TNI lost war to win hearts in Aceh

A little Acehnese boy eyed us calmly when a group of armed rebels inspected our belongings one by one. His mother was hanging out clothes to dry while men riding bicycles threw us a cheerful smile and the Muslim greeting assalamualaikum.

This was the scene when a group of journalists tasked to cover the war in the province -- decided to meet Ishak Daud, spokesman and commander of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) in East Aceh, in an unidentified area in the regency and interviewed him over the recent issues, including the fate of our journalist colleague Ersa Siregar and cameraman Ferry Santoro from RCTI private TV station and dozens of other civilians held hostage in the regency.

"I'm sorry. This is the procedure. We have to inspect all your belongings and conduct a body search. We also have to collect your cellular phones and any other dangerous materials. We will return them to you after the meeting with our commander," one of Ishak's bodyguards told the journalists.

Meeting with GAM rebels at their camps has been prohibited for journalists since Jakarta imposed martial law and launched the military operation on May 19. But indeed, it's a challenge for us to arrange the meeting with the rebels to cover both sides from the battlefield.

We need to check whether GAM rebels are really as cruel as they have been made out to be or as many military officers have described.

I sat on the grass while waiting for my turn to have a meeting and interview with Ishak.

The villagers showed no surprise or concern when more rebels came out and surrounded us. Some turned and looked at us and stopped for a while, but later, they smiled and raised their hands in greeting when they realized rebels were just conducting a routine procedure in receiving guests, including journalists.

Some people who were sitting inside the mosque and reading the Koran also did the same. After saying assalamualaikum to GAM rebels, they continued reading the holy verses.

Villagers even offered fresh coconut water to us and the rebels. We drank the coconut water together while joking with one another.

The rebels and Acehnese civilians have developed close ties and cooperation, something the military and the police have not been able to do so far.

They speak the Acehnese language. They have grown up in the same environment. They have known each other since they were very young. And most of all, they are flesh and blood, brothers and sisters.

I learned that villagers had a different response when soldiers entered rural and remote areas in the province.

Once I traveled with soldiers as an embedded journalist.

Trembling women would hold their children tightly and close their doors as they heard the sound of military boots approaching. Men looked nervous as soldiers questioned them whether they were aware of the presence of GAM members.

Teungku Jamaika, GAM spokesman overseeing North Aceh, once said: "GAM is not an imported product. We are the children of the land of Aceh. Pressure against the Acehnese will never kill our spirit, unless Jakarta kills all the Acehnese people here."

In this aspect, GAM is one step ahead: They win the hearts and minds of the Acehnese.

If Jakarta intends to end the Acehnese struggle and win their hearts and minds, it has to understand the psychology of the people instead of sending 35,000 troops in a show of force and bombarding the territory with sophisticated F-16 airplanes.

As torture, looting, murder, rape and intimidation against the civilians continues in Aceh, I saw that few soldiers realized that their presence in Aceh was not only to crush the armed rebellion, but to build peace and create a feeling safety among the civilians.

Maybe Ishak Daud was right to say: "Such a war will create only a pseudo-peace here."

*Published by The Jakarta Post in 2003