Things get ugly as Jakarta sends in the troops

It started with rebels torching schools and some high-profile army movement, but it's likely to get very bloody


Fri, May 23, 2003 - Page 9

The fire raging in the offices at State Junior High School 3 was out of control. Flames tore through the roof and climbed up the outside walls as smoke climbed high into the hot, tropical sky.

A similar scene was unfolding 150m away, except here it was a 12-seater bus straddling the trans-Sumatra highway that was burning. A kilometer away in the other direction a jeep smouldered.

The road, nearby houses and surrounding patchwork quilt of rice fields were deserted except for a six-man Indonesian army special forces patrol searching for the arsonists. Five ran down the sides of the road and the sixth brought up the rear in a armor-plated Toyota minibus with "No Fear" stencilled in big red letters across the back window.

This was no training exercise. The soldiers operating in the village of Jeumpa yesterday were part of Indonesia's largest military deployment since the invasion of East Timor in 1975. More than 40,000 troops and police are in Aceh Province, on the northern tip of Sumatra, with orders to accept the surrender of separatists who choose to give up or eliminate those who continue to resist.

The offensive began on Monday after the government gave up on a five-month ceasefire because the rebels refused to renounce their claim for independence and surrender their weapons. Troops staged grand displays of military bravado -- parachuting into relatively safe areas and using bombers to blow up empty huts.

By yesterday, as events in Jeumpa, near the town of Bireuen, demonstrated, the emerging conflict was proving to be a very different, uglier battle than the military spin doctors' ideal of carefully orchestrated and controlled encounters.

In two days of fighting, unidentified gunmen have launched hit-and-run raids on 184 schools, according to the education authorities, burning one or two buildings in each location and sometimes the whole complex, but not harming anyone.

"They're cowards. They never stay and fight," the special forces driver said as he took a breather outside State Junior High School 3, after his sergeant accepted that the perpetrators had fled.

"They," according to the government, are up to 5,000 fighters for the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), the separatists who have been fighting for an independent state since 1976 after becoming disillusioned with Jakarta's decades of broken promises of greater autonomy.

In a taste of what might come, other "government" targets have been hit in addition to schools. "I've just walked past a bombed irrigation gate," a woman in a Bireuen cafe said. "Many, many hectares of paddy fields are now flooded waist-deep. All the crops are ruined."

So far only a handful of people have been killed. One of the passengers in the burnt bus in Jeumpa said the gunmen -- fluent Acehnese speakers and almost certainly rebels -- courteously ordered all the passengers out before shooting at the tires and setting the vehicle on fire.

GAM is vehemently denying it has attacked schools and is blaming small military operations units.

The Jeumpa gang were either careless or unlucky. A few minutes after the special forces gave up looking for them, one of the seven paramilitary policemen who'd joined the soldiers in the hunt for the school arsonists spotted figures moving from house to house a few hundred metres away across the paddy fields.

All the troops hit the deck or took cover. "Shall I shoot?" Eagle-eyes asked.

"No, don't," the special forces sergeant said. "Remember we're here to save the people, to protect the people. Check first."

Seconds later a paramilitary policemen had clearly decided he was sure the figures were rebels and, without warning, opened fire with a light machine gun.

The rat-tat-tat of live ammunition echoed off the surrounding houses for about a minute, until it was decided no one was returning fire. Several men stayed on guard while the rest ran towards the houses where the rebels had allegedly been hiding. But with nothing to shelter behind they soon stopped.

"We'll have to let them go," one soldier said. "Maybe we'll do better tomorrow."

Meanwhile a fire brigade truck had doused the flames at the school. Nothing was left in the office; papers for the final examinations hundreds sit this week were ashes. The exams will go ahead in tents.

Sensing the danger was ebbing, residents cautiously emerged out of their shuttered homes.

"I saw no one, I heard no one," said one woman who lived in the house next to the burning building. "We're all just too afraid to do anything, we're staying indoors unless we have to go out."

Like virtually everyone in Bireuen district, currently the most violence-wracked part of the province, no one wanted their names published. They are too scared.

"If they see my name in the paper they will kill me," said a woman who witnessed Monday's raid on the Madrasah Ibtidaiah Negeri primary school in Kroeng Baro village, 3km east of Bireuen.

"Especially because I think the perpetrators were [government] soldiers from the type of camouflage uniforms they were wearing."

Some people said the raiders -- who felled coconut trees and telegraph poles across the roads to thwart pursuers -- even confiscated their identity cards as additional intimidation.

"We've never seen anything like this before," said Nurdin Muhammad, "We don't know what to feel, what to do."

Gauging people's real feelings is hard. Most Acehnese give neutral answers or just shrug when asked which side they hope will win. But occasionally someone is a bit more forthcoming.

"We're afraid but only of the Indonesian soldiers," said a worker from the emergency room at the Dr Fauziah hospital in Bireuen. "They have brutalized us for so long the only solution is independence. Otherwise we will never have peace."

The woman in the cafe predicted the situation will deteriorate. "The army cannot allow this to continue," she said. "They are going to have to do something and I'm just scared to think what that might be."

Timeline: struggle for independence

1949: Aceh, the westernmost part of the Dutch East Indies, becomes part of independent Indonesia

1976: Free Aceh Movement (GAM) formed calling for independent Islamic state, but the level of activity remains low

1989: Libyan-trained GAM guerrillas revive resistance

1990 to 1998: Indonesian army designates Aceh a ``special combat zone,'' kills more than 2,000 civilians

1998 to 1999: Military rule lifted after Suharto's fall, but his successors do not make amends for human-rights abuses committed in Aceh

2000: Army targets human-rights groups, GAM levies ``war taxes,'' violence increases until ``humanitarian pause'' agreed in May

March 2001: Indonesian defense minister announces new offensive against GAM; guerrillas attack ExxonMobil gas fields; troops sent to Aceh

June to July 2001: Military offensive launched

August to Sept 2001: The new president of Indonesia, Megawati Sukarnoputri, apologizes for past abuses and visits Aceh but talks end fruitlessly

Last year: Crisis eases during talks in Switzerland brokered by Henry Dunant Centre. Both sides agree to seek ``interim solutions'' and draw up elections timetable

December last year: Ceasefire agreement reached, call for dialogue based on special autonomy law, to lead to democracy, with international monitors. Conference on peace and reconstruction held in Tokyo with the US, Japan, EU and World Bank. More than US$8 million pledged for monitoring mission

April 9, this year: Indonesia says it was ``snubbed'' by GAM, threatens to resume full combat operations

May 12: Indonesia withdraws from ceasefire; army claims it can defeat GAM in six months

May 18: Peace talks in Tokyo collapse after GAM refuses to accept Jakarta's demands to disarm, accept autonomy and renounce independence. Sukarnoputri declares martial law as more than 40,000 troops prepare to battle up to 5,000 GAM fighters