Acehnese children learn to forgive, forget

Nur Fatah, a teenage boy from Peureulak, East Aceh, lost his father, Hanafiah, and two of his elder brothers during a battle in April 2003, and he immediately resolved to seek revenge.

"My father was a guerrilla. He suffered from malaria and badly needed medicine. My big brothers were just trying to deliver the medicine to his camp in the jungle when the soldiers attacked," Nur recalled as tears rolled down his face.

"My father, my brothers and six other guerrillas died in the attack," he said, adding that their mother was only able to recover and bury the bodies several days after the incident.

Suffering from economic hardship, his mother decided to send Nur to the Markaz Al Ishlah Al-Aziziyah, an Islamic boarding school (pesantren) in the provincial capital of Banda Aceh, which provides rehabilitation services to traumatized victims of violence, mostly children.

Since then, Nur has learned to live normally like other kids of his age: he plays and goes to school every day. But he still requires more treatment to fully overcome his trauma.

"Sometimes, I wake up in the middle of the night when I dream about my father. He asked me to take care of myself," said Nur. "I hated the pai (a term of abuse used by the Acehnese for Indonesian soldiers), and really wanted to shoot them like they shot my father and brothers."

Nur is only one of many. There are dozens of Acehnese children participating in the same rehabilitation program. Most of them have lost, and even had to witness, close family members die violently since the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) guerrillas launched its armed struggle in 1976 for the independence of the oil-rich province.

Several children who have had close contact with GAM figures, including Munawir, 14, a cousin of Darwis Jeunib, the GAM commander in Jeunib, and Arsyad, 15, whose house in Nissam was once used as a meeting place by Sofyan Daud, the GAM commander of Pasee, North Aceh, are also living in the pesantren and participating in the rehabilitation and reconciliation programs.

Arsyad has also suffered as his father, Abdulrahman, was killed by a military bullet. But unlike Nur, his father was a civilian, who became caught up in the crossfire between the two warring sides.

"Actually, my father was not a member of GAM. It's just that our house in Nissam was picked by the guerrillas as a meeting place," said Arsyad, who speaks little Indonesian.

"I ran to look for my father's body. I saw a bullet wound in his chest, and dozens of other wounds caused by sharp weapons. I was so mad when I saw his body. I really wanted to get revenge," Arsyad said.

The co-founder of the rehabilitation center at the pesantren, Tgk. Tu Bulqaini Tanjongan, has tried to teach the children to come to terms with their experiences. He teaches them to read the Koran and to pray.

Bulqaini set up the pesantren soon after he returned from the United States in 2001, when he learned that nothing was being done to mitigate the psychological impact on children who witnessed violence every day in the resource-rich.

"I saw hatred in the children's eyes, and I thought that it was the end of the world," Bulqaini said.

He dug deep in his pockets and came up with Rp 32 million (about US$3,200) to buy a 2,000-square-meter plot of land in Lueng Bata, near the center of Banda Aceh, on which he later built the pesantren.

Apart from the children of GAM fighters, the rehabilitation center also provides shelter for the children of deceased Indonesian soldiers and police officers.

"This boy, Rudini, is Javanese and the son of an Indonesian security officer," Bulqaini said, referring to a boy whose father died in a gun battle with GAM guerrillas.

Currently, the pesantren provides shelter to 80 children, including 20 girls. The Dec. 26 tsunami disaster left Bulqaini with no option but to take in the girls, orphaned by the tsunami, as they did not want to be separated from their brothers.

For Bulqaini, there has never been an easy way to explain to the children why they have lost their family members in such tragic circumstances.

Bulqaini once even asked a soldier to accompany Nur to school everyday in a bid to make him understand that even soldiers could be nice.

"The first time a soldier accompanied me to school, I really hated him. I really wanted to kill him and his children," Nur recalled. As the days passed, he learned that the soldier was not so bad after all. "Now, I have learned to forgive and to give up the hatred," Nur said.

With a peace agreement signed in Helsinki on Aug. 15, the children hope it will mean lasting peace in Aceh.

"I'm happy with the signing of the peace pact. And I hope Aceh can be part of Indonesia, but let us (the Acehnese) live in peace. I don't hate the TNI anymore, but when I grow up I don't want to be a soldier. I want to be a lecturer,""Arsyad said, smiling. (Banda Aceh)

* published by The Jakarta Post on August 25, 2005