Wed, 16 Apr 2003

Fear, uncertainty return to Aceh as tension rises

Nani Farida, The Jakarta Post, Banda Aceh

Fear and uncertainty is once again gripping Aceh province as tension rises between the government and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) over the implementation of the peace accord signed last December.

Residents in Bireun and Pidie regencies told The Jakarta Post on Tuesday that they had restricted their movements, especially in the evening, to avoid being hit by crossfire as armed encounters between government troops and the rebels had taken place every night in the region.

"There are armed clashes every night," said Muhibbudin, a resident of Bireun.

He said residents of Bireun town stayed inside their homes from late afternoon for security reasons.

"We can only pray that a shootout does not take place in front of our homes," he added.

Muhibuddin said Bireun, located some 200 kilometers east of Banda Aceh, was a ghost city until 2001, but came to life after the signing of the peace agreement in December. However, it was once again becoming like a ghost town.

The government and GAM inked a landmark accord last December under which both parties agreed to end all hostilities in the province.

The rebels, who have been fighting for independence for the resource-rich province since 1976, also accepted the special autonomy arrangement as the sole basis for future negotiations. The movement also agreed to lay down its arms in stages beginning in February.

In return, the government agreed to stop all military operations and move troops from offensive to defensive positions. The government also pledged to retrain the elite Mobile Brigade paramilitary police from a combat force into a regular police force in charge of peace and order in the troubled province. Unfortunately, both parties have failed to keep their word.

In Sigli, Pidie regency, some 110 kilometers east of Banda Aceh, local residents have also decided to stay home in the evening.

"We are afraid the security situation will worsen in this part of Aceh," a Pidie resident said.

Even in the provincial capital of Banda Aceh, local residents also avoid going out in the evening.

"Before we could come home late in the evening, now we are afraid to do that," said Taryo, 32, a pedicab driver waiting for passengers outside the Stui bus terminal in Banda Aceh.

The Stui bus terminal, the biggest in Banda Aceh, has been largely deserted in the evenings for the past two months.

Virtually all bus passengers now prefer to travel by day, especially those going to Medan in neighboring North Sulawesi.

Abdullah, a bus ticket seller in Stui bus terminal, told the Post on Tuesday that the number of bus passengers going to Medan had dropped over the past two months.

"Soon after the signing of the peace accord, bus tickets for night trips were always sold out, but now very few are sold," Abdullah said without mentioning any figures.

Nia, a student from Medan, said traveling by night had become dangerous lately as both government troops and the rebels mounted checkpoints along the road.

"Searches by either side are equally frightening; they are not reluctant to shoot if they get upset," said Nia, 20, a student from Medan studying in Banda Aceh.

Banda Aceh enjoyed a mini boom in December, with vendors selling fried rice, satay and betel nut until early morning.

Now, however, the city is largely deserted by 10 p.m.

"We cannot sell our stuff anymore," complained Yunus, a fried rice vendor in front of the Baiturrahman Grand Mosque, located in the heart of Banda Aceh.

"Why is the peace slipping away so fast. We have a hard time earning a living now," said Isah, 56, a betel nut trader in Banda Aceh.