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In Aceh, a year of peace but ex-rebels fear for future

Agence France Presse - July 17, 2006

Lambaro Neujid – Former separatist rebels in Indonesia's Aceh have enjoyed a year of peace but, as they slowly try to build new lives for themselves, they are worried about the future.

In the village of Lambaro Neujid, nestled at the foot of stunning mountains outside the provincial capital Banda Aceh, ex-rebel Syahir has just been married, with comrades Bunaiga and Marzuki in attendance.

A modest tent for the wedding guests has been erected in front of a semi-finished house built to replace one lost to the 2004 tsunami which lashed Aceh's shores, killing some 168,000 people here.

Syahir and his new bride remain in the house, as tradition dictates, while the guests line up for local goat ragout with heart of banana tree.

Just over a year ago, Bunaiga and Marzuki were members of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), fighting for the province's independence from Jakarta as they hid in the mountains. While they have been welcomed back with open arms to their home village, they have no jobs and few prospects.

Marzuki, 28, entered the separatist movement at an early age so he did not complete his schooling and now lacks employable skills. "Many of us left school to join GAM, so it's difficult to get a job once you're back without qualifications," he tells AFP.

Shaven-headed, chain-smoking Bunaiga joined the rebels when he was only 17. Six years later, he is making do with small jobs buying sand or stone needed for the many houses being built by foreign aid agencies here. "But it's only for three or four days a month," he complains, lighting another cigarette.

Bunaiga lost his entire family in the tsunami, so he relies strongly on his former comrades for help and work. "Although we have all left the mountains," he says, "we still have a strong sense of solidarity".

As part of a peace pact GAM signed with the Indonesian government in August last year, some 3,000 former fighters have left the mountains to settle back into their respective communities, according to the European Union-led Aceh Monitoring Mission (AMM). Another 2,000 political prisoners have been amnestied, the AMM says.

The agreement ended a 29-year-old conflict that killed 15,000 people, mostly civilians. The peace process is not yet complete, with the Indonesian government only passing an autonomy law for the province last week. Ex-rebels are studying the law and have warned they may complain to the AMM over some provisions.

To help them start over, former GAM members have each been given economic assistance packages worth four million rupiah (about 400 dollars). The government has also poured 600 billion rupiah for 2006 into the new Aceh Reintegration Body (BRA), which is dealing with the issues faced by ex-combatants and conflict victims.

But Marzuki is impatient. "It's been three months since I filed a proposal to start a carpentry workshop, but I still haven't had any reply so far," he complains.

According to BRA head Yusni Saby, frustrations from ex-rebels stem from a misunderstanding of the body's mechanisms. "We don't deal with personal proposals anymore, except those coming from families of deceased, handicapped persons or people who lost their homes because of the conflict," he explains.

"The rest are dealt with through community-based assessment. Every village will get a certain amount of funding from the 600 billion rupiah to review proposals directly."

Lahmuddin, 30, used to command one of the regional GAM regiments around the southwestern town of Blang Pidie. He also fought around this village, where he met his wife Marlina.

He has a sense of belonging to the place, a feeling perhaps strengthened by the giggly six-month-old son he holds in his arms. But still, he still misses some of the times since he entered GAM in 1994.

"Even though we had to hide, our mind was at peace. Now all we worry about is finding a job and money," he says. "It has turned into an obsession."