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Last Updated: Monday, 11 December 2006, 00:37 GMT
Former Aceh fighters face ballot box
As the Indonesian province of Aceh votes in elections on Monday to choose a new governor and local district heads, Lucy Williamson speaks to former rebels in the province about their view of the election, and their future.

Election campaign advertising in Aceh
Aceh is preparing for a big turnout as some 70% say they will vote

On a hot, languid afternoon in Aceh's dense countryside, a group of men are hanging around a village coffee shop shaded by coconut palms.

They are watching a Bollywood movie, dubbed into Indonesian, on a tiny television at the back of the hut.

These are some of Aceh's former separatists, fighters with the Free Aceh Movement, known as Gam.

It is more than a year since they gave up their fight for independence and came out of the forests as part of a landmark peace deal.

And the leaders who once told them to prepare for war are now asking them to prepare to vote.

So will this election cement the peace in Aceh?

Painful past

Azhar used to be a district commander, in Pidie, a Gam stronghold. Now he is back sleeping in the same house as his wife and child.

"This election is a good thing," he said, "because independent candidates can run."

Azhar
I expected to receive the aid they promised us. It's causing me a lot of trouble
Azhar
Former Gam fighter

Two former members of Gam are running for the job of governor and vice-governor - but on two separate tickets.

And according to many observers, that has caused something of a stir within the organisation.

"Personally, for me, it's important to vote for someone from Gam," says Azhar, "and I think it's obvious who to choose... I'll choose Irwandi - he's suffered together with the rest of Aceh."

Irwandi Yusuf is a name you hear a lot of from former fighters. Seen by many as a young turk within the former Gam leadership, he played a leading role in the conflict.

Hasbi Abdullah, running for vice-governor under a religious party banner, is believed to be the favourite of the organisation's political elite.

This apparent split could hold the key as to how Gam develops as a political party, ahead of national elections due in 2009.

It could also divide the Gam vote on Monday, adding to the likelihood that no one of the eight governor and vice-governor tickets will garner enough votes to win. If that happens, there will be a run off next year.

Painful past

Loyalties are still keenly felt in Pidie, and almost everyone has a story to tell about the old days.

In the next village, Juriah is getting ready for work, laying out piles of clothing on the floor of her airy wooden house. Remembering the past still hurts, she said.

"Most of the time there was violence; there were no human rights for people like me."

Juriah was a member of Gam. She used to cook food for the fighters when they came down from the forest.

ACEH PROVINCE
map
Province on the north-western tip of Sumatra
High percentage of Muslims, and only province where Sharia law allowed
Separatist rebels fought decades-long campaign against Jakarta
December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami devastated region
New peace talks led to August 2005 agreement
December 2006 elections for governor and district leaders

Five months before the peace deal was signed, she was arrested while working in the fields near her home.

"They tied my hands and put me in the car. I was really scared. They slapped me, beat me, put a gun in my face," she said.

"They wanted me to admit I belonged to Gam and show them where others were. They blindfolded me and said 'what's your last request?" All I thought about then was death."

But Juriah is one of the lucky ones. Released after the peace agreement, she is taking part in a programme run by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), designed to help GAM members begin a new life.

Every day Juriah loads up her motorcycle with newly-stitched clothes, and heads out around the district to sell them door-to-door. It has made a little difference to the family income, and a big difference to Juriah's outlook on life. "I've already paid off the investment I made in buying my stock of clothes, she said, showing off the neat packets of cloth piled on the floor.

"Everything from here on is profit."

Economic hardship

Back at the coffee shop, Azhar and his friends are finding it harder to settle back into civilian life.

Despite government re-integration payments of $2,500 for each Gam member registered, many former fighters say they have received nothing.

Pidie in Aceh
Life is returning to normal in Pidie, but hardships remain

"I expected to receive the aid they promised us," Azhar said.

"It's causing me a lot of trouble. During the war, I lost a lot of things and now - after the peace - nothing has changed. Money, gold, my motorcycle. I've lost all that, and now I don't know where to start."

The government reintegration body says it has publicly handed over the money to the group's representatives.

Part of the problem is that only 3,000 names were on the official list of members put forward by Gam after the peace deal.

But as one former fighter put it: "There are more than that in Pidie alone."

As a senior member of the organisation, Azhar says his name was on the government list, but, he says, he has still seen nothing of the money he was expecting.

Some 150km away, in the offices of a pro-independence group, Sira, Ibnu Saman sits watching the election campaign and waiting for his life to restart.

He is waiting for financial help to re-integrate, but also for a sign from his former life that he is free to do so.

There is peace here now, he says, and that is good. But who knows what will happen with this election, who knows about the future. He says he is not making any plans at the moment, he will wait for instructions from his commanders.

According to the polls, the political picture here looks promising: 70% of Acehnese say they plan to vote.

But with the structure of Gam still strong at the grassroots, getting thousands of former fighters settled back into civilian life will be a key test for Aceh's new leaders.

And economic help for those who have come out of the forest could be as important for stability as the peace deal's guarantee of political autonomy.




SEE ALSO
Aceh wary over new Sharia police
08 Dec 06 |  Asia-Pacific
Viewpoints: Aceh's first elections
06 Dec 06 |  Asia-Pacific
Election campaign begins in Aceh
24 Nov 06 |  Asia-Pacific
Acehnese mark one year of peace
15 Aug 06 |  Asia-Pacific
Country profile: Indonesia
18 Oct 06 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Indonesia
18 Jul 06 |  Country profiles

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