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Monday, 22 April, 2002, 01:49 GMT 02:49 UK
Viewpoint: Aceh's brutal conflict
Two women and a boy in burned house. They return to the house to do the washing, the well being the only part of it left. The elder son and his father had run to the hills in fear.
A family returns to its burned-out house
Violence overshadows Indonesia's north-west province of Aceh, where an independence movement has been fighting to break free from Jakarta's rule since 1976.

Last year almost 2,000 people died in the conflict, and more than 300 have died this year already. Lesley McCulloch, a lecturer in Asian Studies at the University of Tasmania, Australia, sent BBC News Online a personal account of a recent visit, and explains why she thinks Indonesia's policies are wrong.

Most foreigners are too afraid to venture into Aceh. Travelling by road is not easy. From Medan in North Sumatra it is a 12-hour journey.

A man, Herman, sits in what is left of burned house.
This man said the military burned down his house with his possessions inside
During my most recent trip, I encountered 38 military and police checkpoints on this relatively short stretch of road - many more than last year.

But the inconvenience of these checkpoints is nothing compared to the horrors that lie hidden in the more remote interior.

The human cost of the Indonesian Government's pursuit of a military solution to the conflict is visible even in the towns. But it is in the more remote areas where the real human tragedies are an almost daily occurrence.

Burning houses

More than an hour by motorbike through the forest, and I knew that I was close to my destination. On the path was a box to collect money for the victims of the most recent assault by the Indonesian military.

The reason for the collection, in the village of Ule Jalan in the northern district of Bireuen, was the burning of 14 houses in this village, and three in the neighbouring village of Pulo Panyang.

According to the victims and eyewitnesses, on 12 January about 20 heavily armed soldiers arrived at Ule Jalan. They left a trail of death and destruction.

In addition to the burning of houses, 10 civilians were tortured, 13 suffered injuries and Safriadi, aged 17, was shot dead.

'Rampage of beating'

Safriadi's mother, Syahtariah, told me that the military came to the house and accused her son of being a member of the independence movement Aceh Sumatra National Liberation Front (ASNLF), which is also known as Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (GAM).

House with bullet holes in the walls
Residents say the military shoots indiscriminately at homes
He denied being a member of the group. The soldiers allegedly began to beat and kick him in an attempt to force a confession.

Safriadi was taken away, and the next part of the story is recounted by a neighbour called Lukman.

According to Lukman, the soldiers arrived at his house with Safriadi and accused him of also being a member of the independence movement.

Safriadi was ordered to set light to Lukman's house, but he refused. The military then allegedly set fire to the house, and as it burned they shot Safriadi.

According to several eyewitnesses, as Safriadi lay dying the soldiers carved a crescent moon and a star (symbols from the ASNLF flag) on his back with their bayonets. The military then went on a rampage of beating, looting and burning more houses.

These people now own nothing - only the clothes they are wearing.

Local nurse Rusli told me: "These people cannot rebuild their houses, they have no money. They have no food, only what their friends and neighbours give them, but they are also poor. That is why we have the collection on the track."

Growing anger

As I headed back through the forest to the main road, the words of Aceh military commander Brigadier General Djali Yusuf played over in my mind.

Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri
Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri has ruled out independence for Aceh
General Yusuf had told me on 11 January that the military "can and will eliminate GAM in less than one year.'"

Was Ule Jalan evidence of the pursuit of this policy?

Teungku Isnandar, spokesperson for the ASNLF Central Bureau of Information, said in reaction to General Yusuf's statement that the ASNLF "only exists because it enjoys the support of the majority of Acehnese".

The incidents in Ule Jalan and Pulo Panyang are typical of life in Aceh. So too is Syahtariah's sense of fear, anger and helplessness.

Such continuing brutality by the Indonesian military only serves to strengthen support for the independence movement. And in many areas the support is tangible.

Many Acehnese ask the question: "Does the military intend to kill every last Acehnese?"

I relayed the question to General Yusuf.

He replied: "Not every last Acehnese. But we will do what we have to do."

See also:

23 Jan 02 | Asia-Pacific
Analysis: Blow to Aceh rebels
23 Jan 02 | Asia-Pacific
Indonesian rebel chief killed
17 Jan 02 | Asia-Pacific
Aceh dreams of independence 'futile'
04 Dec 01 | Asia-Pacific
In pictures: Aceh rebels fly the flag
20 Aug 01 | Asia-Pacific
Aceh: Megawati's toughest test
16 Aug 01 | Asia-Pacific
Megawati sorry for rights abuses
15 Aug 01 | Asia-Pacific
Megawati meets Aceh leaders
14 Nov 00 | Asia-Pacific
Aceh calls for 'Timor-style' vote
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