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Tribute to a proud Acehnese

Published: Jul 30, 2007

Sidney Jones

Many knew Jafar as a political science student at New School University, New York. Others knew him as a leader of the very close Acehnese community in Woodside, Queens, where he'd lived since 1996. Some New Yorkers may have known him as one of the least aggressive taxi drivers this city has ever produced. Many of us knew him as a dedicated human rights defender, a lawyer who came to the aid of victims who didn't dare speak out for themselves. His was a voice for dialogue and moderation in a conflict that is now spiralling out of control. And he was a son, a brother, a husband, and a friend. Jafar would have been thirty-five in about two weeks.

He was a slight, gentle, self-effacing man, very bright, a little absent-minded, with a lovely sense of humour. He wasn't a rabble-rouser, he wasn't a fiery speaker, he wasn't a mobiliser of large crowds, and he certainly wasn't a guerrilla. What he was, first and foremost, was an Acehnese and intensely proud of it. He wanted the world to know and appreciate Aceh's past, and he was determined that the Acehnese should have a say in their future. Jafar was particularly angry over the long period beginning in 1990 - the year he became a human rights lawyer - when the Indonesian army declared Aceh an area of special military operations and began conducting a brutal counter-insurgency campaign against what was then a tiny group of guerrillas of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM).

Jafar risked his life then to get the word out about the atrocities that were taking place. He helped Jakarta-based human rights organisations and foreign journalists get in to Aceh to find out for themselves. When Suharto was forced to resign in May 1998, Jafar didn't want revenge, but he did want justice. I think he also came to the conclusion that it was not going to be possible to protect human rights in the absence of major political change in the relationship with Jakarta.

Some months after Suharto's fall Jafar helped found the International Forum on Aceh. Its first conference was held at New York University in December 1998. It was the first ever international gathering to discuss the political dynamics of modern-day Aceh. By the time of the second IFA conference in the spring of last year, a nonviolent movement for a referendum on Aceh's political status, led by students, NGOs, and Muslim scholars, was well underway. The second conference was attended by an even wider range of well-known Acehnese, from members of parliament in Jakarta to rival factions of the guerrilla movement. Again, all viewpoints were represented, everyone had a chance to speak, and I remember Indonesian students in the audience pleading with pro-independence Acehnese to give them a second chance, now that Suharto was gone.

Jafar was not a member of GAM, and didn't try to idealise the guerrillas or their leadership. He was in contact with individuals in the movement, just as he was in contact with Acehnese members of the political establishment in Jakarta. Indonesian authorities, however, made no distinction between IFA and GAM. When Jafar disappeared on August 5, I didn't believe it at first. He went from a meeting in broad daylight on a busy street in the country's third largest city and was never seen alive again. His body was found three weeks later with four others about 83 km away. Those four have not been identified to this day, and the police in Medan purport to have no leads to Jafar's killer. Shortly after Jafar disappeared, another activist received a call saying, 'We took care of Jafar, now it's your turn.' The caller complained that the activist never raised GAM abuses but only those of the TNI. That's not an excuse for threats, let alone murder. Circumstantial evidence and the pattern of killing points to military involvement in Jafar's death, but there is no hard evidence, and we may never know exactly what happened.

Jafar's main flaw was that he trusted everyone. He couldn't believe that other people could be operating in bad faith when he himself was so open about his intentions. We know he had been threatened before his disappearance; we know he was worried enough to call home at regular intervals to check in. We also know that he didn't let fear deter him from pursuing a political settlement in Aceh.

The best tribute we can all pay Jafar is to do the following: 1. Keep up the pressure to find and prosecute his killers; 2. Continue to seek justice for victims of human rights violations and their families; 3. Raise the profile of Aceh so that more and more people across the world appreciate the culture and history of this complex place; 4. Press ahead with efforts to end the conflict through unrestricted dialogue; 5. Continue symposia like this one. We all want Jafar back, but this kind of gathering may be the most fitting memorial.

Sidney Jones ( is the Asia Director of Human Rights Watch ( She read this obituary at a memorial service held in New York on 24 October 2000.

Inside Indonesia 65: Jan - Mar 2001

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