Tue, 05 Aug 2003

Acehnese traumatized by conflict

Tertiani ZB Simanjuntak, The Jakarta Post, Lhokseumawe, Aceh

Faudiah, 42, is still recovering from the traumatic experience of witnessing a murder in 2001.

The memory came back to haunt her when she was told that six of her neighbors in Rambot village, Lhok Sukon district, were killed in an armed clash recently.

"I cannot even stand to see my neighbor slap her naughty child. It's like witnessing torture. I cried and shouted. Sometimes I have goose bumps all over my body without knowing why. But I cannot stop the violence, better I don't see,' she said.

The woman is one of dozens of Aceh people being treated at the Trauma Center in Lhok Sukon, North Aceh regency.

They visit the center every Saturday for counseling to help control their fear of going outdoors.

Last Saturday was Faudiah's third visit and she is now able to remove her hands (from covering her eyes) when she goes outside.

The center -- jointly run by the state ministry of women's empowerment and the health ministry -- began operating on June 17, 2003, almost one month after the government launched its integrated operation to crush rebels in the province.

Limited facilities and manpower mean that the center can only offer patients who have recently suffered trauma simple treatment, including counseling using the cognitive therapy method, relaxation and the treatment of medical conditions related to the patients' mental state.

A similar center is situated in Pidie regency.

North Aceh and Pidie are known as the strongholds of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM).

Thanks to midwives in remote villages and the physicians of village health centers -- who directed patients with symptoms of distress and mental disorder to the center -- 39 residents have received treatment.

Most of the patients are housewives who obsess over the safety of their families. There are also six teenagers and six male adults being treated at the Lhok Sukon center.

"Many more will come because residents don't realize that they are suffering from trauma until later," Lukman Muhammad Nurdin, the physician who heads the center, said on Saturday.

He said his patients include civil servants, a regent's wife and a soldier.

"A bomb exploded next to him and killed a fellow soldier. He started to fear his own gun," he said, explaining the soldier's history.

He said another patient lost consciousness whenever he saw people dressed in military attire, regardless of their affiliation.

Lukman said that most of the patients complained about continuous headaches and heart problems. It would often take 10 minutes of interviewing before they were comfortable enough to share their stories. To encourage them to open up is the toughest part, he said.

A widow who was raped by three soldiers on June 21, refused to come to the center.

"She just wanted to know whether she had conceived, but with a lost look on her face she said she did not need any other treatment," Lukman said.

The soldiers were recently sentenced to between two-and-half years and three-and-half years of imprisonment.

The only psychologist in the center, Sri Afrianti, said she also expected the number of patients to increase.

"But the difficult part is to ask them to come here, they can't comprehend that if they come to terms with what happened they can begin to heal." Many of the patients said that their husbands complained of having to pay for transportation to the center although the treatment is free.

"They also told us that their domestic situations were falling apart as their fears were preventing them from working and family fights were ensuing," Sri said.

However, residents who have been refugees for over two months are not eligible for treatment at the center, although psychiatrists are sent to visit them at the shelter once a week.

Sondang Bandayani, who heads the Dayah Darul Aitam refugee shelter in Birem Bayeun district, East Aceh, said that the psychiatrist who comes every Wednesday doesn't have any patients.

"It means that none of the refugees are suffering from the distress of doing nothing in the shelter," she said.

But a different picture was evident after talking to the refugees, who spend most of their time sleeping or playing volley ball. The women can use sewing machines provided by the regent's wife, although only at a particular time on Sundays.

"Reporters, don't come here with your cameras. Bring money. We've been here for over two months and have no money for our children who keep on asking us to buy them snacks," Azarah, a resident of Simpang Peut hamlet of Rantau Seulamat village, said.

He said he had been diagnosed with anemia three days ago.

Head of the North Aceh's women empowerment office, Salwa, said that a similar facility for male residents should be established immediately, rather than both men and women being treated at the same center.