Worldwatch First-Person: Reconciliation From Destruction in Aceh

On a sweltering morning on December 21, 2005, I watched six young men stride onto Blang Padang sports field in the heart of Banda Aceh, the capital of Indonesia’s Aceh province. Clad in black uniforms and matching berets, each held an assault rifle across his chest. They marched toward six other men, all dressed in khakis, white polo shirts, and white baseball caps emblazoned with the initials AMM—Aceh Monitoring Mission. On cue, the young men, former fighters of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), handed over their guns. The AMM monitors, drawn from European and Southeast Asian nations, proceeded to cut the weapons apart with the help of two table saws.

I knew I witnessed history in the making: the gun decommissioning ended the first phase of a peace agreement between GAM, which had been fighting for independence since 1976, and the Indonesian government. (In parallel, Jakarta withdrew thousands of soldiers and policemen from Aceh.)

Just a few days later the world’s media would descend once more upon Aceh for the one-year anniversary ofthe devastating tsunami. But very few international journalists were present for the weapons decommissioning. That struck me as odd, because the tsunami and the peace agreement are like twins joined at the hip. It was the massive destruction inflicted by the killer waves that triggered a new mood of reconciliation in Aceh and made negotiations possible. And for the next few years, physical rebuilding and peace-building will be closely intertwined challenges.

Previous efforts to resolve the conflict had all ended in failure. Through it all, civilians suffered tremendously, particularly at the hands of brutal state security forces. Killings, disappearances, and beatings were common and poverty was on the rise.

Having sifted through countless reports and analyses about Aceh, I jumped at the opportunity to visit this lush but still-crippled land at the northern tip of Sumatra, when San Francisco-based Global Exchange organized a field trip. The nine-day visit was a whirlwind tour of meetings with tsunami survivors, villagers with sorrowful tales of repression, grassroots activists and human rights lawyers, international monitors, and GAM representatives.

In the center of Banda Aceh, the streets are clogged with motorcycles, becaks(motorcycle taxis), mini-vans, and cars. Men congregate in noisy coffeehouses and teenagers flaunt cell phones. An unsuspecting visitor would never know that this was “ground zero” of one of the worst natural calamities ever. But the tsunami waves carried debris and bodies right into the city center, including Blang Padang field. Just a bit to the north, the tsunami had totally annihilated Meuraxa district, a dense coastal warren of roads and houses. The area remained desolate when I visited. This, I kept thinking, is what the aftermath of a nuclear war must look like.

One late afternoon just before dusk, our guides brought us to a spot in Banda Aceh a few kilometers from the shoreline. Climbing out ofthe car, I found myself standing in front of what looked like an imposing city wall, with a three-or four-story building rising above it. Only as I walked around did it dawn on me that this was neither a wall nor a building.It was a 4,000-ton ship that the tsunami waves had carried inland and deposited in the middle of a neighborhood.

Since the peace agreement was signed in August 2005, a sense of normality has returned. Yet conversations with villagers and activists quickly reveal the deep emotional scars left by the conflict. And picking up from the dual catastrophes of geological and human fault lines, Aceh is struggling to promote reconciliation and democratic governance, toiling to reinvigorate the economy, and confronting the reactionary impulses of a religious establishment that has blamed “female sinners” for the tsunami.

At the decommissioning ceremony, GAM representative Irwandi Yusufreferred to the weapons as “our friends,” but went on to say that the time had come to rely on “finer tools” to build a free and flourishing society. The government representative, Major General Bambang Darmono, was once the military commander in Aceh. He flashed a smile only when he triumphantly hoisted a plaque on which one of the cut-up guns was mounted. Aceh’s and Indonesia’s leaders now need to pursue different tools and trophies.

<a href="/node/1161">Michael Renner</a> is a Senior Researcher at Worldwatch and Director of the Institute’s Global Security Project.