say Juayriah is less anxious, and has gained confidence. "I think she enjoys her life more now. She has her own income," says Mohamed Hasan, an IOM trainer.

Juayriah says she still occasionally wakes at night, her heart thumping from nightmares of soldiers at her door. She shifts uncomfortably when she recalls her arrest in April 2005, and the threats to kill her unless she led her tormentors to GAM's secret hideout. Today, when she goes on sales rounds, she insists that her sister come. "I'm not brave enough to ride the motorbike by myself. My sister drives, and I sit behind her," she explains.

Such emotions are common among survivors of a conflict that took the lives of more than 12,000 people and provoked repressive measures, including periods of martial law and news blackouts. Human rights groups say the routine use of torture and intimidation by Indonesian soldiers and police went unchecked by civilian controls, while GAM also committed lesser abuses, such as beatings and extortion.

In frontline communities, such as the hamlets where Juayriah sells her scarves, the result is levels of trauma similar to those found in postwar Bosnia and Afghanistan, according to a recent study by the IOM, Harvard Medical School, and Aceh's Syiah Kuala University.

Of the 596 adults interviewed for the baseline study, 41 percent said a family member or friend had been killed during the conflict. Nearly 80 percent had lived through combat, such as firefights or bombings. One-third showed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

IOM officials say tackling trauma, anxiety, and depression is crucial to any long-term reintegration plan for both ex-fighters and civilians. It plans to begin a pilot mental health project in one district in Aceh this month and hopes to offer more outreach services to affected communities.

"Reconstruction and rehabilitation in Aceh is predicated on having a healthy, functioning community. When we have the extraordinarily high baseline level of mental health issues, it's inevitably going to impact on this process," says Paul Dillon, a spokesman for IOM.

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