Friday, August 19, 2005

A changed Aceh attempts peace
By Rachel Harvey BBC, Indonesia
United in grief, the two sides in Aceh's long-running civil war are attempting a new peace deal in the aftermath of the tsunami, and this time the world is watching.
There were four of us crowded around the small television in the BBC office in Jakarta.
On the screen was a group of men in dark suits, pens poised, sitting behind a long table in a room in a far-off land, where chandeliers hung from the ceiling.
Alright, I admit the pictures were not that exciting. But that is not the point. This was history in the making.
After almost 30 years of conflict, the Indonesian government and rebels of the Free Aceh Movement were signing up to peace.
The rebels have set aside their demand for independence in return for a strong provincial government and the right to form their own political party.
In a month's time, the rebel fighters are supposed to start handing in their weapons to international monitors.
At the same time, government troops and police sent to quell the rebellion will begin withdrawing.
A year ago all this would have been unthinkable.
Appalling abuses
I remember a village in Aceh that I visited in May 2003 when the conflict was still raging.
We had been attracted by the haunting sound of women singing. Prayers for the dead as it turned out.
A woman had just finished burying her son.
Her body shaking with emotion, she told me Indonesian soldiers had shot him, first in the leg to stop him running, then again in the back of the head at close range.
"He was a rebel supporter," she said, "but he didn't deserve to die like this."
Throughout what has been a brutal and dirty conflict, both sides have been guilty of appalling abuses, including execution-style killings, rape, torture, extortion, and kidnappings.
All that could now be at an end. But it won't be easy.
There is still huge mistrust on both sides and other recent attempts to bring peace to Aceh have fallen apart when it came to implementation.
Unimaginable horror
There are differences, though, this time.
A new government came to power last October, and from the outset President Yudhoyono made solving the Aceh problem a priority.
But it was last December's earthquake and tsunami which really changed everything.
Aceh bore the brunt of the disaster.
I got there two days after the massive waves struck. It was a shattering experience.
Plenty has by now been written and said about the scale of the destruction and the almost unbelievable number of lost lives.
Whatever any of us has said, it will not, it cannot, have conveyed the true horror of what we found.
And everywhere we went, the same question from traumatised survivors: "Why Aceh? Why us? Haven't we suffered enough?"
No, Aceh has not suffered enough. It has suffered far, far too much. The tsunami brought that home. And I mean home.
Media censorship
Before 26 December, Aceh had for months been effectively closed off by the government.
But after the tsunami the doors were opened to allow in desperately needed humanitarian aid.
Aceh was suddenly the focus of international attention. And crucially it was also - as never before - the focus of Indonesian attention.
During the conflict, the Indonesian media was heavily censored.
The rebels - and by implication the Acehnese in general - were largely portrayed as ungrateful traitors whose activities could, if left unchecked, lead to the break-up of the country.
Little was said about the grievances which lay behind the conflict.
For years the central government in Jakarta had exploited Aceh's rich natural resources but little of the revenue came back into the province.
Nor was much attention given to the harm done to innocent civilians.
But after the tsunami the tone changed.
National bonding
The terrible scenes broadcast on television for hours on end prompted an outpouring not just of sympathy, but also of national bonding.
Aceh now had a human face, and it was a face contorted with grief. Across Indonesia attitudes changed. Which is why there is a sense of optimism that this peace deal might just work.
Around the world, and at home in Indonesia, people now care what happens
Not everyone is convinced, mind you.
There are hardliners in parliament and the military who think the government has made too many concessions to the rebels.
And friends I have spoken to in Aceh say they are still sceptical that the two sides will stick to the deal.
Understandable perhaps, given all they have been through.
But for me the telling moment came when the men in suits in Helsinki, put pen to paper, live on TV and radio.
Not because of what they had done, but because of the reaction of my Indonesian colleagues.
They burst into spontaneous applause.
Around the world, and at home in Indonesia, people now care what happens to Aceh. That is where hope lies.
From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 18 August, 2005 at 1100 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.
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Story from BBC NEWS: 2005/08/18 10:32:15 GMT© BBC MMV


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