Wed, 15 Jan 2003

JSC escorts 2,500 Aceh refugees back home

Nani Farida, The Jakarta Post, Banda Aceh, Aceh

More than 2,500 people who fled eight villages late last month for fears of attacks have returned home in the troubled province of Aceh after receiving a security guarantee from the Joint Security Commission (JSC), officials here said on Tuesday.

The refugees were repatriated by at least 22 trucks to their villages in Lhoksukon subdistrict in North Aceh on Monday under the escort of nine JSC members, Henry Dunant Centre (HDC) representative and peace mediator David Gorman told The Jakarta Post.

The repatriation followed negotiations between JSC officials and the refugees on Sunday.

The JSC officials based in the district of North Aceh had visited the villages in question to ensure that peace was restored there before persuading the refugees to go home.

M. Syahril Basyah, one of the refugees, said he and other victims were willing to return home after the JSC promised them with a security guarantee.

"The repatriation of these refugees shows that security mechanisms established recently by the JSC are working," Gorman said.

The villagers had fled to take refuge in a mosque and an elementary school at Nga Mantang Ubi village, some 15 kilometers east of Lhokseumawe in East Aceh district, on Dec. 30, 2002 to escape possible attacks and terror.

According to local village heads, the exodus was sparked by the establishment of government military posts located in and around the eight villages, which they feared would be used to launch attacks against civilian Acehnese.

The village heads said soldiers had ordered them to expel local civilians who patrolled their villages at night, but they refused to do so and ran away.

Other villagers then followed suit to escape possible brutality by troops stationed at the two newly established military posts, the village heads added.

Gorman said the JSC in North Aceh would continue monitoring the returning refugees to make sure that they remained safe in their villages, despite the continued presence of the military.

The repatriation of refugees was one of the most important programs being to date, and was prioritized by the JSC, which includes GAM members, government and foreign representatives appointed by the Geneva-based HDC.

Despite the efforts by the HDC, around 600 refugees are still refusing to leave the relative safety of a mosque in the Bagok area in Nurussalam subdistrict, East Aceh, and 200 others are also staying at Lhoknibong village in the regency.

"They do not dare to go home because they are still traumatized," said Marzuki, an activist from the People Crisis Centre (PCC) based in East Aceh.

He said those currently in Bagok arrived on Dec. 10 last month, one day after the peace deal was signed between the government and the rebel Free Aceh Movement (GAM).

And the 200 refugees at Lhoknibong have been languishing there for nearly two years after they fled their villages in fear when another military post was built, Marzuki added.

However, Aceh's Iskandar Muda Military chief Maj. Gen. Djali Yusuf denied that the establishment of the military posts prompted thousands of villagers to flee their homes after the Dec. 5 truce.

"Such allegations have been manufactured," he said without elaborating further.

Djali claimed that the military had began, as a policy, establishing such military posts in several villages a long time ago to "ensure security and peace for locals".

"Yesterday they (villagers) asked us to maintain the posts, why do they change minds now?" he wondered, adding that the soldiers will continue to stay at the posts.

Djali said he has yet to receive an order from the top military chief in Jakarta to cease or reduce the presence of the military in villages.

Since the signing of the peace deal on Dec. 9, at least 12 civilians, three rebels and four police and military members have been killed, the HDC has said.

An average of 87 civilians were killed every month in most of 2002 and an estimated 10,000 people have died since the separatist conflict began in Aceh in 1976.