Category Archives: Aceh

Aceh 1999 – Indonesia’s dirty war against separatists in the Gateway to Mecca


Aceh was the first war zone I visited and I wrote this account at the time. Although the dirty war that had lasted a decade or so was winding down in 1999, villagers were still fleeing soldiers and guerrillas, rights groups were uncovering mass graves and it seemed unwiste to go out at night. Following the 2004 tsunami, the government and Gam reached a peace agreement that has meant a higher degree of autonomy for Aceh than for other provinces. That has meant enforcement of a stricter form of Islam than in the rest of Indonesia – no more flirting now, according to reports. Aceh is known as the “Gateway to Mecca”, both because it is the westernmost tip of the archipelago and thus a good starting point for the hajj and because of its long association with Islam. Ismail, the Gam representative, vanished a couple of years after we met him, apparently a casualty of the war. Lawyers involved in a case against Exxon Mobil recently contacted me about this piece, which I posted on a now defunct site some time ago. So it appears it may be cited in court one day.

With Gam members, and our interpreter, in a village they used as a base

A crescent moon and a single star shine in the sky above the mosque at Kandoeng. Evening prayers are finishing. We’ve just driven through a village whose wood, corrugated iron and bamboo shacks are empty, apart from just one home. The villagers are camped out at the mosque. They fled 12 days ago because the army arrived on their doorsteps and they feared that they would be killed. During the day, the men go and hide in the jungle to avoid being questioned by the army.

Their fears aren’t unfounded here in Lhockseumawe, a coastal town in the Indonesian province of Aceh, on the north-western tip of the huge island of Sumatra. Throughout 1999 tens of thousands of refugees will leave their homes, caught in a struglgle between the Indonesian army and a guerrilla group which has been fighting for an independent Aceh since 1976. The army has just ended a particularly intense decade-long counter-offensive, known as the Dom, in which thousands of people have disappered.

French journalist, Marie-Pierre Vérot and I have already visited two other refugee camps. We stumbled upon the first as we drove through Peureulok on the way from Medan, a major town which is down the coast from Aceh.

On 12 June they fled their homes in Alue Nireh, because the tyre of an army vehicle burst as it was passing the village. At least, that’s what they say happened. The soldiers believed they were being fired on by Aceh Merdeka (Free Aceh) guerrillas. They leapt to the ground and sprayed the village with bullets.

A moustached and denim-shirted man called Hosseini tells us that his young son, Jurmadil, ran into the house to avoid the shooting. But that didn’t save him.

Somebody brings us a pile of photographs. In one of them Hosseini is leaning over his son’s small body, lifting it slightly so that the camera can see a gaping red hole in the boy’s right shoulder. Another shows an even younger girl laid out on a bed. She too was killed, as were three adults, two of them women.

The refugees seem clean and well-fed. Children play happily around the mosque and cooking pots prepare a meal under an improvised tent. We walk through what appears to be the living quarters, where hammocks containing babies hang from the struts that hold up the cloth roof.

A young woman wearing an Islamic headscarf has welcomed us to the camp. She’s from the host village and is in charge of the Islamic solidarity that is feeding and housing the villagers of Alue Nireh. Later a man who speaks a little English arrives. He tells us that everyone here is for Aceh Merdeka, which is a phrase we’re going to hear a great deal over the next few days. We ask if the Free Aceh Movement guerrilla group, often known as Gam, is active in the area.

“You want to meet with Gam?”

We say yes and there’s an uneasy giggle.

When we stop for coffee in another village, we’re soon surrounded by villagers, as those who can speak a little English tell us that they hate the Indonesian army and want a separate state. The word “exodus” keeps leaping out of Acehnese sentences. It refers to the villagers who have fled their homes.

At the refugee camps, a commonly-agreed spokesperson is always summoned and he or she finishes almost all his answers with a call for “Aceh Merdeka”. It begins to seem too well-rehearsed. But at Utenkot Cunda a woman whom Marie-Pierre picks from the crowd does the same, even though she seemed unwilling to speak at first. There’s a rustle in the crowd, as Marie-Pierre gets out her camera, and suddenly a flag appears. It’s red and white with a crescent and star, the Islam-inspired flag of the Free Aceh Movement. The refugees press close to be photographed with the flag. In front of it stands an old woman whose face … high cheekbones, gold-brown skin, no teeth, a sudden silly grin … is framed by a delicately sown white shawl.

The province has the reputation of being Indonesia’s most strictly Islamic area. In neighbourung North Sumatra province, Guinness signs hang outside the many wood-shack coffee-shops. When you reach Aceh they disappear and alcohol is difficult to find except in hotels. Your progress is often slowed down by oil-drums in the middle of the road and young men and girls in headscarfs collect for the local mosque, a practise which takes place throughout Indonesia on Sunday but seems to take place on more than one day per week here. The usual Indonesian greetings are replaced by “Salaam Alekum”.

Every village has a banner calling for a referendum on independence, a call which has been launched by the separatists since Jakarta conceded that East Timor could vote on its future. The same slogan is painted in huge letters on the roads but less so by the population. When asked if they want a vote, most reply that they just want merdeka.

One name often crops up. It’s that of Hassan Di Tiro, the historic leader of the Aceh Merdeka movement who lives in exile in Sweden. Relatively obscure outside his homeland, he’s known throughout Aceh.

According to local journalists, his movement now has about 20,000 guerrillas under arms, mostly hiding inland in the jungle. When the army’s counter-insurgency campaign supposedly ended in August 1998, many leading rebels returned, apparetly mostly from Malaysia or Libya. Gam spokespeople won’t admit what states are backing them, apart from saying that they receive support from the Middle East, but they’re believed to receive arms and money from Tripoli and from sources in Afghanistan.

The separatists are credited with wanting an Islamic state. But the Acehnese seem more laid-back about their Islam than their reputation would suggest. Most women wear headscarves but they’re otherwise colourfully dressed. A great deal of flirting seems to go on wherever young people gather. Although we arrived at Kandoeng at prayer time, a fair number of people paid no attention to the muezzin and suffered no apparent censure from the faithful when they finished their worship.

There’s a pattern to our visits, whether to refugee camps or just to villages. We start asking questions. A small crowd gathers and swells to a large one. Someone who speaks a certain amount of English turns up. Then maybe another person arrives, who has a certain air of discreet authority, and sets about finding out who we are and why we’re asking questions. This person is usually pretty insistent on Aceh Merdeka.

Once arrived at the cavernous and almost empty Lido hotel at Lhoksemauwe, we call Gam’s spokesperson, Ismail.

He says he’ll meet us later. We have to drive to a village outside the town, stop at a road-junction and his men will meet us. By the way, what sort of car are we driving?

The afternoon sun is scorching when we reach the junction. Villagers sitting at a road-side stall and in scruffy workshops watch us pull up.

A man in a white shirt  asks: “Where are you going?”

Impressed by the elaborate security arrangements, I don’t answer him.

A minute later he comes up again and says: “I know where you going. Follow,” and jumps on a motorbike with another man.

We set off down a dusty road out of the village and through paddy-fields. Afer a while, another bike approaches and our original guides pull off the road. We follow the second biker to a hamlet, where, in the shade of a giant tree, a sort of monument stands, surrounded by a metal fence. It appears to be a tomb.

As a crowd of men gather around, Ismail arrives. With his glasses and whispy beard, he has an educated look and a boyishly charming manner. His English is very good, with a delicate, slightly sing-song, accent. His LAPD baseball cap seems inappropriate for an Islamic freedom-fighter. He also has a mobile phone, which rings as he leads us into the enclosure that surrounds the tombs.

When he finishes a conversation in Acehnese, he says: `So you know Mr Basri?’

We are mystified.

`Mr Basri at Peureulak.’ This is the village at which we met the refugees from Alue Nireh and it emerges that the helpful man who met us there is a Gam member and has phoned to pass on the information that we’re in the area.

That impressive organisational capacity again.

After the grubby town and the busy villages, the place where Ismail is to explain the pinciples of civil war is calm. Birds sing. The tree shades us from the equatorial heat.

The graves belong to Sultan Malikusaleh, the first man on the Indonesian archipelago to convert to Islam, and his son.

The Acehnese are proud of their history. As a maritime kingdom, they did deals with England’s Queen Elizabeth I, controlled the west’s gateway to the Moluccas Spice Islands, were converted to Islam by Arab traders and were the last of the so-called East Indies to hold out against Dutch colonialism.

Would an independent Aceh be an Islamic state? we ask.

“First we want Aceh to be free then we will ask the Acehnese,” is the reply. But Ismail seems to want his movement to follow the example of other independence movements in calling in the big powers to broker a deal with the enemy. The analogies with which he predicts Gam’s final victory are a mixture of traditional liberation-speak and anti-communist Islam.

“How strong the Americans are but they lose with the Vientamese guerrilla. And how strong the Soviet Union but they lose with the Afghanistan guerrilla. And how strong the Indonesian military, maybe they will lose with the Acehnese guerrilla.

Ismail’s at pains to distance himself from Islamic regimes which get such a bad press in the west and says that Acehnese Islam is relatively relaxed and tolerant: “We have to respect other religions in the world.”

An independent Aceh may be democratic, too, he adds, since democracy works well in countries like the United States.

“May be?” I ask.


On the road through the Sumatra jungle

There’s another player in the Acehnese conflict, whose presence is, at first sight, surprising.

On the outskirts of Lhokseumawe lies a vast compound, where lush green lawns are protected by long, high fences and well-guarded gates. Its staff have their own sleeping-quarters, their own restaurant and their own recreation facilities.

This is the Mobil Oil compound. Or more accurately, it belongs to PT Arun, a partnership between the American energy giant (35%) and Indonesia’s state-owned oil company, PT Pertamina (55%).

PT Arun has exploited the vast natural gas reserves in the area for the last three decades. These reserves make Aceh rich … but not the Acehnese.

Lhokseumawe people grumble that even PT Arun’s Indonesian employees aren’t recruited in the area. Naturally, Mobil plays to capitalist rules and takes its share of the profits home. PT Pertamina’s share helps swell the Jakarta bank accounts of a company that was ordered to crack down on nepotism and corruption as part of the International Monetary Fund’s deal for Indonesia.

Most controversially, during the 32 years of deposed President Suharto’s highly-centralised rule, only 17% of income from local taxes stayed in the provinces. That meant resource-rich regions like Aceh provided a vast subsidy to the Indonesian state, not to mention the Suharto family and cronies who plundered it.

After the trauma of East Timor’s independence, the two post-Suharto governments have desperately tried to keep Indonesia from falling apart. They’ve proposed autonomy for some provinces, especially Aceh, and say that they’ll allow them to keep more of the wealth that they generate.

Predictably, that’s not enough for Gam.

‘The reserves in Aceh belong to the Acehnese,’ says Ismail. ‘When we get independence, all our own reserves will go into our own pockets, not to the Javanese.’

He goes on to accuse Mobil of complicity in the murder and torture which the army has practised in the area.

“They give land to the military to condemn us. For example, they give land to the military and make detention camp there, Rancong military detention camp. So many people, thousands of people, have been killed by the military in that place. The Mobil Oil Company still cooperates with the Indonesian government. Last week they gave 10 cars to the Indonesian military to make oppression in Aceh.”

Technically the land and all that is on it belongs to PT Arun and not to Mobil. But such niceties don’t convince Ismail, who says that he’s ready to forgive the company but only if it packs up and leaves right away.

“If Mobil stop their operation now and leave this country, we will invite them when our country becomes independent. If they don’t stop now and still cooperate with the Indonesian government and if they have  brought the military to guard the company, we will make war and we will fight the Indonesian military. If they put the military to guard their company, if Mobil Oil employees are working there, we cannot avoid stray bullets and we aren’t responsible if someone dead or hurt.’

Would Gam attack Mobil installations?

“No, not exactly … I can say not now.”

The interview over, Ismail says that he’ll take us to another historic site and climbs into our car. As we pull out of the village, one of our escorts drives into the village with a chubby child of about three in his arms. “My son,” says Ismail and takes the kid into the car. “He was born in Malaysia.”

We drive past fields and shrimp-pools to an enclosure, looking out onto water.

Here is a larger graveyard, including a fair-sized tomb carved with Arabic lettering and fronted by an exquisitely decorated marble slab.

“This was the Sultan’s queen,” Ismail says. “The stone was imported from Turkey”

As children arrive from who-knows-where to stare at us, he points out other graves, including that of the alleged nine-foot man, marked out by stones at a considerable distance from each other. Unsurprisingly, the occupant played a military role in the sultan’s entourage.

“They tried to move it once,” says Ismail. “But it moved back …Yes, it’s true!”

Fauziah Ibrahim still weeps when she recounts how the army shot her son, Saddam Hussein, dead. He was among at least 41 civilians killed when troops fired on a demonstration near Lhokseumawe on 3 May 1999.

Fauziah’s account of her son’s death begins like an Arabic poem: “I still have pity on Saddam Hussein … He was born on a Monday and he died on a Monday … “

We sit on rattan mats in her wooden house, whose blue paint long ago faded and parts of whose walls are papered with old newspapers.

Eight-year-old Saddam sold cakes to add to the family’s income.That must have been reduced by the fact that his father had left his mother, although the man’s picture still hangs on the wall. Both Fauziah and Saddam, whose name apparently has nothing to do with the Iraqi president, were at the demonstration.

Neither of them seems to have known why they were. A mysterious “somebody” went round the area telling people to go and they did.

Soldiers fired on the crowd as they got to a crossroads known as Simpang KKA, after a company which owns the land there. The military say that the demonstrators were heading for a base where a missile is kept and that they intended to seize the weapon.

Fauziah wasn’t with her son when the shooting took place. She went home afterwards and someone arrived to tell her that Sadddam was in the hospital.

She starts keening again and wipes her eyes with her shawl.

When she arrived at the hospital, her son was already dead.

By this time a dozen or so people have joined us in watching Fauziah’s distress. It’s difficult to know what to say. My foot is getting cramps from sitting on the floor.

Yacob Hamzah is short and square, a box of dynamism. He walks with a crutch and one of his legs dangles above the ground.  He looks older than his 32 years.

Hamzah runs the Lhokseumawe Legal Aid Foundation from a small office in front of his home on a noisy street.

On the walls a photo of President Yusuf Habibie, for appearances, and a banner depicting former president Sukarno with former US president John Kennedy, for sentiment. Also photos of him receiving an award in the US from the executive director of the Human Rights Watch super-NGO, Sidney Jones, whom he regards as a friend.

Having worked with the widely respected Legal Aid Foundation in Jakarta, Hamza returned to Lhokseumawe to do the same kind of work here.

There was plenty to do. He has been among the first to make public the existence of mass graves in the area. He says that two that he has visited this morning contain up to 2 ,000 bodies.

Who’s responsible? He doesn’t hesitate to blame the Indonesian military, known as Abri.

“Violations in this area are done by Abri,” he says. “Abri kills people by shooting them in front of us, in front of our eyes. That’s one characteristic form of human rights violations in Aceh. Then the second is the illegal arrest of people without any legal papers. Once someone is arrested, he or she can vanish forever. They never return home.”

“There are many more examples, if you want a very long list,” he adds.

The graves he visited before seeing us are some distance from the town at Bukit Tengkorak and Bukit Sentang.

The people buried in them were arrested between 1990 and 1993, he says. The army arrested anyone suspected of involvement with Gam or campaigns against the Indonesian state.

“These people were interrogated and then transported to Bukit Tengkorak and Bukit Sentang. In these two bukits (hills) they were shot and buried in mass.”

He says that he’s had eyewitness reports of Mobil’s complicity.

“We heard that too and it was confirmed by eyewitnesses that Mobil Oil lent tractors and bulldozers to Abri for digging the mass-graves for the Acehnese.”

Hamzah says that he has evidence of 8,139 people killed by the military during the Dom security operation. Since the military declared the end of the operation in 1998, he says about 200 more have died; 60 in Idicut”‘killed and thrown into the Arakundo river”, 53 in the Dewantara sub-district, 12 in Manasablang … and so on.

There were more deaths before 1998, he concedes. “But now we can see with our own eyes that people are being killed. Can you imagine the people’s terror with the killing being done in front of their eyes, as it is practised now by military men? Before there were no people fleeing their own villages but now there are more and more refugees. They take the mosques as places of security and protection.”

Hamzah sees no solution unless the army is withdrawn from Aceh and he believes that soldiers of non-Acehnese origin can’t understand the area’s culture or its religious outlook. “Their presence on Acehnese soil will only bring the Acehnese genocide.”

Colonel Syafnil Armen – correct military bearing, haircut and uniform – is all smiles when he meets us. He took over command of the army here two days ago. The colonel says that he would like to see development here on three fronts: political, cultural and social. Social conditions are “relatively good”, he says, compared to the impression he had received from the Jakarta press.

He also believes that the security situation has improved and is not unduly worried by the ever-present graffiti demanding a referendum on whether Aceh should remain part of Indonesia.

He believes that Mobil’s activities are an asset, but, because he’s just arrived, he can’t comment on the charges of cooperation with atrocities. Nor does he know what happened six days ago in Alue Nireh. Nor can he give an opinion on the number of deaths over the last 10 years or the last few months, although he does seem to accept that all has not been as it should be.

As we turn to leave his office, we’re faced by a huge display cabinet. On it his predecessor, Colonel Johnni Wahab, has left a plaque … donated by Mobil Oil.

Mobil’s press officer, Bill Cummings, is heading for a helicopter when I call. He, too, has just arrived in Lhokseumawe and he’s having trouble with the side-effects of malaria tablets.  He has to put the phone down at one point in our conversation because of a short blackout.

Despite these difficulties, he manages to tell me that the company has no comment on what he calls “insinuations” about Mobil’s activity here.

In the building next to Colonel Syafnil’s office there are more refugees. But they’re not Acehnese. These are peasants who have been moved here from Java under the government’s “transmigrasi” project and they have thrown themselves on the army’s mercy because they believe that Free Aceh guerrillas want to burn their homes.

The Gam say that they are tools of the government’s plans to “contaminate the Acehnese, in other words to water down their identity. They also say that they’ve stolen Acehnese land.

“The Javanese must leave this country by free means, peacefully,” Ismail told us when we met him. But it seems that, like Mobil,  the transmigrants could suffer from stray bullets. “We don’t responsible if they are hurt or dead because of our fighting between Indonesian military and the national liberation front. So before that we have to inform them that better they leave this country for their safety.”

Assembled in a disused assembly hall under the watchful eye of five or six young soldiers, these people look poorer than the Acehnese refugees. Although they too are Muslims, the charity of the mosques is not for them.

They show us a letter which purports to be from somebody called Darwis Jeunies of the “Islamic State of Aceh Sumatra”.

It tells them they are pawns of former president Suharto and his notorious son-in-law Prabowo Subianto, who used to be head of the Kopassus special military force.

For all the apparent threats, they seem most resentful of the government in Jakarta … which has sent them to a land which doesn’t want them and which doesn’t want to be part of Indonesia.