Thu, 29 May 2003

Acehnese flee their homes in fear of military sweep

The Jakarta Post, Lhokseumawe

Fatimah stopped a car carrying several journalists and begged them to load her belongings into the car.

"Please take my stuff to the Meunasah (mosque); I will follow you by bicycle," pleaded a trembling Fatimah.

Fatimah and her teenage daughter decided to abandon their village Krueng in Peudada district, Bireuen regency, on Wednesday after security conditions there worsened.

Obviously shocked by the turn of events in her village, Fatimah packed her belongings and headed for a community mosque, located one kilometer from her house.

As the journalists' car stopped, a villager named Ibrahim approached and asked if security in neighboring Lawang village had returned to normal.

"Please tell me what's happening there. I wish I could go back to my house but I'm so afraid. I don't have an ID card ... I only have this ... an old one. Can I return to my house?" Ibrahim asked.

As of Wednesday, more than 20,000 people had fled their homes and taken refuge in public buildings.

Residents of Krueng and Lawang villages are living in fear due to rumors that the Indonesian Military (TNI) will launch a massive offensive in their village against the poorly organized separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM), which security officers believe have established bases in the area.

On Wednesday, several journalists went to Krueng and Lawang after learning that local residents there were living in fear of TNI personnel, who apparently do ID checks on residents.

Most residents there have failed to produce ID cards, claiming that separatists took their ID cards. Fearing a military raid, men in the villages have fled into the forests.

Since Jakarta imposed martial law in Aceh two weeks ago, TNI personnel often do ID checks on villagers. Those failing to produce legitimate IDs are branded GAM members.

"My assistant was shot by soldiers ... I'm so afraid. What can I do? Can I go with you to the city?" Ibrahim asked. Only after visiting journalists told him to calm down and stay at the mosque did Ibrahim stop asking questions.

The Aceh Military Operation Command in Lhokseumawe has received a report describing violence committed by soldiers at Lawang village and has ordered a thorough investigation into the matter.

According to Operation Command spokesman Lt. Col. A. Yani Basuki, 66 government troops led by Second Lt. Fuad Suparlan arrested GAM member Abu Bakar alias Abdul Rahman alias Arum, 35.

"When soldiers tried to interrogate him, he tried to escape and kept running even though troops fired warning shots.

"In this case, our soldiers indicated that GAM rebels took ID cards belonging to villagers there," Yani said in response to questions about the incident at a news conference.

"We admit that soldiers were engaged in violence against villagers during a military raid there and we issued a strong warning about their behavior. We also ordered the soldiers' superior to take stern action against them," Yani said.

Asked what punishment would be meted out to such soldiers, Yani said: "It will depend on the results of the investigation conducted by us (the military), as well as several other legal considerations."