Civilians suffer most in Aceh

A woman looked anxious when dozens of fully armed soldiers jumped out of their trucks as they arrived at a hamlet in the West Jamuan area in North Aceh.

"When will they leave my village?" the woman, Siti Aminah, whispered. Her eyes were glued to the troops, who wore military fatigues with red and white scarf around their necks.

The hamlet was deserted when the military personnel arrived on Friday. Some 30 houses in the poverty-stricken area showed no sign of life, or at least a friendly reception for the soldiers.

Most of West Jamuan population make a living from farming.

Siti held her two-year-old son tightly. Her eldest son, Fauzi, sat near his mother, but no words came out of his mouth to express his feelings about events which he might only understand in the coming decade.

"I feel afraid when they come here, because their presence usually brings armed conflict," she said.

She recalled a few days back when troops first entered the village, a gunfight between them and Free Aceh Movement (GAM) rebels followed. The clash took place near her home.

Siti said she was traumatized by the presence of the military, who were there to hunt down rebels they suspected were hiding in the area.

No GAM rebels were captured that day, but Siti's husband, Nurdin Yunus, who is only a farmer, was interrogated by soldiers afterwards. Siti said her thin husband was hit across the face several times by some soldiers.

Later on Nurdin showed The Jakarta Post cigarette burns inflicted by one of the soldiers on his face.

Many other Acehnese may have experienced what Siti and Nurdin did but it may remain undisclosed if no control is exercised over the military operation. Under martial law, which was imposed in Aceh on Monday, the military enjoys extensive powers, including a news blackout.

Human rights activists have cautioned the government against a repeat of the rampant crimes against humanity during the military operation between 1989 and 1998 in Aceh.

Rights activists estimated over 10,000 civilians have been killed and many others tortured during the conflict in Aceh, which has lasted 27 years.

Learning from past mistakes, the military has promised to prevent as many civilian casualties as possible and to take stiff measures against soldiers who violate human rights.

When the Post asked the soldiers' unit commander as to why his colleagues tortured a farmer like Nurdin, he simply replied: "We never wish for something like that to happen, but during a state of war, it is difficult to think of humanity. We think of killing or being killed".

The commander then turned to Siti and said: "Sorry about that, Bu (Mam)."

Another soldier tried to appease Siti and her family.

"No need to worry about us because we are here to free all people from GAM who commit banditry. Do they take Nanggroe taxes from you or threaten you?" the soldier asked.

Siti nodded. "Yes, they (GAM) ask for between Rp 2,000 to Rp 3,000 a month." After a moment of silence she continued, "but they never beat us."

Since martial law came into effect, the Indonesian Military (TNI) has been chasing rebels believed to be hiding among villagers.

As of Saturday, 54 GAM rebels have been shot dead, mostly in Bireun and North Aceh regencies which are GAM strongholds, while another 14 have been arrested and being detained by the Aceh Military Police.

Law No. 23/1959 on emergencies says that under martial law, the military has the authority to arrest and question suspected people for 20 days before they are handed over to the police.

Aisyah, one of Siti's neighbors, said people, in spite of their anxiety, were prepared for the war. Local children have already been trained how to lay low on the floor once the sound of shooting or explosions is heard.

Another resident took the intensifying conflict lightly.

"It doesn't make any difference to me whether or not martial law is imposed here because I'm not involved in the conflict. But since several places in Aceh are safe, why should the government impose martial law across the province?" Abdul Hamis Bim said.

He said over the past week both the military and the rebels had checked his identity.

The military has said such a check is required. Those who fail to show their ID cards could risk being considered GAM members because the rebels have collected people's ID cards for various reasons, including recruitment of new members.

In the same vein, a military soldier said it was possible for him to arrest or shoot somebody who resisted an ID inspection.

Anywhere in the world, a war always brings the maximum suffering to civilians, even though they are unarmed and not a party to it.  (Lhokseumawe)

* Published by The Jakarta Post on May 25, 2003