Sun, 25 May 2003

Famine a new threat as war continues

Nani Farida and Tiarma Siboro, The Jakarta Post, Banda Aceh/Lhokseumawe

After six days of clashes between the Indonesian Military (TNI) and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) separatists, famine became a real possibility as staple foods ran out in several parts of the province.

Muhammad, a resident of Jeumpa subdistrict in Bireuen regency, said the regency had been suffering from electricity blackouts since the beginning of the military operation on Monday, and residents had started to skip meals as food was scarce in the isolated area.

"We only have a limited supply of staple foods, and sometimes we share our meals with neighbors who were unable to find food," the 65-year-old told The Jakarta Post on Saturday.

The Post saw electricity poles and trees felled along the road connecting Bireuen and the provincial capital of Banda Aceh. Irrigation canals were smashed, causing water to flood streets and houses.

No public transportation was seen passing the area for reasons of security. Muhammad said even cars carrying journalists were shot at in several parts of the regency.

He was disappointed that the TNI troops posted in the regency failed to protect the food supply and provide security.

"About five days ago, possible GAM members took away our identity cards and the TNI only responded by imposing a curfew at six in the evening," he said, adding that people were desperately in need of humanitarian assistance.

Distribution of food has given the local administration a headache since the full-blown military operation was resumed in the province. Security concerns have prevented truck drivers, who used to deliver basic commodities from the neighboring provincial capital of Medan to Banda Aceh, from operating.

The Post saw three trucks packed high with vegetables were set on fire en route from Bireuen and neighboring Pidie, while gunfights were heard in the distance.

In Banda Aceh, the prices of staple foods such as sugar, cooking oil and eggs increased by up to 30 percent and stock was beginning to dwindle.

Gasoline distribution and supply were also disturbed, especially in the areas hardest hit by the conflict, such as North Aceh and Pidie. Police and military troops were seen guarding gas stations across the provincial capital from possible arson attacks.

To ensure the distribution of food, Aceh Governor Abdullah Puteh said all trucks carrying staple foods would be protected by the military and were instructed to travel in a convoy.

"Around 100 trucks will resume the delivery of staples as soon as possible, under the guard of the TNI," the governor said after meeting with land transportation owners on Saturday.

The martial law administrator also announced that final exams for elementary school students would go ahead as scheduled, starting Monday.

At least 387 school buildings across the province have been burned down in the past five days, and tens of thousands of students have had their schooling interrupted, with only about a month remaining in the academic year.

Materials for the final exams had reportedly already been sent to most schools, including those in Lhokseumawe, where most of the schools had been razed.

TNI said it would restore school buildings in the province, starting Monday.

Teuku Umar district military commander Col. Gerhan Lantara said upon his visit on Saturday to a high school in Aceh Besar regency that the military would cooperate with local community figures and heads of villages that had lost their schools.

Gerhan said the reconstruction work might last three to four weeks.

Aceh has a total of 4,864 public schools, including Islamic schools, spread over 20 districts.

Meanwhile, 50 tents donated to house temporary schools from the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef) are expected to reach Jakarta on Sunday morning before being flown to Aceh.

To support the crackdown on the rebels, the Indonesian police has asked neighboring countries Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore to hunt down any GAM members seeking asylum abroad.

National Police Chief Gen. Da'i Bachtiar said in Bandung on Saturday that they had asked the Thai government to arrest GAM leader Zakirah Zaman, who had reportedly sought asylum in the country sometime ago.

Clashes continued to break out on Saturday in several parts of the province, with TNI claiming to have killed 53 GAM members as of Saturday.

Government troops also managed to capture a GAM commander, Teungku Hassan Muda, on Nasi Island off Banda Aceh. Along with him, TNI confiscated an AK-47 riffle, several GAM documents and a compass.

Following its new policy regarding media coverage, the martial law administration asked two journalists to join a military unit to verify reports that seven civilians had been shot dead by TNI soldiers during a clash on Thursday with rebels in Cot Ijo village, Bireuen.

The two reporters from Tempo News Room went to the scene of incident, where four witnesses provided by the military were waiting to tell their accounts.

The villagers said the seven people who were killed had been GAM members who had mingled with residents for around one week before martial law was imposed in Aceh.

A group of fellow journalists accompanied the visit as witnesses.

One of the residents, Halim of neighboring Abeuk Jaloh village, said he recognized the seven rebels as GAM spies whose job was to inform fellow rebels if military soldiers arrived in villages in the area.

"I wasn't there during the clash, but when I came to the site, I recognized the dead as GAM members," Halim said.

TNI headquarters has said it would file a complaint against the media for allegedly printing inaccurate reports.

"This is all part of our investigation as to whether or not our soldiers had violated the law. I hope the press will be able to seek clarification and write accurate stories about any incidents here. Don't create a story without clear evidence," Commander of Aceh Military Police Col. Maman Taryana, who accompanied the journalists, said.