Thu, 20 Nov 2003

Traumatized children live in fear and suffering in Aceh

T. Sima Gunawan, Contributor, Jakarta

This special page is published to commemorate Children's Universal Day on Nov. 20 (today). We share our concern over the suffering of hundreds of thousands of children due to armed conflicts and the fate of the growing number of street kids.

Marzuki A from the National Commission of Human Rights for the Protection of Children was speechless as he listened to children in war-torn Aceh in July.

"They asked why their elementary school building was set on fire," Marzuki said. "They said they did not understand. And how could I explain because I myself don't know who set the fire and why all of this should happen."

Since the government imposed martial law in Aceh province on the northern tip of Indonesia's Sumatra island in May, more than 500 school buildings have been razed by fire, affecting 100,000 students. The Indonesian Military (TNI) pointed the finger at the separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM), which has blamed the TNI.

Until today, no one has claimed responsibility for the attacks. And most people in the first place remain confused -- if not upset -- by the launch of the military operation in Aceh, which has made the Acehnese suffer.

Children in Aceh suffer not only because their school buildings were ruined by the fire, which forced them to study under makeshift tents. Many live in fear or pain because their parents, siblings, relatives or friends have been killed, wounded, tortured, raped or detained in the prolonged conflict.

Some 10,000 people were killed while many were reportedly raped by members of the military during the period of the military operation zone (DOM) between 1989 and 1998 in the province, which has abundant gas and oil.

From May this year until late in June, at least 100 civilians have been killed, 52 injured and 57 are missing. At that time, it was reported that 174 GAM members were killed and 206 detained, while 24 TNI members were killed and 69 injured.

Earlier this month, it was reported that 2,600 GAM members had been killed, captured or injured. Tens of thousands of civilians were evacuated. Some went to refugee camps voluntarily while others were forced to leave their homes.

"During the evacuation process in Central Aceh that took place not long after the military operation started, a three-day old baby died," Marzuki said.

Despite the toll of casualties and victims, which continues to rise daily, the government decided to extend the martial law for another six months, saying it needs more time to crush the rebels.

Before the government implemented the military operation in Aceh last May, they pledged to impose humanitarian programs to alleviate the victims' misery. Food, medicine and other aid were sent to the area. This, however, has obviously failed to heal the pain of the people, especially the children.

The war always put them in trauma. In the case of children, this will greatly affect their development. When they grow up, they might easily turn violent because of the grudge they will bear for years.

"Those children must be immediately rehabilitated. We have talked with the Ministry of Social Affairs about the need to set up a trauma center, but so far it has not been realized," Marzuki told The Jakarta Post last week.

The National Commission for Human Rights for the Protection of Children underlines three things stipulated in the Convention of the Rights of Children and Law No. 2/2002 on the protection of children. First, children under 15 years of age should not be involved in the war, directly or indirectly. Second, there should be a guarantee for the protection and care of children affected by the armed conflict. Third, there should be a correct action to improve the physical and psychological rehabilitation for the children as well as social integration in an environment that is conducive for the health and dignity of the children.

In reality, however, things are different.

Many children are involved in the conflict, directly or indirectly. Some of them joined GAM in the war, while others become cantoi or a spy. The deployment of children and teenagers to become a spy apparently is not practiced by GAM only, but also by the TNI.

There is no data about children who are involved in the war. But the National Commission for Human Rights found that at least three children had been killed since May.

Acehnese children know nothing about politics and might have different views about nationalism. Those whose family members were crushed by the military might hate TNI and consider GAM leaders their heroes.

They might not understand about the war, why it happens and what the disputed parties want. What they know is that the war has brought them sorrow and grief. It affects children, not only in the black spots, but also in other areas. They are no longer free to play outside their house after the sun goes down, especially because of the night curfew. Gunfire often wakes them from their sleep and scares them, even though they are used to hearing the sounds.

The heartbreaking condition of children in the conflict areas has moved a number of local women to set up a group called Women Volunteers for Humanity. The members include housewives, students, lecturers, lawyers, nurses and NGO activists.

They conduct several programs for the children in the refugee camps to address their health and development problems. Recreation activities are regularly conducted to help the children cope with their trauma.

The children are indeed in need of help, but the fact that Aceh is under martial law has caused another problem as in a way it has become isolated from other provinces throughout the country as the government has halted its postal and courier services to the province.

"We have collected some 100 story books for children in the evacuation camps. We wanted to send them to an NGO in Banda Aceh, but the post office said they couldn't deliver the package," Rita, a resident of Bekasi, east of Jakarta, said.

The government's decision to extend martial law in Aceh for another six months will obviously make the children suffer more. There is no guarantee that after six months, the war is over. And even if the war is over, the trauma will remain.

The government should listen to the call of the people to immediately end the martial law and seek a peaceful way to settle the problems, no matter how difficult it is. Violence brings no good as every drop of blood that is shed is followed by the flow of tears of many. And the pain is hard to heal.