Fri, May 30, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Acehnese civilians feel the pain of military offensive

REUTERS , BANDA ACEH, INDONESIA

Their allegations of Indonesian military brutality cannot be verified, but the pain etched on their faces is real. So are the tears, the quivering voices and the vacant stares.

In separate interviews, four Acehnese villagers told the story of how their lives had been ruined a few years ago, forcing them to flee and eventually find shelter in Banda Aceh, the capital of Aceh province on the northern tip of Sumatra island.

Three blamed Indonesian soldiers, the other, unknown men.

For them, hopes of returning home to rebuild their lives has been dashed by the military's biggest offensive ever against Free Aceh Movement rebels, now in its second week, following the collapse of a peace pact.

Like many of Aceh's 4 million people, they want peace, an end to abuses by both sides, an end to fear. The independence sought by the rebels for 27 years or the special autonomy offered by the government means little.

Acehnese on the streets of Banda Aceh say much the same thing. They are sick of the fighting that has killed 10,000 people since 1976.

Asked if Acehnese wanted independence or special autonomy, Muslim cleric and academic Yusny Saby laughed loudly.

"For the ordinary Acehnese like you and me, we want peace, we want security, we want prosperity, we want good education, we want a good economic life, we want job opportunities," he said.

Among the four villagers, one man in his 50s said he was taken to a military post in 2000 where soldiers demanded to know where his rebel flag and gun were.

"They beat me with a block, they beat me with an iron bar. I was kicked by many people, I don't know how many," said the man, who asked that his name not be used.

He said soldiers released him after a day. About two months later, his house was burned down. He did not know by whom.

Fighting back tears, a woman in her 30s said one day in 2001 her husband was taken by unidentified men. In panic, she fled into the jungle with her four children.

"We spent seven days and nights in the jungle with no food or water," said the woman. She said she was pregnant at the time and never saw her husband again.

Indonesia's military denies committing systematic rights abuses although it has admitted troops have occasionally intimidated civilians.

Military officials say the purpose of the new combined security and relief operation is to win popular support, and they are doing their utmost to avoid civilian casualties and will punish transgressors.

But within days of an offensive that has killed scores and made thousands refugees, an account emerged of soldiers executing civilians. The military said an investigation found that to be false and it would take legal action against those responsible for the reports.

The rebels too are accused of rights abuses and extortion, leaving many people afraid to talk with reporters for fear of reprisals from both sides.

Aceh has a long history of fighting outside rule and is proud of its Islamic traditions, culture and distinct language.

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