Wed, Aug 16, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Aceh's villagers yearn for peace after decades of conflict

AFP , TIRO, INDONESIA

Eyes red with tears, Alamsyah Mahmud recalls how one day in 2001, Indonesian paramilitaries swooped on his village in Tiro, the birthplace of Aceh's rebel movement, rounding up people and torching homes.

The police were sniffing out members of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), which inked a peace pact with the Jakarta government one year ago this week to end 29 years of conflict that had left 15,000 people dead.

"Everybody here was considered GAM ... Brimob charged into the village like blind pigs and burnt down our houses. It was a very traumatic experience," says Mahmud, a 37-year-old farmer, referring to the feared Indonesian force.

That was a particularly memorable attack in Labu Adang village. But over three decades, ordinary life too became a distant memory.

TRAUMATIZED

"Going to the rice fields, going to the hills, all our movements were limited," Mahmud says.

"If Brimob saw our pick-up loaded with rice, they would arrest us, asking for bribes," chimes in Nyok Aloh, who is just back from the fields.

"It scares me to remember the way our people were killed in the conflict. Now we are all traumatized. Every time a green uniform comes to the village we think of death," Nyok says.

Today the rice paddies are greening in Tiro, a group of villages on the east coast of Aceh on Sumatra island's northern tip. It was here in 1976 that rebel leader Hasan Tiro declared the creation of GAM, ensuring a violent destiny for the villagers: hundreds of killings, abductions, destruction and forced labor.

But instead of harvesting their crops gripped by terror, villagers across Tiro are gratefully reaping a peace dividend this year, with the trauma starting to ebb away as the local economy picks up pace.

Mahmud says his income has picked up by a quarter since a year ago.

"Before, I would sometimes stay up to one week at home without working in the paddies because of gunfights," he says, gesturing to hills once used as a training ground by GAM fighters and skirted by abandoned betel and cocoa plantations.

`SO SCARY'

Eleven-year-old Tut Nurfinda, wearing her crisp blue-and-white school uniform, says she now walks to school without being afraid.

"Sometimes we would hear gunshots. I would fall face down on the road, it was so scary," she remembers.

Back then, a 10km motorbike ride with the risk of being caught in crossfire was often too much for teacher Rohana, who used to frequently skip school, along with many of her students.

"Many students had relatives killed, abducted or tortured," she recalls about the era. "They just could not concentrate."

Tiro now hosts 150 ex-combatants, most of them farmers. Since last year, dialogue with the police has improved, as both sides regularly meet for steaming cups of Aceh's famed coffee, they say.

Tiro police chief Idris Ousmani is providing commentary at a soccer match between police and ex-fighters from a wooden and palm leaf shack at Tiro's main pitch.

Pausing a moment, he says: "Before, we were like water and oil. Now we're like egg yolk and white ... We are complementary."

Ousmani says that the situation improved when the almost 6,000 police stationed from outside Aceh were withdrawn by the central government, as required under the peace pact. Almost 26,000 troops were also later redeployed.

"Now they have gone, things are much smoother between us and GAM," he says.

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