Thu, 03 Apr 2003

Thousands of Aceh students may miss national exams

Nani Farida, The Jakarta Post, Banda Aceh

Despite the peace accord, thousands of Acehnese students in Bireuen may not be able to sit national examinations in May because they have been forced to abandon their villages due to the worsening security situation in the regency.

So far, 23 elementary and junior high schools in the regency have closed as the students and many of the teachers have taken refuge following the establishment of new security posts and frequent clashes between security personnel and rebels in the last two months.

More than 9,000 people, mostly from Keudeu July district, have fled their homes. Some are sheltering at the Jamiek Grand Mosque in the capital town of Bireuen, while others have fled the region altogether.

A further 500 families from Central Aceh have also taken refuge for two months in Banda Aceh, following the rampant intimidation and terror launched by rebels and security personnel following riots in the province early last month.

Two elderly refugees have died in Zainoel Abidin General Hospital in the city.

The chief of the local education office in Bireuen, Abdul Wahab Ismail, confirmed the new wave of refugees and said this would raise new problems for the upcoming national exams.

"We are seeking to establish new tents and buildings near where the students and their parents are taking refugee, to provide classes for the students so they can participate in the national exams," he said.

Bireuen regency legislative council deputy chairman Syamaun Arifin regretted the worsening situation, saying the local administration would give serious attention to the refugee problem, that could effect the peace agreement in the province.

He said that after visiting refugees, the local administration would provide humanitarian aid, especially food and medicine, to help the refugees survive.

"The refugees' condition is sorrowful. The rainy season brings more difficulties," he said, adding that medical staff from the public health center and the local chapter of the Indonesian Red Cross (PMI) were seeing between 250 patients and 300 patients everyday.

He said hundreds of refugees were suffering from diarrhea, coughing, malaria, fever and skin diseases. Many were undergoing intensive treatment at the Dr Fauziah General Hospital in Bireuen.

Several refugees said they were too scared to return home.

Bireuen is one of eight regencies considered strongholds of the free Aceh Movement (GAM). The others are Aceh Besar, North Aceh, Aceh Pidie, East Aceh, West Aceh, Aceh Singkil and Central Aceh.

Governor Abdulla Puteh conceded on Monday that 30 percent of people in the regencies had rejected the government.

So far, both local security authorities and GAM have yet to comply with the five-month demilitarization program that started on Feb. 9.

Furthermore, GAM has intensified its 'tax' collection from the people to recruit new members and purchase weapons while security personnel have extorted motorists, causing unrest among the people.