Thu, 19 Jun 2003

Acehnese tell of forced evacuations

The Jakarta Post, Pidie/Jakarta

While in most parts of Aceh people seek shelter to get away from the frequent gunfights between government troops and Free Aceh Movement (GAM) fighters, hundreds of residents in Pidie have been displaced following a military search for rebels.

Muara Tiga district chief Asiah said on Wednesday over 360 local people had been hiding in the forest of a nearby hill for the last four days to escape the military sweeps.

"They are trapped in a GAM area and their fate remains uncertain so far," Asiah said.

He said most of refugees in the district had been evacuated to Keuneree Sigli field, which is now home to nearly 1,800 people from Batee, Ingin Jaya, Tuha Biheue and Papeen subdistricts.

Some of the refugees said they were told by security officers to abandon their homes to enable the troops to search for rebels.

"I was told to take refuge and I did that," Sapiah told The Jakarta Post, She did not bring any furniture or appliances, food or clothes with her as she had to leave the village immediately.

"I didn't even know that I would be here," Sapiah said.

Another in the same situation as Sapiah was Murni, 35, from Batee village, who admitted to having been forced to leave the village. Murni said she and her neighbors were taken away in military trucks.

There are around 40,000 refugees across the province since the operation to quell rebellion in the natural resource-rich province began in earnest in late May. Most of the refugees are in Bireuen regency.

While refugees in Bireuen languish in harsh conditions, others in the regency of East Aceh sleep on their own mattresses, enjoy electricity and may watch television, evidence that the distribution of humanitarian aid during the ongoing war in Aceh has so far been uneven.

About 2,060 people or 400 families from three districts in East Aceh set up camp at a unused field in the village of Birem Raye in Rantau Selamet district on June 9.

The camp boasted four wooden barracks for women and children, three tents with wooden floors for the males, and three more that served as schools. Many refugees brought along their mattresses and the electricity was working.

Fans keep them cool, while lamps, radios and television sets added to their convenience.

One of the refugees, Hasballah from the village of Alue Kool in the Rantau Selamet district, said they fled their homes because groups of armed men had terrorized them at nights. The groups, he said, also collected the villagers' ID cards, in a practice authorities have blamed on the rebels. Rebels allegedly collect the ID cards from the civilians to make it harder for the authorities to identify them.

Despite claims that the humanitarian operation had proceeded smoothly along with the military operation, Coordinating Minister for People's Welfare Jusuf Kalla said on Wednesday that the government was unprepared for the amount of people seeking shelter in camps built by the local administration.

Refugees in the Cot Gapo camp in Bireuen complained about diseases resulting from the lack of sanitary facilities and clean water.

Kalla said that he government had delivered 20 more water truck containers to the regency from Medan, and another 15 containers would follow.

The government has allocated Rp 400 billion for its humanitarian mission in Aceh.

Rights groups have said the military operation had triggered a humanitarian crisis and a surge in rights abuses against Acehnese, with little done so far to address those concerns.

Meanwhile, in what will likely test the government's resolve to strengthen law and order in Aceh, a police Mobile Brigade (Brimob) officer has been detained on charges of raping a 15-year-old girl.

The student from the Gelanggang Tengah village in Jeumpa district said she was raped on her way home from school in the Bireuen regency by the Brimob officer who was guarding a post along the regency's main road connecting the province's capital Banda Aceh with the North Sumatra capital of Medan.