Reality bites for soldiers on front line in Aceh

A soldier from the military strike force unit ran laughing toward a group of his colleagues.

"You've got mail, you've got mail," he teased one of them, who was put through a series of push-ups before he could get his hands on the letter.

The soldier then stole away to a quiet spot to read the letter from his girlfriend.

Letters from home are a cause for celebration for soldiers serving in Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam, some of them already on assignment for more than seven months.

With the military operation now in full swing, hopes of returning home anytime soon have vanished. Soldiers are now making long treks through remote areas in search of members of the separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM).

It's a tough campaign, including facing guerrilla fighters who are much more familiar with the terrain. The military also confronts a not entirely supportive populace, some of whom suffered during overzealous military campaigns of the past.

It may all be in the line of duty, but the soldiers also have to deal with problems in meeting the most basic of needs.

"Sometimes we have to delay taking lunch or dinner if headquarters faces difficulties in sending supplies due to various reasons, but mostly because of the location of my troops in the remote area or due to an ambush by GAM rebels," a unit commander told The Jakarta Post at a hamlet in North Aceh.

The unit had just received a new delivery, including noodles, cigarettes, military food rations and personal letters.

Getting supplies to the soldiers is fraught with its own difficulties because GAM is likely to attack the convoys, believing they may also be carrying ammunition and other military equipment.

"Before we send trucks loaded with supplies for soldiers on the front line, we have to dispatch a surveillance team to clear the road leading to the position of our troops so that the road will be free from bomb threats or possible ambush by GAM," Lt. Col. Rimbo Karyono, commander of the military's strike force unit, told the Post at his camp stationed in Simpang KKA area.

It can take weeks or longer for soldiers to get back to barracks when they are replaced in the field by another unit.

Water is one of the biggest luxuries when on duty. They may not bathe for days, preferring to make sure that precious water resources are available for drinking and cooking.

"Look over there, that is one of our posts in a hilly area where the only water source is from the river at the foot of the hill. We have to walk down some two kilometers to bathe and hike back up to return to the post," one of the soldiers said.

"So we're drenched in sweat when we get back," he added, laughing.

While the campaign in Aceh may have gained popular support back in Jakarta, with many fearing national disintegration if Aceh is lost to separatism, soldiers in the province come up against fear and suspicion from many Acehnese.

Rights activists estimate that at least 10,000 Acehnese civilian were killed, tortured and raped during the New Order's notorious 10-year-long military operation in the province..

Villagers living close to GAM locations have been caught in the crossfire, sometimes losing relatives or friends who were accused of being guerrillas.

The military counters that it is difficult to distinguish ordinary citizens from GAM, who are believed to have discarded their military uniforms and tried to blend in with the civilian population.

"Days ago we were involved in an armed conflict with GAM rebels around this location. One of these rebels was believed to have supernatural powers because he didn't die even though we shot him six times. We chased after him and stripped him, and finally he died," a soldier stationed on the front line said as he took a break.

For soldiers in the line of fire, most of whom are from limited educational backgrounds and barely out of their teens, their assignment in Aceh consists of an unquestioning acceptance of orders.

"Actually, it is not that easy for us to kill other humans, but this is war and we do not have any options except to kill or be killed," another soldier said.

"And we are doing that for the sake of the red and white national flag."

But even for the soldiers and their commanders, the reality that they may lose their lives can be sobering. In more reflective moments, they let down their guard and stop parroting the standard military doctrine.

"This war is just like a game, but the death is real," Rimbo Karyono said.

*Published by The Jakarta Post in June 2003