by Andreas Harsono
American Reporter Correspondent
BANDA ACEH, Indonesia, June 19, 2003 -- It was probably a regular exchange but the clatter of American M-16s mixed with the return fire of Russian-made AK-101 automatic rifles was enough to create a terrible fear in a small village here.
"I was sleeping when the noise suddenly bang! Bang! Bang!" said grandmother Aisyah, who lives in a wooden hut with her two daughters, a son-in-law and six grandchildren in the village of Payung, about six kilometers from Banda Aceh, the capital of the Indonesian troubled Aceh province.
"I was so scared I fell down on the floor," Aisyah said, explaining how she struggled to drag her thin 85-year-old frail body into the hut.
It was probably a new phenomenon for Aisyah, who lives in a relatively safe suburban area of Banda Aceh, but the gunfire is a daily routine for most villagers in Aceh. Rights groups estimate that more than 10,000 people have been killed since Indonesian soldiers began fighting Free Aceh Movement (GAM) forces that declared independence from Indonesia in December 1976.
Aceh is located in the northern tip of Sumatra Island on the Straits of Malacca, one of the busiest sea lanes in the world, used mostly by ships that harbor in Singapore. Ironically, the security of shipping there was often cited by American analysts 40 years ago as a principal justification for U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Aceh is closer to both Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, and Singapore than to Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, which is on the Indonesian main island of Java about three hours flying from Banda Aceh.
The man behind this movement is Hasan di Tiro, an Acehnese aristocrat-cum-businessman who got his Ph.D from Columbia University in New York and is the grandson of the famous Tengku Cik di Tiro - an Acehnese who fought against Indonesia's Dutch colonial rulers in the early 20th Century.
Hasan argued that while Aceh produced revenue of more than $10 billion annually, it was mainly channeled to the corrupt and authoritarian regime of President Suharto in Jakarta. In 1976, Di Tiro tried to start a business in Aceh but was rebuffed. Instead, he returned to the United States to bring back arms, money and a bloody rebellion to Aceh.
He made himself the walinegara, or head of state, made plans to revive the ancient Acehnese sultanate, and went into the jungle to wage guerilla war. Indonesia, according to Di Tiro, was a fraud or a cloak to cover up the colonialism of Indonesia's main ethnic group, the Javanese who live mainly on the island of Java. In the 1980s, he fled to Sweden and remains in surburban Stockholm.
President Megawati Sukarnoputri inaugurated a new wave of repression when declaring martial law in Aceh on May 19. She based her decision on failed negotiations between the guerilla leaders and Indonesian diplomats.
The Indonesian military said last week it had killed 202 guerillas while 24 soldiers and policemen had lost their lives since martial law. Five civilians had also been killed, it said. Rebel sources said some of the Acehnese dead were civilians, including teenagers and women. One German tourist was also killed while he and his wife were camping on an Aceh beach and shot by a group of nine soldiers who mistook them for guerillas.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, as many as 7,860 families or 31,194 persons have become refugees as of last week. Indonesian soldiers regularly asked villagers to leave their houses in a bid to separate "the fishes from the water" - an old maxim about guerillas living among villagers.
The agency also reported that 56 teachers have been killed, while more than 100 others were injured and at least 507 schools have been burned throughout Aceh. Both the Indonesian military and the Aceh guerillas blame the other side for the fires.
Abdi Wahab, the president of the Banda Aceh-based Syiah Kuala University, is worried not only because students from elementary schools to colleges lost their facilities, but also because the quality of education in Aceh has deteriorated steeply.
"Our dropout rate has increased two to three percent in recent semesters. The parents cannot afford to pay our tuition fees," said Wahad, adding that a college student in this largest and most prestigious university in Aceh with nearly 19,000 students pays only 300,000 rupiah each student each semester - about US$40.
For both urban and rural areas, another huge problem is electricity. Every day sees another blackout in Banda Aceh. The price of a can of cold Coca Cola has increased six times due to the lack of working refrigerators. GAM fighters regularly taer down electric utility towers.
Aisyah's maiden fight took place in a swampy area near fish farms, and a coconut plantation in Payung. It began around 6pm on Friday, June 6, when more than two dozen Indonesian police led by First Inspector Denny Jatmiko ambushed four Acehnese guerillas.
The guerillas, however, fired back and quickly ran in the direction of a newspaper office regularly guarded by other officers from Jatmiko's division and just a stone's throw away from Aisyah's hut.
"I saw four of them. One used a jungle camouflage, another one in black and two using regular clothes. They used different arms. But judging from the clatter, there must be an M-16 and at least two short guns, probably FN pistols," said a police officer, who was stationed behind the newspaper office.
The Indonesian officers use standard AK-101 rifles which have foldable handles. The firefight went on for almost one hour before the guerrillas, who were under attacked from three different directions, managed to escape. Journalists working in the two-story office ran downstairs to the ground floor for safety.
Fatimah, Aisyah's eldest daughter, said "I was cooking soybean. We laid down because we're scared of stray bullets."
This war is one without battle zones. Indonesian soldiers frequently complain about difficulties in differentiating common people from the guerillas.
Everything seemed to have returned to normal when I visited the village the following morning. The grim face of the war, so frequently seen when a villager is killed, was not in evidence. As villagers went about their their busuiness, women washed their laundry at a communal water pump. Men went to tend their fish farms. Goats and chicken wandered around in the lush green grass of the neighborhood.
The idleness could not hide the economic difficulties the villagers face. "It's difficult to work under the current situation," said Muhammad Amin, a well-muscled and bearded man, the husband of Fatimah's younger sister. "We used to sell fried bananas in downtown area. We used to keep our business open until late at night. But now, we're already home by 7pm," he said.
His complaint is normal. It is common now to see young men idle in coffee shops around the clock. People wait weeks to get their computers fixed as components travel via the land transporation that has been almost halted since martial law.
To make ends meet, Fatimah cooks and sells the traditional Acehnese snack called "kacang kuning" - baked soybean coated with sugar - for a living. With Amin, who also has a "becak mesin" - motorcycle with a side car - commonly used in northern Sumatra, they earn around 20,000 rupiah - about US$3 a day.
Andreas Harsono has written about Indonesia for The American Reporter and other publications since 1996, and was named a Nieman International Fellow in 1999. He is based in Jakarta.