Mon, 12 May 2003

Residents seek refuge from violence in Aceh as war looms

Nani Farida, The Jakarta Post, Banda Aceh

The Blang Badeh state elementary school in Bireuen regency, some 250 kilometers east of Banda Aceh, has become a makeshift refugee camp for hundreds of people fleeing violence in their remote villages.

Six days ago, their villages turned into a war zone between the Indonesian Military (TNI) and the separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM).

There are a total of 7,000 residents seeking refuge at a number of locations in the regency. Besides the Blang Bladeh elementary school, residents are also taking refuge at the Grand Mosque in Bireun. They residents come from eight villages in two districts, Jeumpa and Peudada.

"We took refuge after two residents were shot during the armed conflict," said Rusli, 50, a resident of Abu Usong village, where TNI and GAM engaged in a battle several days ago.

Rusli left behind his house and all of his cattle, and has not been back to his village for several days.

"Three youths were arrested by troops when they returned to their houses. They still have not been released as of today," Rusli told The Jakarta Post on Saturday.

Bireuen, a GAM stronghold on the province's east coast, has experienced an uptick in violence since the government decided not to attend a Joint Council meeting with GAM, which the government has accused of violating the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement signed by the two sides.

The government has demanded that GAM disarm and renounce its demand for independence as a precondition for moving ahead with the peace process. If the separatist movement refuses to meet these demands, the government has warned that it will launch a military operation in the province.

At least 471 of the refugees have fallen ill. One person was transported to the hospital for treatment because there is a limited supply of medicine at the refugee camps.

Heavy rain is contributing to the worsening condition at the camps. At the elementary school, many families are living in tents put up in an empty field next to the school.

Nyak Husna, an elderly woman, said she had slept out in the rain the past few nights.

Hundreds of children are among those taking refuge at the camp. Final exams are scheduled for May 12 to May 14 and it seems unlikely the children will be able to sit the exams.

"I am worried about the education of my grandson. He is all I have," said Jamilah of her grandson Anwar, an elementary school student.

Jamilah has raised her grandson since he was born. "I want him to become a good student. But that is unlikely to happen, right?"

Junaedi Abdullah, an unofficial spokesman for the refugees, said the refugees would return home only when the government provided them a security guarantee.

"The government has not ordered us to return home, nor has it provided any assistance. The government must be accountable," Junaedi said.

To provide for the refugees, Junaedi and a number of youths asks motorists for donations.

Junaedi said that after the peace agreement was signed last December he never imagined that he would have to flee his home.

"If this situation continues, we want freedom. Freedom from fear and hunger," he said.

Bireun Regent Mustafa Gelanggang said the refugee situation was serious and that the local administration was overwhelmed.

"Don't blame me if this matter turns into a humanitarian disaster in Aceh, which will cause people to oppose a military operation," Mustafa said.

Mustafa demanded the government, the military, the police and the Aceh provincial administration resolve the refugee problem.

If the number of refugees continues to increase, he said, it has the potential to cause rioting in Bireun.

"This will draw criticism from everyone," he said.