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The Jakarta Post
Thursday, August 23, 2007

Long conflict leaves scars on Acehnese

Nani Afrida, The Jakarta Post, Bener Meriah

photo: Conflict Victim: Fatimah Inem Syam picks coffee at her
farm in Bener Meriah regency, Aceh. The long conflict in the
province has left her with psychological problems. JP/Nani Afrida

Fatimah Inem Syam, 55, was just like any other woman in Aceh. As
a wife and grandmother, she helped take care of her
grandchildren, cook meals and harvest coffee beans on the family
farm.

But after a traumatic incident in 2001, whenever Fatimah saw men
in uniform carrying firearms she would suffer a violent
breakdown.

On such occasions, her husband would make the decision to put
her in chains until she returned to normal. Sometimes this would
take several weeks.

"If we didn't chain her up, she would possibly injure people
around her, including me and my father," said Fatimah's son,
Bestari Muda Aman Sapri, 36.

Fatimah's illness emerged after almost three decades of conflict
in Aceh, including in her native Bener Meriah regency.

In the regency, which is best known for the coffee it produces,
the conflict reached its climax in 2001.

"The scale of violence in the regency was worse than in other
regencies. Based on our findings, there was a case in the
regency where houses were set on fire with people still inside.

"The official facts, however, stipulate that only five members
of the outlawed Free Aceh Movement (GAM) were active in the
region," said Mustawarah from the Aceh chapter of the Commission
for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras).

During the conflict, which ended when the government signed a
peace deal with GAM in Helsinki in 2005, Fatimah was allegedly
beaten up by the police and had a gun held to her head after
trying to help her son avoid arrest.

"They arrested me in front of her and she was trying to help
me," Bestari said.

Despite Fatimah's family trying conventional and traditional
methods to treat her illness, she is still traumatized by the
incident.

As a consequence, a great deal of the family's time is spent
looking after Fatimah rather than working on their farm.

According to recent research conducted by Aceh health officials
in three regencies, at least 5,380 Acehnese people suffer from a
form of mental illness triggered by the years of conflict they
endured.

Such illnesses include schizophrenia, neurotic disorders, acute
psychotic disorders and depression.

The research, spanning five months in North Aceh, Bireun and
Pidie, was conducted with assistance from local and foreign NGOs
including Unicef and the Yogyakarta-based Gadjah Mada University.

"Seventy percent of the people we met who were suffering from a
mental illness have received treatment from medical workers,"
Aceh Health Office head Anjar Asmara said.

The research also revealed that dozens of mentally ill people in
the three regencies surveyed had initially been put in chains by
family members.

Anjar said the number of mentally ill people in Aceh was likely
to be much higher, as 18 other regencies in the province were
left our of the survey.

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