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Even children have become targets of Indonesian army bullets as a brutal war against Aceh’s separatist rebels gets under way
By Andrew Marshall
KHAIRURRAZI Ismail was always going to die young. He said so himself. When his father passed away, the 18-year-old had wrapped the old man’s body in a white cotton shroud, then taken the remaining material to his mother. “Keep this safe for me,” he told her. “I’ll need it soon.” Sure enough, 17 days later, Khairurrazi’s corpse was lowered into a muddy trench in a village cemetery in Peusangan, an area near Bireun in northern Aceh that has been ravaged by conflict since the Indonesian military last week launched its massive campaign to crush the separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM). As the gravediggers maneuvered Khairurrazi’s body onto its side to face Mecca, blood seeped through his shroud. Khairurrazi, always a thin, sickly youth, had expected an illness to kill him. Instead, he was beaten and bayoneted, then shot in the head. “Half his skull was blown off,” weeped his mother, Ramla, clutching a Muslim prayer book. “I had to pick up my poor boy’s brains and put them back in his head.”
Khairurrazi died in an act of signature brutality committed by soldiers of the Indonesian military (TNI). He died young, but not nearly as young as some of the others massacred alongside him. TIME has confirmed that eight male villagers were executed that day, each shot in the head at close range. Besides Khairurrazi, one was 20 years old, two were 18, one was 17, one 14, one 13 and one just 11. The TNI claimed the dead were GAM suspects killed during a shoot-out. The terrified villagers told me a very different story. I arrived in the area just as a company of high-spirited soldiers was leaving. “You should have come earlier,” grinned a burly soldier wearing the insignia of Indonesia’s notoriously vicious Kopassus special forces. “You missed all the action.”
In that same grim sense, last week was an action-packed one for the 4.3 million residents of this oil- and gas-rich province. Martial law was declared, removing the last pretense that Aceh has ever had a functioning civilian government. Renewed fighting erupted across the province, killing dozens. Jet fighters and U.S.-made Bronco OV-10 bombers screamed low over the palm trees while tanks and armored troop carriers rumbled through the countryside. More than 200 schools were burned to the ground within 36 hours, a wanton destruction of property blamed on GAM in the past, but which this time was so well orchestrated that one independent observer suggested the military might have been behind it. Curfews, either military-ordered or self-imposed, were in effect in every Acehnese town. Meanwhile, in Lhokseumawe in northern Aceh—the military’s command center for its largest campaign since the 1975 invasion of East Timor—rifle-toting police in ski masks patrolled the streets on trail bikes. In the countryside, newly arrived marines were entrenched in the ruins of houses torched in previous failed campaigns to wipe out the rebels. Indonesian flags, raised by each Acehnese household by order of the military, fluttered over deserted roads.
A few blustering generals and politicians apart, there’s hardly a voice in Jakarta prophesying anything but a long and bloody campaign in Aceh. That’s because all sides want—even need—the conflict to continue, observed a senior Western diplomat in the capital. Everyone, that is, except the benighted province’s populace, some 12,000 of whom have died in the 27-year struggle between Indonesian soldiers and GAM guerrillas, who are seeking independence from Jakarta’s rule.
For villagers in the Peusangan area, death came at dawn. Indonesian soldiers swept in from all directions, announcing their arrival with bursts of semiautomatic gunfire. Most villagers cowered in their houses. But seven young men and boys were caught in the open. A 55-year-old woman who witnessed the carnage said she saw about 15 soldiers prodding the seven villagers into line. The soldiers, she said, shot four of the men from a distance of about five meters; the remaining three began to run and were mowed down by bullets.
The woman rushed to the spot, passing the soldiers on her way. They wore Indonesian flags around their heads like bandannas, she recalled, and they “seemed happy.” Their bullet-shattered victims were almost unrecognizable. The woman held her face in her hands at the memory. “It was terrible,” she moaned. “So much blood.” Two of the dead, she said, were just schoolboys—Annas Nazir, 11, and Dedi Daud, 13. Her account of the massacre was echoed by a 49-year-old man who had watched from a hiding place among nearby palm trees. When I asked if he was related to any of the dead, his face crumpled. “Yes,” he replied hoarsely. “Five of them were cousins.” Then the big man began to sob.
The rampaging soldiers would kill again before withdrawing. Not far away, a 14-year-old boy named Dasran Dahran was dragged into a field, lashed to a scarecrow and shot through the head. Two other men disappeared at this time and are presumed dead by the villagers. And still the terror wasn’t over. The villagers said the soldiers went house to house, pounding on doors with their rifle butts, pistol-whipping men of all ages. One was Zul Karnaini, a slender 28-year-old with a bandaged head. “One soldier shouted that I was a dog, a pig, a communist. He said, ‘If you don’t tell us where GAM is, we’ll burn your house.’” Chillingly, the soldier then bragged, “We’ve already killed 10 rats over there.”
It is hard to fathom how executing schoolboys fits in with the TNI’s overall campaign strategy in Aceh. When asked if it was okay for his soldiers to kill children suspected of being GAM members, army chief Ryamizard Ryacudu told TIME: “If they are armed and fire, they will be shot.” (The villagers said the victims were not GAM members and were not armed.) The unsparing use of overwhelming force is only part of it. The military has also acknowledged its aim to separate GAM from its civilian supporters by herding up to 200,000 villagers into internment camps, a strategy invented by the British during the Boer War at the turn of the last century but now used only by military dictatorships, such as Burma. “The village will be surrounded and given a warning so women, children and the elderly can leave first,” explains General Sudi Silalhi, chief adviser to Indonesia’s chief security minister Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. “Then they will give another warning to those with arms to drop their weapons and come out. Then, if there are still some left in the village, we will go into the homes and conduct sweepings.” This means anyone left in the villages is liable to be shot on sight as a presumed rebel.
So far, on the ground, I have seen little preparation for this mass movement of people—no shelters erected or supplies stockpiled. When or if the camps materialize, their primary purpose is “to ensure the safety and well-being of civilians,” foreign ministry spokesman Marty Natalegawa told reporters. I spoke to villagers outside Lhokseumawe who were convinced they would soon be moved to a camp next to the nearest military base, where they feared they would be used as human shields against GAM attacks or brutalized by Indonesian troops.
The “integrated campaign” purportedly includes humanitarian aid to those displaced by war, but the TNI itself acknowledges food is running short, and the U.N.’s Children Fund warns that basic health services are collapsing. Military analyst Kusnanto Anggoro is unimpressed by Jakarta’s avowed attempt to win Acehnese hearts and minds. “I don’t think (the military) has any new strategy at all,” he says. “They always go back to force, force and more force.” So what will the TNI regard as proof that it has secured victory in Aceh? The extermination of GAM? Not at all, insists General Sudi. If GAM rebels accept that Aceh is a part of Indonesia, then “we won’t kill them all,” he says. And if victory isn’t secured before martial law expires six months from now? Then, says Sudi, “we’ll just renew it”—as many times as it takes.
Sadly for the Acehnese, GAM’s principal strategy will probably be to goad the military into committing the kind of brutal excesses it perpetrated in East Timor. “They know that they can’t win, so they will keep trying to embarrass Jakarta and the army,” says Neta Pane, author of the 2001 book GAM: Its History and Strength. He adds: “I was told by a top GAM official that they were going to use Viet Cong tactics, taking off their uniforms and mixing with the ordinary village people. And, of course, that feeds into the army’s suspicions—they get angry and start to suspect every villager is against them. That will cause terrible suffering for the ordinary people when there are reprisals.”
The rest of Indonesia knows little—and seemingly couldn’t care less—about the fear in Aceh. In the mass media, dangdut dancer Inul Daratista’s gyrations, the 2004 elections and the improving economy all featured far ahead of news about Aceh until virtually the day the campaign began. At the outset, television viewers saw some dramatic footage from Indonesian reporters embedded with the TNI showing both sides of the conflict. But two days into the campaign, Aceh’s military commander Major General Endang Suwarya flatly told the embeds that they were barred from using GAM statements. “I want all news published to uphold the spirit of nationalism,” he said. “Put the interests of the unitary state of Indonesia first.”
Most Indonesians, in any case, support the military campaign that President Megawati Sukarnoputri, in a rare spasm of decisiveness, personally ordered—a campaign that promises to cast her as a bold defender of national unity just in time for next year’s presidential elections. “If you listen to the talk shows on the radio (or) talk to people on buses and trains, either in Jakarta or even out in the provinces, the level of vitriol is really shocking,” says Sidney Jones of the International Crisis Group in Jakarta. “People are saying that GAM shouldn’t just be defeated but totally liquidated.” Washington has applied heavy pressure behind the scenes to keep the two sides talking but has yet to condemn the atrocities in Aceh now that fighting has resumed, mindful perhaps of Indonesia’s essential support in the war on terror.
All of which delights Indonesia’s once all-powerful generals. The military has found itself beleaguered and under suspicion ever since the fall of longtime dictator Suharto in 1998, something the current top brass is determined to change. “The military sees Aceh as a chance to regain its legitimacy and influence,” says leading human-rights activist Munir. “Aceh is a way to demonstrate that they are the only force that can hold the country together. And it is a win-win situation for them: if they win and crush GAM, they are heroes. If they fail to solve the Aceh problem within six months or a year, they blame the politicians for not giving them the resources or time to finish the job.”
This ominous resurgence in military strength leads the Acehnese to view their future with increasing pessimism. With international monitors gone and human-rights activists too scared to do fieldwork, fresh atrocities are likely to go unreported. I asked an elderly rice farmer near Lhokseumawe for his view of Indonesia’s military strategy in the province. “To wipe out all Acehnese people,” he replied simply. Meanwhile, bereaved villagers in Peusangan are developing strategies of their own to deal with the unfolding horror. Clutching her prayer book, Ramla, the grieving mother of 18-year-old Khairurrazi, explained: “We pray, the whole family together. We pray until we weep.”