May 28, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

A heroine for humanity

A heroine for humanity

Paul Zeccola

Aceh is famed for its heroines. The best known include Malahayati, an admiral who led an Acehnese armada against the Portuguese in the sixteenth century, and Cut Nyak Dhien, who fought against the Dutch in the late nineteenth century. Many Acehnese name their daughters, hospitals, roads and universities after these folk heroines. Following the dual disasters of conflict and tsunami and the blessing of a peace deal, Aceh is currently undergoing a major transformation, and the search for a new identity.  

As this process unfolds, a new form of heroism — no longer of a martial nature — is emerging. Heroes and heroines in today’s Aceh are people who tirelessly risk their lives fighting for truth and justice, speaking out against hypocrisy, and defending the human rights of others, often without reward. One such modern-day heroine is Khairani Arifin.

Women volunteers and the conflict

1999 marked the beginning of one of the bloodiest episodes in the Aceh conflict. As the war encroached upon rural communities, tens of thousands of people fled their homes and became refugees in their own country, internally displaced persons (IDPs). In response, Khairani helped set up the local non-governmental organisation (NGO) Women Volunteers for Humanity, better known by its Indonesian acronym RPuK. It aimed to provide food, medicine and other necessary items, as well as psycho-social support, to women and children who were victims of the conflict.

 Khairani Arifin is an unassuming heroine
 Raihana Diani

Khairani recalls how bad the situation was in 1999: ‘Female IDPs had no access to aid or information and were not at all included in any of the decision-making processes that affected their lives. Women were also used as a tool for the political interest of certain parties in the conflict. They were used as human shields during attacks or were forced to become IDPs and protect belligerent groups who merged with them.’

In 2001 to 2002, while I was working with Peace Brigades International in Aceh, I heard countless stories of how the Indonesian army (TNI) used villagers as a ‘human fence’ in front of them as they combed the forests in search of Free Aceh Movement (GAM) fighters.  GAM was also known to mobilise villagers into displacement camps in order to get international attention for their cause.

 RPuK established two offices, one in Banda Aceh and one in Lhokseumawe, North Aceh district. Khairani runs the Banda Aceh office, while her younger sister Azriana until recently headed the Lhokseumawe office. Azriana is a newly-selected commissioner with the National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan).  From these offices their distribution network reached into some of the areas worst affected by the conflict, along the northeast coast of Aceh and deep into the mountainous interior. Rani and Nana (as the two sisters are affectionately known by their friends) are supported by teams of professional, energetic and jovial women, such as Erni, Ayu and Norma. Most meetings with these women start and end with a lot of laughter, with the serious stuff in between. One leaves a meeting with these women feeling welcome and uplifted, that in the hands of these women, many of Aceh’s problems could be solved.

The situation was dangerous for human rights activists and humanitarian workers between 1999 and 2004. As a part of their battle against the GAM rebels, the Indonesian security forces also targeted activists with intimidation and violence. Some activists, suspected of secretly aiding the rebels were forcibly ‘disappeared’, faced summary execution or were arrested. Others, thought to be inadvertently aiding the rebels, received threats demanding they stop their work. Khairani was unwavering in her commitment to the needs of the distressed and downtrodden, especially women, and avoided taking sides with either GAM or the TNI.  She managed to survive the conflict, perhaps through her professional and careful strategising and negotiations with both groups when they were guarding roads, villages and IDP camps. RPuK worked in a transparent, yet assertive manner, politely explaining their work at TNI or GAM checkpoints and insisting that their aid get through to those that need it the most. They carried official documents and letters of support from the local authorities to ensure the TNI would let them pass. When they met GAM on the road, the women volunteers talked about the suffering of Acehnese caught in the middle of the conflict.

Mother, activist, legal expert

In addition to her role as secretary general at RPuK, Khairani is the mother of three young children and, since 1993, she has been teaching economics and human rights law at Syiah Kuala University in Banda Aceh. In her work at RPuK, Khairani strives for some of the most basic human rights for women affected by the conflict in Aceh, including access to food, health and shelter. Thus, Khairani doesn’t just teach or conduct research on human rights; she is a fully-fledged human rights activist, going to IDP camps, negotiating with belligerent groups to get access to the communities; and risking her life in the process.

The conflict also encroached on her personal and family life: ‘We felt constantly under threat and pressure. Engaging in aid work meant becoming an actor in the conflict. There were people who did not want us to engage, who saw us as meddling and looking for trouble. The conflict took away any last sense of security. We lived with fear and faced an uncertain future. We also lost many family and friends to the conflict.’

The building they were in was flooded with water, bodies and debris. Khairani almost drowned.

Juggling her commitments, Khairani limits her time on campus to teaching hours, prioritising her work with IDPs, and leaving only nights and holidays for her family. ‘I always keep in communication with my family, wherever I am,’ she says, ‘In the future, one day, when the situation for women is better, as the peace process settles, and when victims’ rights are met — when that time comes, I will give more time for my family.’ And her family support her activism. ‘My husband is very understanding and gives me the most extraordinary support. He takes on a lot of the things that I can’t get around to do, and inspires me when my enthusiasm is low.’

The tsunami and after

On the eve of the 26 December 2004 tsunami, Khairani was reading a science journal that had a section on tsunamis. When the waves came, she knew exactly what was going on. That morning, Khairani, her husband and children were at the hostel for hajj pilgrims, bidding farewell to extended family members who were preparing to leave for Mecca. The tsunami flooded the building with water, bodies and debris. Khairani almost drowned. She had a head of space to breathe in between the rising water and the ceiling. It was a miracle that she survived.

While Khairani’s immediate family survived, the waves destroyed everything they owned – their house, land and all their belongings. The tsunami also claimed relatives and loved ones. Within days, however, Khairani and RPuK were using the skills they had learned in responding to conflict to provide emergency assistance for survivors.

Overnight, Aceh went from being a little known war zone to centre stage in the global relief effort. Scores of new NGOs formed in Aceh to help tsunami victims, designing their programs to fit the funding priorities of international NGOs and donors. Amidst the billions of dollars going to tsunami relief and reconstruction, tens of thousands of conflict victims were barely touched by aid.

Established local NGOs like RPuK agreed that tsunami relief should take a holistic approach to the situation, which of course meant helping the people who had been hurt in the conflict. However, most international NGOs (and by default their local NGO partners), were restricted by their funding, which was often earmarked ‘tsunami only’.

RPuK was different. While they had support from two international donors, they also did a lot of their own fundraising in Banda Aceh, Jakarta and abroad. This meant that unlike many NGOs they were not caught up by tight donor restrictions which dictated how, when and on what they could spend their money. Instead, RPuK had a high level of autonomy.
This was important for Khairani and the other RPuK activists. They didn’t want to abandon the deep bonds they had created with the communities which they had worked so closely with over the previous five years. Their independence gave them the flexibility to prioritise groups in great need of assistance, but it meant they had little outside help.

In July 2005, Khairani decided to terminate RPuK’s contract with one donor because, according to Khairani, ‘they did not fulfil the minimum standards of disaster relief and they weakened local capacities (for self help), including gotong royong (community cooperation), and created dependency within the community.’ This international NGO, which prior to the tsunami had a good relationship with RPuK, started implementing their program directly, as well as partnering with dozens of other local and national NGOs that were new to Aceh. Many of their workers were also newcomers and did not understand the sensitive socio-political context there. RPuK and many others tried to convince the internationals that their ‘cash for work’ and ‘tsunami only’ programs would do more harm than good, but this largely fell upon deaf ears. Now, RPuK has only one international donor, a Dutch inter-church agency called Kerkinactie, which Khairani praises for being ‘highly consistent in their attention to the needs of conflict survivors in Aceh’. In regard to their other former donor, Khairani will take them back once they change the way they work: ‘they need to respect local NGOs like they did in the past.’

Breaking new ground

In the new Aceh, Khairani sees conflicts emerging because of the inequalities in the aid distribution between conflict victims and former GAM combatants. Conflict victims have received very little compensation for their losses - less than A$400 - while GAM fighters recieved at least A$3200 each. RPuK espouses community ownership of the peace process: ‘Peace needs to be people-based, it cannot just be money- or government-based’, she says. In RPuK’s program to provide assistance to conflict survivors, the people themselves decide who gets aid, based on a clear criteria and priorities for certain groups, such as widows and orphans.

RPuK is supporting a ‘Community Memorandum of Understanding’ (MoU) process in several villages. Here, GAM, Indonesian security forces, village elders and community members sign up to an agreement whereby they mutually pledge not to violate human rights or engage in discriminatory practices.

Khairani was inspired for this initiative by the 15 August 2005 MoU signed by the Indonesian government and GAM in Helsinki. When she asked some village women how they felt about the MoU, they said they didn’t feel anything. ‘They’d heard about the peace and that the fighting had stopped. That was great, but there was no other tangible difference.’ In the four villages in North Aceh where RPuK has facilitated the community MoU process, there have been no violent incidents or extortion, as have been seen in other villages. While the armed conflict may have ended, many of the practices that were part of everyday life in the war economy, such as ‘pajak nanggroe’ (GAM’s tax collection) have continued all over Aceh. Violent confrontations between villagers and the Indonesian security forces have also endured in isolated incidents.

Thirty years of conflict led to countless human rights abuses committed by both sides of the conflict. Both the central government in Jakarta and the new provincial and district leaders in Aceh (made up of mostly former GAM rebels and independence activists) may not be too keen to see the establishment of a Human Rights Court and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission for Aceh, although they are both stipulated in the Helsinki MoU. Still, Khairani and other Acehnese NGO activists are campaigning for both bodies.

Khairani is one of the main authors drafting the new qanun, or local by-laws, for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Aceh.  She has visited South Africa to study the process used there, and has also met with people involved in different types of truth and reconciliation models from East Timor and Morocco to learn about the technical and moral issues they faced, as well as the benefits and rewards they encountered in their experiences. Khairani believes these mechanisms are essential for the peace process.

‘There needs to be truth and forgiveness. We need to establish justice through a Human Rights Court and there needs to be psychosocial and economic recovery to heal victims of the conflict’, she says. Khairani is critical of government initiatives which simply compensate victims with cash:  ‘Money alone will not answer questions such as why was my husband murdered? Why was I raped? People need answers.’

These days, since the peace agreement, Khairani feels safer. However, she does worry that violent conflict might re-emerge in Aceh, particularly if communities are divided by uneven aid giving, and if the victims of abuse do not see justice. Khairani, and other modern day heroines like her, continue the tradition of struggle in Aceh.

Paul Zeccola ( is a PhD candidate researching NGOs and human rights in Aceh between 1998 and 2007.

Inside Indonesia 90: Oct-Dec 2007

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