Sat, 25 Jan 2003

Acehnese child beggars dream of school

Ibnu Mat Noor, The Jakarta Post, Banda Aceh

There are fears that tens of thousands of children estimated to have been forced to abandon schooling in Aceh are a time bomb waiting to explode.

The Child Protection Institute (LPA), a non-governmental organization, in Banda Aceh claimed on Thursday that more than 150,000 children under the age of 17 had had their education disrupted by the 26-year-old civil war.

Though official estimates put the figure at 28,000 children, it is still in excess of the 22,000 security force members serving in the resources-rich province.

Joni Iskandar, 12, and Ulis, 13, once never dreamed of leaving school but when war darkened their village's doorsteps two-years ago they fled to the provincial capital Banda Aceh to beg for their very survival.

"I wish I could go to school. I don't want to keep begging like this. Neither does my younger brothers in Meulaboh. But we have nobody to ask for help, our father's already handicapped," a crying Joni told The Jakarta Post earlier this week.

The fourth-grade elementary school dropout from Ujong Kalak village, Meulaboh, West Aceh, said he, his mother Asnida and a 1- year-old brother earned less than Rp 10,000 a day.

Asnida said any money left over from eating twice a day was sent home to her three children and husband who was left paralyzed from the neck down after he was tortured by Indonesian security forces.

"My second and third children have left school, too, and the fourth is crippled and dumb. They live with their father," she said.

Her husband Zainuddin, 35, had been a construction worker.

After a day of begging at the Taman Sari intersection, the three sleep in a shanty on Jalan Seulawah. It costs Rp 40,000 a month. "We haven't got enough to pay this month's rent yet."

Joni said he longed to return to school to study alongside children his own age but realized the family was too poor for him to be able to fulfill his dream.

He is not alone. Ulis, a 13-year-old girl, also roams the same street.

"I come from Tapaktuan village. I haven't attended school for two years now. I joined the others here to survive," Ulis told the Post.

After being forced to abandon school in the fifth grade, Ulis said she still wished to return. "But I have no money. My parents are divorced."

Hundreds of children can be observed begging in Banda Aceh. They sleep wherever they can find space and there are fears that many are addicted to drugs, including glue inhaled for a cheap but dangerous high.

Psychologist Nurjannah Nitura said every street child had the potential to learn and contribute to society.

The psychologist suggested the government consider alternative education methods to get the most out of the children.

Asked about the Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam regional administration's responsibility for the children, Syahbuddin AR, head of Aceh's education office, said funds had been allocated to solve the issue.

He put the figure of children deprived access to education at 28,000.

He said Rp 10 billion had been allotted from the regional budget for 2002 to, among other things, rebuild torched schools. Schools and teachers have been fair game in the dirty war.

In his explanation to the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras), Syahbuddin said the allocations had already reached the East Aceh and North Aceh regencies. Other regencies would be paid soon.

"Just imagine what would happen to this province if the 28,000 youngsters now denied education later became 'rebels' opposing the authorities that ignore them," Syahbuddin said.

The director of LPA, Abdul Gani Nurdin, called on the relevant parties to pay special attention to the issue as part of a comprehensive solution to the bloody conflict.

"A majority of the children have lost their parents and homes and they are now street children begging from motorists for survival," he said.

He suggested the government send them back to school to prevent them from taking revenge in the future.