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Last Updated: Monday, 29 December, 2003, 12:33 GMT
Life under martial law in Aceh

By Rachel Harvey
BBC correspondent in Jakarta

The Indonesian military's offensive against separatist rebels in the northern province of Aceh has made it extremely difficult to get impartial information about what is happening there.

Young Acehnese students Arif and Dewi
Arif and Dewi did not want their faces shown
Access to Aceh is severely restricted, especially for journalists and foreigners.

But a few weeks ago, a number of Acehnese living in other parts of Indonesia were allowed back to the province to celebrate Idul Fitri, the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan.

Dewi and Arif, both attending university in Yogyakarta in central Java, were among them.

Dewi, a 20-year-old biology student, travelled by bus to her home village in Pidie district, north east of Banda Aceh.

The journey was straightforward, she said. The bus was only stopped once, by Indonesian soldiers wanting to check bags and identity papers.

She said traffic was running smoothly on main roads, but only until about 5pm. Then everything stopped.

Nobody goes anywhere after nightfall.

Twenty-one-year-old Arif is studying engineering in Yogyakarta. He comes from a town about 15 kilometres from Banda Aceh, and said that around the city some things seem to be getting back to normal.

Markets were busy again, and cafes and shops open. But again, everything closed down after dark.

"Young people used to hang out at coffee shops all night, but not anymore," he said.

Arif said people in Aceh were beginning to get used to life under martial law, but they still tended to panic when they heard gunfire.

"The problem is the military don't always seem to be able to tell the difference between civilians and rebels," he said.

"On the second day of the Idul Fitri holiday two people were shot dead in the middle of Banda Aceh. I don't know if they were rebels or not, but they certainly weren't military."

Dewi said the situation around her home in Pidie was still extremely tense.

The military are suspicious that local farmers might be giving food to the rebels. Sometimes they get beaten up or just disappear
Dewi, 20-year-old student
The area has seen some of the fiercest fighting since martial law was declared in May, and that has had a profound effect on the local population.

She said few people in her village were working normally.

Farmers check to see whether there are any soldiers about before they risk going to tend their paddy fields.

"The problem is the military are suspicious that local farmers might be giving food to the rebels. Sometimes they get beaten up or just disappear," Dewi said.

"So now, when men see soldiers coming they run away. But when the soldiers see them running they get nervous and start shooting in all directions."

Buildings are riddled with bullet holes. Dead cattle, caught in cross-fire, are left to rot in the fields.

Dewi said a culture of fear and suspicion permeated everything.

When she was at home, she heard stories of the conflict being used to settle old scores.

Disappear

"For instance, if someone has a grudge against another person," she said, "they might tell the Indonesian military that the person they don't like is a rebel supporter.

"That person may then just disappear in the night".

Aceh has given so much to Indonesia but it has got nothing back. It has never been free.
Arif, 21 year-old student

During the first few weeks of the Indonesian offensive, hundreds of schools were burnt down. Each side blamed the other for starting the fires.

Some schools, especially around Banda Aceh, have now been rebuilt by the Indonesian authorities.

Arif's mother, who is a teacher in the regional capital, has been able to continue her classes without any problems.

But around Pidie, Dewi said most pupils were still being taught in emergency schools without enough books or pens.

Dewi and Arif are now both back in Yogyakarta to continue their own studies. Both said they faced discrimination because they are Acehnese.

"For instance," Arif said, "if we get stopped in a car for some minor traffic violation and the police see from our ID cards that we are from Aceh, the fine is likely to be bigger."

Neither Dewi nor Arif wanted their faces photographed in case it attracted unwanted attention.

They said they were always being watched and the boarding houses where they and other Acehnese students stay are often visited by police or intelligence officials.

Dewi and Arif have both been deeply affected by their visit home. Arif is now convinced that the province would be better off if it gained independence.

"The situation in Aceh has been bad since my grandfather's time. Aceh has given so much to Indonesia but it has got nothing back. It has never been free," he said.

Dewi was less interested in the politics of the situation. She said she was deeply concerned for her family who she has not heard from since she returned to Yogyakarta.

"I don't know what's happening back home, no phone calls or anything," she said. "I just want this military emergency to be lifted and for everything to get back to normal".




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