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Aceh refugees 'intimidated for resigning to relocation'

Jakarta Post - December 14, 2010

Apriadi Gunawan, Medan – Refugees from the Aceh conflict era admitted to having been intimidated by "anti-relocation" figures, saying that threats had deterred them from moving from a protected forest in North Sumatra to a new location in South Sumatra.

As many as 26 of 143 families having once taken refuge within the Mount Leuser National Park (TNGL) moved on Sunday and are currently staying in Medan while waiting for transport to South Sumatra as planned.

Surayem, 43, recalled that she and her colleagues had been threatened after agreeing to leave. People were powerless in facing the intimidation that forced them remain in park before finally managing to sneak out, she said.

Surayem said refugees had been forced to participate in illegal forest conversion during their stay in TNGL. They were paid Rp 800,000 (about US$80) for clearing each hectare of forested area. Most of the converted areas in TNGL were now palm oil plantations, she added.

A large number of Aceh refugee families living in TNGL had long desired to leave the area, she said.

"It was like living in a prison. They were checking all our activities. We did not feel at home there, but we were powerless to fight them because we would be killed and our homes burned if they found out that we were leaving TNGL," she told The Jakarta Post in Medan on Monday before leaving for their new lives in Musi Banyuasin in South Sumatra.

The TNGL center sent off 26 Aceh refugee families, or 84 people, at noon on Monday. In Musi Banyuasin TNGL has provided them with permanent homes.

"We were forced to walk quietly through the forest for 10 kilometers to avoid the instigators," she said, adding they were immediately taken by TNGL officers to Medan after escaping the forest.

According to Surayem, many refugees are still living in the national park because they are afraid of leaving. "I'm happy to be able to get out of there, but sad because my newborn baby is still there," she said.

TNGL center head Andi Basrul said his office had listed the identities of people suspected of having intimidated those who left the area and would hand the names over to the police for follow-up.