In the hills of Pidie district we were taken to meet Abdullah Syahfei, area commander of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) for the Pidie regency. After a secret rendezvous with GAM partisans at an abandoned petrol station, we had been escorted for an hour over a rough road into a remote village, where in the centre of a large clearing Aceh’s crescent-and-star flag flew high. Under the flag stood a handful of men in camouflage green with guns. As we entered the clearing, several hundred veiled women and children stared at us on our right, and several hundred men who looked like ordinary poor farmers on our left. The guards led us onto a platform to meet Syahfei.
‘Assalamu’alaikum! Welcome to the nation of Aceh’, was his solemn greeting. His gun remained by his arm as he talked, and before him was a dog-eared scrapbook of cuttings and documents - some very old - relating to the history and status of Aceh. The commander’s answers were long, angry and dogmatic. He constantly referred to the need for attention from and cooperation with the international community, both to force the Indonesian government to take responsibility for the ‘slaughter’ of Acehnese, and to recognise Aceh as a sovereign state. What follows is an edited version of the interview, which was conducted in Bahasa Indonesia.
What are GAM’s basic aims and program?
We are here to return the rights of the people of Aceh to the sovereignty stolen from them by the Dutch in 1873. Aceh has always been its own nation. We ask for the help of the international community to acknowledge this. Our nation has been attacked, oppressed, and raped by the Dutch and the Indonesians. We ask: is justice in this world only in the textbooks? We fight because we are in our own nation - we don’t want to fight with Jakarta, but we have to defend ourselves.
What is GAM’s attitude to the Indonesian general elections?
The election is simply propaganda to the outside world. The election is for Javanese colonialists, not for us. All colonial laws in the world have now been annulled and colonialism is taboo, but it still exists here.
What would constitute justice for Aceh?
Those who are wrong have to be punished. International law has to be enforced for us. Is our blood different from Yugoslav blood? From Kuwaiti blood? The international community must listen to us. That is why we are pleased to meet foreign journalists, to meet foreign friends.
What is GAM’s attitude towards a referendum [as proposed by some in Aceh, offering Acehnese the options of broad autonomy, federalism or independence]?
Why should we hold a referendum with Java? Javanese are colonialists. Who are they to hold a referendum? We want independence and only independence.
In your opinion who are the ‘provocateurs’ in Aceh?
GAM is a political not a military movement. We understand human rights. It is the army who are burning Acehnese schools and shooting people. All the rumours about the elections and GAM activity are lies by the Indonesian government. GAM would never kill an Acehnese or destroy Acehnese property. All Acehnese are our comrades and supporters.
You say GAM is a political movement. A political movement usually has dialogue with various other interests including its opponents - does GAM?
No. That’s the wrong way to go about politics. We only want to speak to our friends in the international community. Our leader in Sweden, Dr Hasan, he has many international friends.
What international organisations support you?
The Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization… and others we can’t disclose.
What kind of government will you have if you gain independence?
We will return to our rightful status as a sultanate. The sultan will be Dr Hasan Tiro, who is now resident in Sweden. He will return to rule Aceh.
Will Aceh be a democracy then? Will it be ruled by Islamic law?
Aceh will be ruled by the command of the sultan and by international law. Survivors
After an hour with Syahfei we were given fresh coconuts to drink from, and he summoned several dozen from the hundreds of onlookers below up onto the platform. They were a quiet and serious crowd.
All of these people, Syahfei explained, were victims of abuses by the Indonesian military. He ushered two veiled women - one in her forties and the other a mere teenager - into a tiny dark room at the side of the platform. He then ushered the women in our party into the room with them and shut the door. ‘You ask what happened to them,’ he ordered us.
Embarrassed and nervous, we all sat on the floor and explained where we were from. My colleague and I were worried that questioning by foreigners would further traumatise the women. But almost immediately the older woman burst into tears. ‘Kami sengsara!,’ she cried. ‘We are tormented!’
In a combination of Acehnese and broken Indonesian, combined with agonising mime, the two women volunteered how they had been tortured and raped in their own village homes in front of their families by gangs of Indonesian soldiers accusing them of helping or being related to members of GAM. The younger woman had experienced this after the withdrawal in 1998 of the military occupation (DOM). Both women pulled off their veils and revealed scars of cuts and burns on their necks, breasts and legs.
Outside on the platform, our male colleague was being treated to testimonies - similarly painful but often told as tales of valour - from a crowd of men.
It felt alternately like we were being treated to a freak show with an ideological ringmaster; and that we were carrying out the vital task of listening to those whose stories desperately needed to be told.
Vanessa Johanson (email@example.com) works in the Human Rights Office, in Melbourne, of the Australian Council for Overseas Aid.