Taking the war in stride as an embedded journalist

(Also see  "Journalists in Army fatigues" by Berni K. Moestafa)

Embedded journalists, what are they really good for? Can they be expected to be objective when their life is dependent on the very same people they are reporting about?

Some cynics, including other journalists, deliberately mispronounced it as "in bed" with the military.

It had never crossed my mind that the Indonesian Military (TNI) would let civilian reporters "monitor" their massive military operation in Aceh until I was assigned to basic training.

Dressed in military fatigues and having to listen to barked orders during the four-day training before setting out for Aceh, I got to feel what it was like to be in the "boots" of the soldiers.

Thankfully, there was no deliberate attempt at brainwashing to the military's cause during the four-day training at the Army Strategic Reserves Command (Kostrad) at Sanggabuana Military training camp in Karawang, West Java. It would not have worked anyway.

The training was intended to get us in shape for tracking through deep jungle and remote hilly areas that are the battlegrounds of the war. For most of us, usually either stuck behind a desk writing stories and grabbing meals on the run, our trip to boot camp was much needed.

My first thoughts when I heard of the military operation taking effect on May 19 was whether the government would repeat the same mistakes of the 10-year military operation in 1989-1999, widely known as DOM, to quell the same separatist group, the Free Aceh Movement (GAM).

I also worried that it would be impossible for us to provide balanced reports, and uphold the sacred tenet of the journalistic code of ethics.

However, as soon as I arrived in Aceh after finishing the military training, I made a new, quite shocking realization: We journalists were also a target of GAM.

The separatist guerrillas were on the lookout for journalists embedded with the TNI, for they suspected we were there to champion the military's successes and tarnish their name.

I was also shocked to find out that GAM had a list of names of the 54 journalists in the first batch sent to Aceh.

Some colleagues who reportedly ran into rebels were forced to disclose the names of other embedded journalists.

Other journalists who were already stationed in Aceh and were not part of the training program kept their distance from us.

But the rebels and my fellow journalists could not be blamed. I came to understand the situation. As part of the embedded program, I gained benefits that were different from ordinary journalists, including physical protection during gunfights.

Some officers and soldiers also felt freer to discuss the whole operation strategy, including the position of their camps in remote areas, with us than with the other reporters.

We were even allowed to visit the camps and if we wanted too, we could stay overnight. The soldiers were assigned to pick us from our "barracks" located near the military's operation command headquarters in North Aceh's Lhokseumawe should we wish to join in the risky military raids on GAM bases.

But questions filled in my head: What am I doing here? Am I here just to cover the number of casualties during armed clashes between Indonesian soldiers and GAM rebels? Do I have the heart to see people killing each other on the battlefield? And if I don't, how could I meet Acehnese living in the villages by myself when GAM members were reportedly after us?

For the first three days after my arrival in Aceh, I didn't know what should I be doing there. It was a real war, with all the violence and casualties, with civilians inevitably the greatest victims.

People would hurry into their houses each time the military troops entered their villages in search of GAM rebels, apparently still traumatized by past abuses.

Once I took part in a military patrol to a hamlet in Simpang KKA area in North Aceh during which soldiers supplied logistics for troops stationed on the front line.

Villagers trembled upon seeing dozens of crew-cut soldiers in their military fatigues jumping down from their trucks.

Since I was part of the convoy but was dressed in civilian clothes, I thought I should try to calm them and tell them we meant no harm.

I didn't know what exactly these villagers thought about me, but later on they trusted me enough to confide that they were tortured by other groups of soldiers recently. The soldiers were involved in a gunfight with GAM members and had thought that they were in hiding and aided by the villagers.

After we told the commander about the complaint, he took steps to request an apology and even donated army supplies to the villagers.

Since the military could not give an assurance of safety for journalists other than during their military operations, I decided to contact GAM commander overseeing North Aceh Abu Jamaika to request the rebels not launch a sweep for us.

My action of contacting him does not mean that I don't have a sense of nationalism and love my country. Far from it, but I also want the media to be able to make unfettered reports, before there is too much bloodshed, lives lost in vain or human rights abuses.

I saw for myself how people opened up to us in the villages, telling us their grievances. I think it's unfortunate that the same opportunity was not available to reporters during the East Timor mayhem.

Some of our colleagues were on hand for a joint operation of the Rajawali and the Cakra team from the Army's Special Force (Kopassus). The raid took place at Peureulak village in North Aceh. Seven people, all confirmed members of GAM according to the military, were gunned down but unfortunately there was a 78-year-old farmer who was also caught in the crossfire.

His wife cried as his body was pulled from the river, and the hundreds of thousands of rupiah donated by the troops could not assuage her grief.

If there were no journalists around, people would not have read about the one civilian victim among the rebel toll.

Every life counts, whether it is for the military, GAM or for us.

The military operation is ongoing, I am now back in Jakarta and other journalists are embedded with the military. I hope that people will realize that they are there to do their job and doing their best to maintain their journalistic ethics.

And, in doing so, by reporting on this conflict, they are also putting the story of the people first. When all is said and done, that is what counts.

* Published by The Jakarta Post, 06/22/2003