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South China Morning Post

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Tsunami's tide of goodwill leaves rebels in the cold

Years of fighting have alienated Aceh's warriors from civilian
life, writes Solenn Honorine

The tsunami victims were the lucky ones, grumbles Ida Wati. "At
least they got help."

A few years ago Ms Wati, 32, carried a gun instead of the beaded
handbag that today sits on her lap. In the first days of her
training with the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), she had to sneak out
of her parents' house because her family thought running with
guerilla fighters in the hills of Aceh was not a decent activity
for a young woman.

Ms Wati is used to taking care of herself, but today she feels
left out: the wave of international help that flooded Aceh in
the wake of the tsunami stopped at the bottom of the hills where
her village is perched. The nearby town of Calang has been
largely rebuilt, "but for us, the conflict victims, there's not
much", she complains, bitterly adding that she still has no
decent home - contrary to tsunami survivors. "It's so unfair."

Hers is a feeling common in Aceh, and all the more acute because
the two catastrophes did not overlap geographically: while the
tsunami wreaked havoc on the western shores, war was raging on
the east coast and in the central highlands.

The bitterness of the war victims is a danger for the future of
peace in the province, warns Human Hamid, president of the local
NGO, Aceh Recovery Forum.

"If you look at the whole process of peace building as a crown,
then its main jewel would be the reintegration of the former
combatants," Mr Hamid says. "Because you are putting thousands
of combatants, thousands of war victims, thousands of affected
communities back to normal life, you are dealing with social,
psychological and economical challenges."

At the heart of the problem? Money, money, money. Returning to
civilian life is all the more difficult because most of the
former combatants have few skills, if any, apart from their
ability with guns. Widespread poverty remains a crucial problem:
despite the natural wealth of this bountiful province, half of
Acehnese live on less than US$1 a day.

With jobs still scarce, 75 per cent of former guerilla fighters
are unemployed and have no means of sustenance apart from the
miserly reintegration money granted when the peace agreement was
signed two years ago.

At the time of the negotiations, Jakarta did not want to lose
face by acknowledging the strength of the opposing forces, while
the GAM did not want to disclose the extent of its grass-roots

The number of guerilla fighters was therefore diplomatically
underestimated: the peace document recognised 3,000 armed
guerillas in the GAM's ranks, when the real figure was closer to
25,000, including civilian supporters.

Nevertheless, the thickness of the compensation envelope was
based on the initial estimate. Since then, the numbers have been
revised but help trickles down slowly to the combatants, making
it all the more difficult for them to start a new life.

"It may take 15 to 20 years to finish the reintegration process,
and we've just started it," says Islahuddin, an official from
the Aceh Reconstruction Board.

In Aceh, no one below the age of 40 can remember anything other
than war, and adjusting from combat fatigues takes time. A lot
of time.

According to a UN study, the level of psychological damage in
the population is comparable to that experienced by Afghans.
Trauma on this scale, combined with widespread poverty, is a
ticking bomb for the province.

During the war, the illegal rebel organisation financed its
struggle by imposing what it called a "nationalist tax" in
GAM-controlled areas.

Now that the war is gone, the GAM hierarchy has officially
abolished the policy but the practice remains at the local level.

In peace time it is called extortion, but some GAM members see
it as fair compensation, hence their bitterness when Irwandi
Yusuf, their new governor, condemned the practice publicly. "GAM
members ask me, 'What is our alternative? How can we feed the
orphans of our fellow combatants when we don't have enough for
our own family?'" Mr Irwandi says.

Among the main worries in Aceh, petty crime is on the rise and
violence has erupted in some districts over the past eight
months: a grenade thrown at a GAM spokesman's home; an explosion
in a police headquarters {hellip}

There is only conjecture as to who is behind these events. Most
likely, the perpetrators are groups loosely affiliated with
former actors in the conflict who are fighting over control of
natural resources. After all, the conflict was fuelled not only
by a claim to independence, but also by local feuds over
businesses, often illegal, wrapped under the veil of the
political strife.

Local conflicts might therefore be the most difficult
inheritance for GAM and their supporters and it is up to the GAM
leadership, now presiding over the destiny of the province, to
control its demobilised troops.

In their stronghold of Bireuen, on the east coast, a handful of
former GAM members have been arrested for petty crime, admits T.
Nasruddin, a local GAM official. "These facts are the deeds of
individuals, not the organisation, and we punish them if need
be," he insists.

"But you have to understand: it's difficult to change mentality
from fighter to civilian, and the reintegration money is slow to

Local GAM officials say they are aware that the goodwill of the
population who largely voted for the former rebels in local
polls can stretch thin if these problems remain unchecked.

During a June election in Bireuen, the attitude of the GAM
candidate's supporters irritated residents.

"I've noticed that some GAM members were very arrogant, driving
their motorbikes in the streets like they own the place," says
Noordin Abdulrahman, the newly elected regent of the district.

"I've told them to stop, and they understand. Especially when I
explain that if they continue, people will punish them in the
2009 election" for local parliament.

Next to him, Teungku Darwis Jeunieb nods. He works as a security
officer and has good credentials for the job, because former
fighters respect the word of someone who led their struggle in
the mountains for almost 20 years. "Everyone wants peace now,"
he asserts.

When asked the delicate question of compensation money for
members of the pro-Jakarta militias - a provision that was not
enclosed in the Helsinki agreement and stirs uneasiness among
former combatants - he waves vaguely. "Let's not talk about
them. We are all Acehnese now."

For despite its challenges, as widespread here as in any other
post-conflict society, Aceh keeps close to its heart the one
winning card that was missing in every peace agreement that
failed previously: a strong will for peace.

"We had a clear message with the tsunami: God was ordering us to
stop the fight," says T. Nasruddin. "So now, anyone who will act
to disrupt the peace will unite all the Acehnese against him."