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On the road towards peace in Aceh

Jakarta Post - December 17, 2006

Jonathan Dart, Banda Aceh – Every time Ibrahim bin Yatim gets a new DVD, people squeeze into his tiny warung in Montasik, near Banda Aceh.

It's a small, nondescript wooden shack, surrounded by rice paddies; it can seat only a dozen people, but nobody seems to care – they eat their noodles standing up, and Ibrahim can barely keep up with the demand.

According to Ibrahim, Jet-Li's kung-fu films are the most popular, but he also has a collection of Rambo and Arnold Schwarzenegger movies that draw a steady crowd.

Outwardly, this shop is utterly unremarkable. It is the type of place that can be found in any of the millions of kampongs throughout the archipelago.

And yet even this modest living seemed an impossible dream for Ibrahim just three years ago – instead, he was acting out the scenes of his favorite movies as a weapons smuggler for the Free Aceh Movement (GAM).

Ibrahim has survived gunfights, torture and arrest; looked on as his friends were shot; listened to tales of atrocities committed against his countrymen and served out a one-year jail term in Surabaya.

But there was a parallel story also taking place alongside Ibrahim's nightmare, the ambitious peace-deal being negotiated thousands of miles away in Helsinki. As the memorandum of understanding was ironed out in August 2005, its architects were well aware that one thing was inevitable – that for Aceh to move forward, it would first have to confront its own past and the two plots would eventually collide.

When Rambo returned home from Vietnam, he flipped out and soon relapsed into a life of gun-slinging and violence. On Aug. 31, 2005, roughly 1,400 political prisoners were returned to Aceh, a province devastated by the tsunami and war. Its future now depends on whether those people – people just like Ibrahim – can carry on their lives in peace.

Looking at his small nimble frame and his unassuming smile, it's hard to imagine the life that Ibrahim once lived.

In 2001, Ibrahim was working as a radar specialist in Belawan, the port of Medan, when he was approached by a friend in the local Acehnese community, Ridwan.

Ridwan was well known as the GAM military commander in the province of Aceh Timur. He asked Ibrahim to join the "GAM Navy"; or, more accurately, to help steer a small speedboat to rendezvous points in the Malacca Strait to receive arms from agents in the Malaysian Navy.

Ibrahim said he didn't agonize over his decision to join. "I had heard stories of villagers being beaten," he said. "It was only fair that they should be able to protect themselves."

The missions were frequent; two times a week for three years, Ibrahim and six other men left Medan for the journey across rough and unpredictable seas.

Ibrahim's task was to man the makeshift radar computers on the boat – when ships approached he would be the first to know, and men would be sent with binoculars to check if it was the Indonesian Navy.

If a sighting was confirmed, there was not much to do but to pull back the throttle and flee; if the Indonesian boats came close enough – and Ibrahim said they did on perhaps a dozen occasions – the crew would use the guns they had acquired to hold off arrest.

"We didn't have time to be scared," Ibrahim said. "We just had time to pick up the guns and fire. The (Indonesian Navy) boats sometimes appeared out of nowhere."

But Ibrahim's luck came to an end in early 2004 when, driving to a friend's house late at night, he was arrested by Indonesian police.

At the time, he was not carrying any weapons but the police had enough information to put him in jail – an informant, Ibrahim suspects, probably someone who was living in one of the surrounding apartments.

He recalls being interrogated and beaten, and then being left to lie on the prison floor feeling "half dead".

It's the kind of experience that hundreds of local Acehnese had to endure, both from Indonesian troops and hard-line GAM rebels demanding loyalty to their cause.

A recent study conducted by Harvard Medical School and University Syiah Kuala surveyed 596 villagers in three districts throughout the province. It found that 78 percent of villagers had lived through a combat experience – for instance, a firefight or bombing – while 41 percent of respondents had a family member or friend killed in the conflict.

The report noted that interviews were "filled with stories about men and women being brutally interrogated, intimidated, and threatened for information they could not provide and then severely beaten (or worse) when they could not provide answers".

"Some vivid additional examples include suffocation with plastic bags, public displays of sexual humiliation, drownings in septic tanks and sewage canals and being forced to injure or humiliate friends and loved ones."

The report concluded, the "mental consequence of the conflict is very great in this population" – 65 percent of respondents showed symptoms of depression and 34 percent showed symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

On Dec. 5, Aceh was awash with posters and political rallies as the important gubernatorial election approached. On the same day, the first batch of 80 former GAM fighters were registering their names with the International Organization of Migration (IOM) throughout the province.

It's the second phase of a program that began 16 months ago with the reintegration of political prisoners, like Ibrahim, and will eventually be extended to a total of 3,000 fighters, as identified in the memorandum of understanding.

It's no light task. An IOM spokesperson, Paul Dillon, has been working alongside former fighters throughout the entire process and has witnessed the problems they have faced.

Some have no experience of making a living, many lack essential skills such as a trade and others fear they will not be accepted by the local community after the decades of violence. "You have a whole bunch of people who are poorly educated, whose only training is firing a gun," Dillon said.

But if the first phase is anything to go by, there is every chance the transition to peace will be smooth.

The IOM distributed what it calls "peace dividends": three Rp 1.5 million payments used to establish small enterprises. The payments are not made in cash, however; instead, the money is distributed in terms of resources and training needed to establish a business.

The former fighters are assigned "life coaches" who help them write a business plan using the skills they already have. The payments are delivered in installments, depending on the viability of the business they have established.

Ibrahim's warung, for instance, was hardly the most ambitious proposal, but one that could have easily failed. Under his mentors, he was encouraged to move the proposed site to a nearby thoroughfare, where it would attract more customers. He was also given a refrigerator, water cooler and some stock to sell.

But as every Indonesian knows, customers also wanted to spend their meals watching sinetron and Jackie Lee, and so the IOM donated a television and DVD machine.

Ibrahim now leads a contented life. He was welcomed back into the village through a peusijeuk – an Acehnese blessing ceremony – he earns a good income of Rp 150,000 (US$16.50) per day, and married his sweetheart in August.

"The village welcomed me back, and I'm very happy to be back," Ibrahim said. "The people here were very good to me, they just want peaceful lives."

Of the 1,400 other prisoners, Paul Dillon from the IOM said there were fewer than a dozen businesses that didn't qualify for the second payment, and thus had to create new business plans.

This is perhaps the most enduring legacy of the Aceh peace process. The Roman historian Tacitus wrote that a bad peace is even worse than war and this is the scenario that people like Paul Dillon have been working to avoid.

"Ultimately, this (reintegration) program is the mortar that holds the structure together," he said. "It's important to give these people a reason to reconstitute their lives. If that fails, then there's a real possibility that everything – the peace, the reconstruction – will fall in on itself."