May 23, 2024 Last Updated 6:09 AM, May 21, 2024

Aceh's loss

Published: Jul 22, 2007

Civil society mourns in the tsunami’s aftermath

Nurdin Abdul Rahman

No one will ever know the exact number of people killed in Aceh by the 26 December 2004 tsunami, but most estimates put the figure at around 200,000. Among those who perished were some of the most courageous voices from Aceh’s civil society.

Here, Inside Indonesia contributors pay tribute to some of them.

M Isa Sulaiman

Isa Sulaiman was one of Aceh’s most important social scientists. Unlike other talented Acehnese, he did not move to Jakarta, go into politics or enter the bureaucracy. He stuck to his scholarship as if it was a calling. Born in a small town in South Aceh in 1951, he became a lecturer at Syiah Kuala University in Banda Aceh, and in the early 1980s went to Paris for his PhD. A book on the history of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) made him well-known. It was well-researched, balanced, and took courage to write, because both the Indonesian military and GAM were assassinating activists and intellectuals who displeased them. He was invited to Geneva in late 2002 to assist negotiations between GAM and the Indonesian government

Earlier he wrote a history of Aceh between 1942 and 1962. This important period is full of bloodshed and heroism, and he brought an original interpretation as well as solid archival research to the work. Recently he visited research institutes in the Netherlands and Singapore. He was full of writing plans - about the left in Aceh before 1965, and about literature. When he spoke about Aceh there was fire in his voice. Aceh deserved nothing less.

Gerry van Klinken ( is Inside Indonesia’s Editorial Adviser.

Syarifah Murlina

feisty human rights lawyer, Syarifah Murlina worked for Aceh’s Legal Aid Foundation (LBH), eventually becoming its director in 2004. It was usually Syarifah who traveled to the villages when people called to say that somebody had been arrested or had ‘disappeared’. She had to move swiftly, because delay might mean torture or death. This was Syarifah’s daily fare, and her clients needed her to be tough. I remember when she told me the LBH driver had to leave Aceh because he had become a target. I asked her who would now accompany her to outlying areas. She smiled, threw her head back and laughed: ‘I will drive alone.’ Everybody respected her. Even the local police, for whom she caused so many problems, showed admiration for her efforts on behalf of others.

Syarifah was more than just a great friend. I also became her client, after I was arrested along with two friends in South Aceh in September 2002. Seeing Syarifah there to greet and protect us when we were moved to Banda Aceh made us feel less vulnerable. After Joy Sandler and I were charged with violating our tourist visas in a politically motivated prosecution, for months Syarifah was not just a lawyer, but also our friend and confidant. When she was in town, she would visit daily, sometimes bringing news about our case, often just bringing words of support. She extended compassion wherever, and whenever, she could. That was Syarifah.

Her tone and manner always softened when she spoke of her three children and husband. But on 26 December, all of Syarifah’s immediate family, apart from her father, were visiting her house. Now, nothing is left. Everything has been swept to the mountains or the sea. Her father is the sole survivor.

Lesley McCulloch ( an independent researcher.

Arif Rusli

Born in 1968, Arif was raised in Banda Aceh but went to senior high school in Jakarta, before enrolling in German literature at the University of Indonesia in 1986. Although he had a reputation as a bookworm, he also became a key figure in the re-ignition of Indonesian student activism, which had reached an historic low in the mid-1980s. Later, he continued his activism by contributing to the early years of the labour movement. For over 10 years, he spent his time going from one industrial district to another, providing education and training for workers.

He also worked as a journalist for a time for the national current affairs magazine, Forum Keadilan, and contributed to various alternative media, such as Media Kerja Budaya and labour publications in Jakarta, Bandung and Surabaya. In early 2000 he took up study again, this time about human rights, at Mahidol University in Thailand. He became active in the peace and human rights movement at the regional level, via the Asia Forum for Human Rights and Development in Bangkok. His friends in Bangkok remember him as very active and thoughtful, but also as a great cook who would invite them to eat Acehnese food. As the coordinator of the Aceh Project in the forum, he traveled frequently to Aceh, investigating human rights abuses and promoting a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

On the morning of 26 December, Arif Rusli and his wife Fitra, who was active in a women’s group, were taking a motorbike trip to Ulee Lheu, a popular seaside recreation spot. It was one of the areas most devastated by the waves. No trace of them was found. They had been married a month earlier in Banda Aceh.

Hilmar Farid ( works with Media Kerja Budaya.

Cut Nur Asyikin

Cut Nur Asyikin was a businesswoman, mother of five and the daughter of a large aristocratic family which rose to the combative tenor of the times by transforming herself into the ‘Lion of Aceh’. Cut Nur gained that honorific title as a result of her fiery speech for Aceh’s freedom during a massive pro-referendum rally in November 1999. When the Indonesian government crushed the referendum movement the following year, she continued as Aceh’s most charismatic civilian advocate for justice and independence. Her composure under the gun befuddled the authorities and gave courage to her colleagues.

An elegant, beautiful woman, Cut Nur’s humour and charm kept her one laugh ahead of the authorities’ heavy hands. For years, she was summoned by the police to appear before them, but she simply talked her way around the pressure by a phone call or a lunch date with senior commanders. I stayed with her whenever I was in Banda Aceh. For me, and many others, her large house was a sanctuary full of light.

After the declaration of a military emergency in May 2003, Cut Nur was finally arrested and sentenced to eleven years in jail for ‘rebellion’. Caged for the first time, the Lion of Aceh was despondent for a while. But she was soon cheering up friends and family on the outside. She even resumed her catering business from the inside, providing proper food to fellow prisoners. The morning before her 50th birthday, Cut Nur was swept to her death, along with more than 700 political prisoners throughout Aceh. A transcendent voice for Aceh’s dreams, she died as great heroes should — with her people.

William Nessen ( is a freelance journalist.

Dr Aidarus Idram

Dr Aidarus worked as the physician for RATA (Rehabilitation Action for Torture Victims in Aceh). When RATA was established, we were looking for more than an ordinary doctor. Our clients were people who had survived often terrible trauma and we needed someone who was compassionate and caring. Dr Aidarus was such a man. The torture victims who came to our centre often said it was the concern he showed for them that provided the real cure.

He brought similar compassion to all who sought his help. I remember one of my neighbours telling me how he once took his sick son to Dr Aidarus’ house in the middle of the night. He was hesitant, but Dr Aidarus received them hospitably, treated the boy and did not charge for the service. This man was a porter, whose income was barely enough to feed his family, let alone pay for medical treatment. From early on, Dr Aidarus also conducted autopsies on the bodies of people killed in the conflict. He trained as a forensic specialist, becoming the only person with such qualifications in Aceh.

Dr Aidarus drowned along with his four year old son. In Acehnese culture there is an adage: ‘Speak well of the dead.’ It is not necessary for Dr Aidarus. He left only good memories and showed us how much one person can do for his fellow human beings. Dr Aidarus, you will never be forgotten. May Allah the Almighty bless you. Amin.

Nurdin Abdul Rahman ( the former director of RATA.

Inside Indonesia 83: Jul-Sep 2005

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