Table of Contents

2005 • Help or Hope for the Acehnese? The Human Face of War, by Nadine Hoover September 2005, unpublished manuscript.

Gifts from the Heart

The question is always the same, “Why do you want to help?” I arrived in Aceh in March 2005 to coordinate assistance for an international non-governmental organization as part of the great outpouring of compassion from the world. The compassion is real. Common people, the world over, saw people lose loved ones, homes, livelihoods, their whole lives in the earthquakes and tsunami. Common people everywhere, spend our lives working hard to build a life for our families and communities. To lose it all and start over from scratch is the common person’s worst nightmare. In addition, many, many people care about other people’s lives. Those, with a little extra, sent what they could.

When I arrived at the office to find out what the “tsunami fund” was, I went to the mailroom to talk to the people who opened the letters. They told their story with tears in their eyes. There were piles and piles of letters, simple letters, some in rough handwriting, “Please do what you can to help.” In the envelopes were small bills taken from people’s pockets. Most of the gifts would amount to little more than the equivalent of 50,000 Indonesian rupiah, but multiplied by thousands of people, the sums added up. Many of these people had so little money themselves they had no bank accounts—a hard life in an expensive country. Yet they understood what it meant to have little to begin with, to lose it all and then to try to start over. The mail attendants had never before seen anything like these thousands of letters from all over the country. When I arrived in Aceh, it was clear to me that these bits of money were gifts from the heart to the heart.

Aceh is a land of war, a thirty-year war. Most people in Aceh remember nothing else but life in the midst of war. For them, to help someone is seriously dangerous. If someone comes to the shop or to your home and asks for help, your legs go weak and your hands start to shake, breathing becomes difficult. What if you don’t help? Will they beat you? Will they burn down your place? Will they abuse or kill your family? If you don’t help them, will they assume you support “the other side”? Are they who they say they are? Maybe they are independence fighters dressed up as military or military dressed up as independence fighters, testing to see if you support “the other side.” Put in the position of having to decide whether or not to help is very uncomfortable and clearly not safe.

When I first arrived in Aceh, this is what I was told, “Don’t help anyone. Give a cigarette to someone on the street with someone else watching, they assume you know each other. It’s enough to get you killed. To survive here, don’t help anyone you don’t know personally.” That’s a tall order in the face of hundreds of thousands of refugees.

No wonder Acehnese ask over and over, “Why do people want to help?” Trust in the goodness of people doesn’t resonate with their experience. The answer, “because we care” is not adequate. They go away still wondering, “But why?”

I told them, “Many people in the world don’t feel safe.” Acehnese readily identify with this. Many people in my country know that massive shows of military force make the world even less safe. We believe in the power of goodness, friendship and caring among ordinary people. We find a sense of security in developing friendships, getting to know one another. You don’t want to hurt someone who is your friend; you want to go and talk to them and work out your problems and differences. The people who reached out to you at this time feel it is one small way to reach out in friendship in a world where friendship is our only sense of safety for the future of humanity.

Also, many people in the world feel like this disaster could happen to them. We know the rainy seasons in places like Indonesia, which just over five years ago came and went like clockwork, have become extremely erratic. Use of fossil fuels is disrupting the planet’s climatic systems. People who sent these funds live in a country that uses much fossil fuel. They are religious people who know that when human beings act as little gods using money and power to do “whatever we like,” we are playing with fire and sooner or later will get burnt. Many educated people are scared, not only of terrorism, but of massive environmental devastation. We have the haunting sense that in only a few years, we will become refugees. When the fossil fuel runs out, where will we go? We may pour into villages seeking refuge with people who still know how to live off the land.

When I give Acehnese this image, villagers and taxi drivers alike laugh heartily, as we drive past the shadow of one of Exxon Mobile’s major production sites. The glass walls of wealthy banks tower over people who are so destitute that leprosy and tuberculosis are common place. One of the tragedies of war is the destruction of the public health system. No funds for transportation, corruption of public services and fear of traveling out to local villages together bring the public health system to a halt. The idea of the world’s rich and powerful becoming refugees surprises common Acehnese, and it warms their hearts to think that the world may need them again someday.

Yet I always end my response with the main point. Truly, the contributions I bring are from simple people who care about people everywhere. Even under the best of circumstances, even without a war and a devastated economy, many people in all countries struggle to survive and support their families. Others know how hard it is. Most people, however, have no idea how much harder it is to survive and support a family in Aceh, where hope is in shorter supply than help.

The Journey

One’s sense of safety perpetually changes from area to area in Aceh. The journey for a foreigner begins in Banda Aceh. It is the single point of entry. All foreigners must report to the provincial police department in Banda Aceh to secure a police identification card to work in Aceh. Tourism is not allowed. Special permits to be in Aceh are granted to those who are present to deliver relief and aid to tsunami victims.

Leaving Banda Aceh, one drives east into a thirty-year armed conflict between the independence movement and national forces. Just outside of the capital city, reporting to police headquarters in Banda Aceh is enough. Yet as we drive to villages, local humanitarian aid workers say it’s not always safe to make trips to the villages. In the past several months, they have been detained for interrogation or caught in crossfire. As we drive to villages struck by the tsunami, occasionally they tell stories. “It was somewhere on this road we lost one of our community organizers a couple months ago. We never know if we will be coming home tonight.” They are careful and slow down whenever they pass a police or military post.

Driving farther from the capital city, humanitarian aid workers point out military cars. “How do you know?” I ask.  “See the bullet holes in the lower driver’s side? Only military dare drive a car with bullet holes.” If we get caught in crossfire and the car is hit, the car is useless after that.

They point out bamboo knockers on the backs of bicycles, militarizing the civilian population. If independence fighters appear in a village, people are supposed to knock. If one person knocks, everyone is supposed to knock and the military comes. In such an environment, the room for neutral civilian life becomes very small; everyone is forced to take a side, like it or not. We slow down prepared to stop and wave as we pass military or police. Quick movements are suspicious. Conversation slows; everyone’s alert.

Driving farther still, I immediately report to district police headquarters. They request a copy of my passport, visa, provincial police photo identification, assignment letter (surat tugas), locations of our work, and brochures. Most local humanitarian workers stay fairly close to the cities now. As we go to a colleague’s home in a village, we’re flagged down at the military post. “Please get out of the car, all of you.” Heightened suspicion heightens anxiety. Mistakes can be fatal. He’s firm. “Where are your papers?” My colleagues fumble with their bags. They don’t have surat tugas and I recognize the panic on their faces. I step up, “They brought me to speak with tsunami victims about their needs. Here is my surat tugas and police identification. District police headquarters office has all my papers. We have no activities here, but if we begin activities we will report immediately.” Finally he says this is sufficient. It’s a while before people begin to breathe easily again.

We stop two more times: an officer on the road gives us his hand phone number—if we encounter problems, we should call him—and at another post they ask us to come in, speak politely to me and harshly to my colleagues. Everyone smiles as we leave. Again it’s a while before all breath normally. I planned to spend the night to distribute food aid the next day to villagers who three and half months after the tsunami still have received no food or basic needs. They have been living off relatives and scavenging along the sea shore for tiny fish. Much of the larger fish population was pulled out to sea with the tsunami and with no boats and nets; there is no hope of catching any fish.

As we drive, we come around a corner where the woods end and low brush opens up before us. The road is curving and we can’t see far. The driver slows to a creep. It’s mid afternoon and all is quiet. What made him slow? Was it the quiet? Was it the type of area? Suddenly cross fire breaks out in front of us. We pull over and wait it out. Quiet returns, but it is not comforting. The noise lets you know where danger lies. Quiet only heightens the sense of danger. Danger lurks everywhere. It comes out of nowhere. Quiet is not reassuring to a civilian; it is worse than the fighting itself.

A military operation was clearly underway. We receive instant messages on our phones. Word has it, the operation will continue the next day. I should leave. I instant message the officer from my hand phone to say I’ve left the area safely. He sends a message back, he’s glad I’m okay. He sends me messages the following few days. He hopes my work went smoothly. He calls me a few more times. It turns out he once knew a European humanitarian aid worker in the area. Everyone in the surrounding villages loved her, she was so kind. He had gotten close to her and they discussed getting married and moving back to her home. At the time he didn’t want to leave his parents and family and was scared to go with her. He regrets it now, life is so hard. He wonders if I am married and would like to take him out of his situation. I assure him my children are already grown and I am not looking for such a relationship. I can hear the sadness in his voice. If he had known then what he knows now, he would have left when he had the chance.

I return to the city. Rather than go on to meet local humanitarian workers, they come to the nearby city. They say, “It’s more comfortable to work here.” We look over maps. They point out the twenty some villages hit directly by the tsunami. It’s hard to tell exactly how many, since several of them are too dangerous to enter.

The data from the United Nations coordinated data sight (HIC) was completely useless. I called every international NGO on its list to find out what activities they had.

Of the half dozen INGOs listed as working in the area, none of them actually had any activities. They all decided to work elsewhere instead. One very small INGO hired Acehnese staff and placed them in the district capitol, but did not notify anyone that they were there and did not feel they could actually do much to help.

The data on the UN information web site reported many refugees were from the villages around the district capital. Local NGO workers said the information came from local government (Pemda) sources. The information was collected in the first week or ten days after the tsunami. Many government officials, police, military and their family members were lost in the tsunami. Communication lines were broken. People in the official chain of communication were either dead or looking for loved ones. It was a hard time. The information they collected was from areas closest to government offices. Many people from the coastline had fled inland, but only for three or four days. After that, they returned to their homes. They had not lost their homes and livelihoods, they were just terrified. INGOs that checked this data concluded that there was not a need in this area.

Yet farther up the shore, in the heart of the fighting, thousands of people lost homes and more lost livelihoods. None of their data, however, was recorded. Their boats, nets, fish farming ponds and so forth were destroyed. In an area already severely depressed by conflict, losing the little they had left was devastating. When I requested security information from U.N. program staff, they said I had to ask their Director of Security. He laughed. “Who sent you here?” “Program staff,” I replied. “What? They know we have no security information for that region. We only have security information for areas where we have staff.” I told him they did not know this, they told me they had programs in the area. I was told that the U.N. had access to the entire coastline of Aceh. He laughed again. The area hit by the tsunami was so massive, everyone assumes that the places they haven’t gone to are being taken care of the same way as the ones they have gone to. He said, “Yes, the U.N. was given access, but we are only allowed to go where we are invited. The U.N. was only invited from Banda Aceh to Meulaboh. We have not been invited elsewhere.” No wonder their data is invalid for other areas—they aren’t using it themselves. I was upset that their own staff was not aware of this, although with the massiveness of the disaster, I sympathize with how this could happen.

I spoke with the head of the district intelligence office for the protection of foreigners. I told him I had not planned to work in the area, but it appeared as if there were great needs for help. He agreed and gave me permission to work in the area—just remember, he emphasized, it’s not safe! I assured him I would use great care and community organizers from the villages themselves. I will call to inform an intelligence officer each time I plan to enter an area and again once I have left so they always know where I am. Being predictable puts everyone more at ease. I must remember that I am their responsibility. If anything happens to me, they their job will be in question.

The following day, just before nine in the morning on the main highway, there is automatic weapon firing. A man staggers onto the road and falls down in front of our car, his side covered in blood. The driver drives past him saying, “No. Can’t get involved.” Shaken, wondering who it was, wondering if it was a fighter or a civilian caught in the middle, calls are made to see if anyone in the area will look into it. The driver asks us to open our windows so it’s easy to see into the car. We slow down and wave or stop at the posts as they wish. We drive only on the main highway. If I decide to drive into a village, a military escort will be required. For now, I monitor our work in this area by knowing similar villages, knowing the local staff and their work, and viewing photographs. We take precautions.

It’s hard to comprehend degrees of safety. One violent incident takes away one’s sense of safety nearly as much as daily violence. Can a sense of safety be photographed? Can the way people breathe be photographed? Humanitarian workers gauge degrees of safety, with patience, time, and faith in the humanity of all of us to find a peaceful way forward. How many layers of danger can a people withstand?


Late one night, women are gathered in a bedroom. Most of the talk is of how hard it is to make a living. Their identification cards are held at the command post even though the Peace Accord has been signed. They carry copies with police stamps on them. They have to report to the post every three days and deliver an “adequate” portion of their proceeds. The police know how much they can fish in three days and expect their portions. In walking between neighborhoods in the same village, one may get stopped. Sometimes people walk the long way around to avoid the posts.

One young woman was telling me about a night when her older sister left the baby on a mat on the floor and asked her to watch the child. She was so tired. She didn’t want to watch the child. She was sitting on the bed when the child began to whine. “Why do I have to watch the child? I didn’t have this child! I’m too tired to do this. I don’t want to watch this child.” The child was crying. After awhile she knew, “Well, it’s not your fault is it? You don’t know how tired I am; how I worked today,” she said to the child as she came off the end of the bed onto her knees to pick the child up in her arms. Just as she is wrapping her arms around the baby, automatic weapon fire rips through the wall over the bed and out the other side of the room. She fell flat on the floor with the baby.

With a huge smile she says, “Imagine. If she hadn’t left the baby with me, if the baby hadn’t cried, if I hadn’t decided to care for the baby, I wouldn’t be here today! That’s our life, you never know. They say they saw a GAM member go through the village. Asking around, no one saw any strangers that night.” Villages in these areas are hyper sensitive to strangers. I can tell from their faces, their breathing, their questions back and forth, they don’t believe anyone went through the village that night. That leaves only one explanation, the military forces just wanted to scare them. I didn’t say a word, but I know that since the war with Viet Nam, the U.S. has trained soldiers to conduct random drive-by shootings in villages to scare them into non-participation with the opposition.

As they talk, nothing is positive. I listen; it’s not my place to tell them how they should or should not feel. Finally, as the night grows late, I say, “Yeah, but at least now the firing has stopped, you don’t have to be afraid of being killed.” It was just after the 15th of August 2005 when the Peace Accord was signed. They all stop for a moment and listen. It’s like they were hearing it for the first time. “You’re right!” they laugh, “We certainly hope it’s true!” From seeing their faces, silence for them clearly is not reassuring or comforting. The silence only means you don’t know where the danger lies. They are not soldiers. They are not in danger every minute. They go about their daily life and danger finds them, suddenly, without warning. If there were warning, they would take cover. The silence does not reassure them nor help their home economy.

Making a Living

For peasants, especially those struck by the tsunami, the main question is how to make a living. With all the questions of tsunami relief and recovery—did you lose your home, nets, boat, fish farm pool—it’s hard to remember to ask if your fish farm pools were destroyed in the conflict before the tsunami or by the tsunami? Granted, your fish farm pool is in the area hit by the tsunami, but if it were destroyed by the conflict before the tsunami, what’s to keep it from being destroyed again after we fix it? I begin to joke with the villagers, “We’re wondering if you have other needs besides houses and bathrooms. If we build them up, will they just be torn down or burnt down again?” They laugh. “They can take away our homes, but not our laughter,” they say. They laugh to release the tension, but also at the relief that they don’t have to pretend. Others who come do not talk about the conflict. To talk about the conflict is considered “political” and dangerous.

Before we talk about “help,” I always explain our commitment to non-violence, community and equality of all people. I explain that we are committed to bringing aid from common people to common people with openness and honesty in all our dealings.  They light up; yes, that is what matters! They are grateful someone knows that without these things, everyone is wasting of time and resources. They call their friends in off the street, they are so excited. They want to talk about how… how to build trust, community and equality. Without these basic principles of life, they know they have no future.

We talk about peace, nonviolence and working together with all sides. It is a vague and distant dream; one that’s hard to imagine, yet harder to imagine it not happening. Life cannot go on like this much longer. All sides have become dangerous—and expensive.

The territories have been divided up among the army, police and Mariners. For instance, many boats are being replaced by international NGOs. They all need fish baskets to hold, move and measure the catch. The baskets are made from rattan that comes from the mountains. But the villagers in the mountains are not free to move about, their identification cards are held at the military post. They must pay a portion of their labors to the post. Turf wars among official forces can be as fierce as the ones with the independence movement. Mountain roads are left for military sweepings—a practice of stopping people, especially trucks, along the road to request money. Down off the mountains, the main highways are left for police sweepings. The smaller roads towards the sea shore are left for Mariner sweepings. How much can one make for a fish basket that will be worn out in three to four months anyway if selling them means endless rounds of paying “security” costs?

The sweepings for money are crushing the local economy, yet in response to the question of whether or not this Peace Accord can hold, local military commanders tell me it depends on the local people. If the people understand they need their protection and are willing to “honor” it, they will be safe. This means if they are willing to continue to pay for it they won’t be attacked. With the increase in the price of oil, the pressure for more payment only increases. Poor peasants bear the burden of providing for everyone else.

Traveling Inland

One day I decided to drive from Meulaboh to Banda Aceh. The U.N. helicopter takes most foreigners, but I wanted to travel with Indonesian friends and didn’t know if they would be accepted. In addition, between the U.N. helicopter, internet and information systems, the international NGOs live in a different world that sets them apart from their local NGO counterparts. They go about their work oblivious to the fact that local NGO staff members were lost in the tsunami or have become refugees themselves living in tents and barracks. Local NGO workers often sit on cardboard in make-shift offices, having lost their offices as well as their homes in the tsunami. Very little help has been given to local NGOs to get them back on their feet, although they were a major source of information directly after the tsunami. At six months after the tsunami, the enthusiasm for information sharing has come to a halt as local NGOs have seen their information taken by INGOs and used for their own programs while the locals who collected the information at their own risk are left out of the work.

When people heard I was driving, someone suggested that a young man go with us. He had come down from Banda Aceh to Meulaboh to help with the tsunami relief. Driving overland was all he could afford. They had gotten a late start, so night was falling before they arrived in Meulaboh. In the mountains outside Meulaboh, their car was stopped by a roving post.

They were very scared. They are generally more scared of police than they are of military. The military is more targeted in their efforts, whereas the police sweep more broadly. The mobile police brigade are the most feared. But this was worse. It was a “wild” post, a temporary post without any signs designating who they were. When asked for their name and rank, they were told they didn’t need to know. Their identification cards were inspected. This young man did not have a red and white ID card issued after martial law; he had been a student in Yogyakarta at the time and still had the typical Indonesian identification card. The men at the post said that he clearly supported GAM. If he didn’t, he would have reported in 2003 and changed his ID card to the red and white one. He explained he was in Yogyakarta and had just returned to assist with tsunami relief. They said they didn’t believe him. They took him away. His friends protested, but they didn’t know what to do. Finally they left, feeling like they would probably never see him again. Still, the next day they returned before sunrise to ask for their friend. The men at the post gave him back, having beaten him throughout the night.

He needed to get back to Banda Aceh, but was scared to travel. They asked if I were okay with his coming with us. I said certainly. I had seen him working tirelessly for weeks assisting tsunami refugees. If he did not feel safe in Meulaboh, he could come back to Banda Aceh with us. He said he was too afraid to travel over land; he would look for a boat. But at 6:30 the next morning, there he was on my door step. He sat in the far back of the car. We had an uneventful trip. Most of the posts are active all night, so they sleep in the morning. It’s about 14:00 before they start to stir. We were in Banda Aceh not long after that where breathing is much easier.

Protecting Our Women

As an elderly gentleman said to me, Acehnese know that soldiers die in war, it’s expected and accepted. It is the treatment of women and children that cannot be forgiven. It is the terrible treatment of women and children that will make this war endless.

Anywhere in the world soldiers go, commercial sex is not far behind. Thirty years of war has made the commercial sex business brisk in Aceh. Do these women “choose” this life? Is it hard times that force them into it? Is it a mix of youthful naiveté, raging hormones and war’s glamour that draws them into it? Are some simply forced?

Although I’m known for not going out at night, even when it’s allowed, sometimes I’ve been asked, “Would you be willing to go to the outdoor coffee shop and have tea on the patio tonight?” My quizzical look is answered. The coffee shop is across from the police or military post. At night they bring the women in and out all night. The Acehnese men don’t know what they can do; they can’t protect their women. Maybe if I sit in front of the post at night they will be so ashamed, they will realize what they are doing. I smile and agree, but it is not of much help and they are only increasingly embarrassed.

Not long after one of these little night excursions, a man told his friend’s story. Although the friend was sitting there with us, he was too ashamed to tell the story himself. He had gone for several days to work. Since his house was empty, the military brought their women to it and began to use it for sex. They raped the other women in the house and surrounding area. When he returned, he found his house being used in this manner. He told them to leave, but the just laughed at him and continued their activities. He went to his neighbors to discuss what to do, but they were very angry with him. It was his fault for having left the house empty. If he had not left the house empty, this would not be happening to their women. He returned home, only to watch the open sex throughout his house. He finally left. To this day he is ashamed to go home.

This tragedy lingers on the minds of men who feel they cannot protect their women. What life is it for a man to have to watch, year after year, as his women are seduced, driven and forced into sexual service to other men who say they represent their own government? Once is too much, but repeatedly forever is horrific.

Stolen Investments

I remembered another home, simple but stately, in a village not far from where the man’s home had been taken over for sex. We had been working in tsunami devastated villages all day and I needed to use the restroom. He smiled a bit embarrassed. “Emergency facilities only,” he said. This meant a well and a concrete slab for everything—washing clothes, dishes, bodies and relieving oneself. I couldn’t wait, so I used the “emergency facilities.” He said, as I returned, I’ll put in a bathroom and floors some day, but if I do it today the armed forces will just come and take the house, so I don’t do anything to draw their attention now. What a shame to feel that you can’t make investments in your family’s home or else it will be stolen by government forces.

Break Down of Communication

To bring assistance to an area from the outside, we often arrive in a village saying, “It’s simple, all you have to do is just get together, discuss your needs and list x, y and z.” Simple? Under war conditions, gathering is not only dangerous, it’s illegal. When more than a few people gather in one place, they look anxiously from side to side every few seconds. Concentration is hard. Not only are they wondering who is watching and what they’re thinking, but they are wondering who is actually in this group and what their agendas really are.

When what is said does not match what is thought or what is done, social order breaks down very quickly. People don’t listen to each others’ words any more, they imagine all the other possibilities or they just give up and don’t listen at all. When the brain is not trained to hear the sounds of the words and make connections to meaning, listening becomes an insurmountable task. The skills of listening are like the skills of an infant learning to speak. Once mastered, it feels like the most natural thing in the world, but when abused and neglected, it becomes almost impossible.

People learn to say nothing. Visiting scores of villages, the effects of the break down in communication are clear. Some villages may be cautious of any outsiders, but they clearly speak to each other. Their communication to each other is extensive. They test out what they think they hear as the whisper to their neighbor. In these villages, some people may be clinically depressed or traumatized by events in their life that limits their communication, but many people fill in around them and speak up. Quietly, tentatively, yet persistently they try to figure out what is going on, what they can expect and what they can count on.

Other villages are not only cautious of the outsiders, but they clearly are cautious of each other as well. Beyond the depression and trauma, the vengeance and anger among them is palpable. Eyes lash out. Lips curl. Heads hang down. These people have little or no speaking skills, even one-on-one, let alone before a group. They respond to direct questions with verbal replies it is often in one to three words.  To form a concept is beyond their skill. Their thought processes are very concrete and competitive. The developmental level of a two year old kicks in. If they all don’t receive exactly the same items in exactly the same color, they will fight over them, regardless of need.

Our ability to communicate is directly related to our ability to think. When speaking is completely repressed in a community over a long period of time, the conceptual level of the area will deteriorate as well. Few people understand the long-term developmental process necessary to assist people out of this condition. It’s like starting over from infancy; it’s like recovering one’s sight after being blind. They not only start over building houses, toilets and wells, they start over formulating words and sentences. In the information-communication world of today, this is a severe disability.

Break Down of Local Economy

When traveling is not safe—one’s identification card is held at the post, extortion is high on every road, getting caught in cross fire or by tigers (yes, we mean wild tigers) are major hazards, and curfew is enforced from seven to seven—traveling becomes less and less possible. This includes visits within villages as well as among villages.

People become shut off from the world. People do not come in from the outside to purchase products and people from the inside can not get out. When women spoke about running small shops (warung), I learned to ask, “Was it open before the tsunami?” They look a bit embarrassed, but their eyes sparkle with the insight that I know “the secret.” “Well,” they explain, “I had to close it. I didn’t know what to do. Whoever came to the warung, I had to serve, otherwise they would get very angry. But if I served them, the people from the other side would get angry. Someone would always come and break up the warung. I was constantly afraid. In the end, it just wasn’t worth it any more, so I closed my warung. What else could I do?”

Many women repeated this story over and over again. If given a little capital, they would open a warung again, now that the peace accord was signed. It just wasn’t clear to them how long this peace accord would last. In the past, peace accords have not lasted. Within three or four months the peace would be broken violently, usually by slaughtering the people who had come out of hiding. Therefore, it would not be safe for many months to be seen serving people.

How do people live when their simple business endeavors are shut down? They live day-to-day, fish-to-fish, rice-to-rice. Not only is schooling disrupted in these areas, but people begin to lose their skills. A community’s skill base is built up through working, through daily endeavors of having ideas and trying them out, through talking those ideas over with other people and seeking methods and solutions for achieving aims. When daily work and social interactions are disrupted by war, people no longer accumulate the day-to-day experiences that contribute to their skills development.

Shut off from the world, the flow of supply and demand is broken. The complex network of markets from suppliers to consumers is lost. People no longer know who to go for what product or who to take their products to. All people have is what is at hand. They live off the depreciation of what they had from “the good days” and off what is close at hand. After the tsunami many people were moved to barracks, often many kilometers from their village. With no travel funds, it was very hard to get to their homes to work on rebuilding, and if they were not at the barracks, they did not get rations.

To be hit by a tsunami is a terrible thing, but if their possessions were already depreciated and social connections severed by war, what does it mean to help them? They greatly understand when I say, “Well, we are a small group and can’t help much, but to work together we’d have to discuss principles of integrity, community, simplicity, equality, and peace and nonviolence.” If we can agree on these, we may be able to help some. They light up and say, “Yes, that’s what we need, how does one build these things?”

Break Down of Health

In addition to all the other strains of war, many people lose their health. Doctors and nurses are afraid to travel; people do not have the transport money to go to the doctor or nurse, let alone to pay them once they are there or to pay for medications. Systems of public health break down.

I visited in villages with the mobile medical teams, one of the most accepted and neutral entry points, since we served anyone, primarily civilians, but also soldiers and police and, after the peace accord, GAM members as well. In a number of these villages, 90 percent of the villagers were fishermen. They came in off the ocean to complain of severe, stabbing pain in their muscles. I began asking around, “Where do you get your drinking water?” They replied with long faces, “Buy it.” “Buy it? With what would you buy it, you have no money?! How much are you drinking a day?” “Not much.” It was nearly impossible to get them to say how much water they drank per day. In addition, the Acehnese men have a tradition of gathering at the coffee shop. Coffee is dehydrating. Therefore, if they drink coffee, they need to increase their water intake. The other major illnesses are skin diseases, from a lack of vitamin C and fruit intake, and infections that won’t heal, from a lack of vitamin A and K and vegetable intake. They ran to show me a small, round green sour fruit that they could grow in their homes. They liked to eat it, but it was the only fruit they had. They couldn’t grow things because at least a couple times a month they were flooded with salt water for days, so nothing would grow.

Everyone was concerned that where the tsunami had hit, the land would be too salty to grow. Areas where tsunami waves hit seem to be growing back just fine, albeit with slightly lower yields. Areas repeatedly flooded with salt water, however, do not grow back. They have no fruit, no vegetables, nothing except rice and fish. That’s all they eat, rice and fish. My first recommendation was to DRINK water, then to begin to purchase and allocate fruits and vegetables in the family. Still, they came to the mobile doctor to ask for medications, which just aren’t going to help them as long as they are not drinking water and eating. The mobile clinic is free, though. The fruits and vegetables are not.

They live with all the minor and major diseases everyone does, “Help me, my daughter has breast cancer; can you help her?” “Help me, my cousin’s baby was born two months ago with no anus, can you help them get an operation?” Every week, someone needs some large medical assistance. Then there’s the day-to-day, cold or flu, ear infection or appendicitis. On top of this there is severe malnutrition and dehydration. People are in pain, they are weak, and there is so much to do.

The medical community is afraid to go out to see them, not only because of the fighting, but because this environment breads tuberculosis and leprosy and they are afraid they will catch something. They come all the way from town to a village extension office. Just another few kilometers lie people in their homes with their feet so devastated from leprosy they cannot walk or be transported. I’m shocked. Why didn’t you go into the village to go see him? In the end it’s the same. They were afraid to enter the village, afraid they would become ill also. This further isolates already isolated villagers.


Trust does not come easily, but people drink at the well long and hard when they find it. Once I was trusted, people needed to tell their stories. After a long day’s work—it is hard to take even one day’s rest when you know the condition of tsunami victims and feel an obligation to keep the help moving—we began to stay up occasionally and tell stories. In one group of local NGO workers, they felt they could never forgive. The sense of revenge is so strong they could not imagine ever overcoming the feeling. One after the other told a story of pain and trauma.

I was thirteen when the military came through our town. My parents did not come home that night. Many people in my village did not come home that night. I had four younger brothers and sisters and have raised them ever since that day. I went to the military command to ask what happened to my parents. They told me they did not know, I should not ask. But I told them that my parents disappeared the day they came through our town. I just want to know what happened. I just want to know. They told me to stop asking. I told them if nothing else they could just tell me where they were, tell me where their graves were so I could go and pay tribute to my parents. I should have the right to at least know where their graves were. They told me I should be careful and stop asking such questions. I don’t know what to do.

The next man told of how there had been a crossfire exchange between military and the independence fighters. Afterward, the military dressed up as independence fighters and burnt down much of the town, telling the media it was the independence fighters. So the independence fighters were so angry, they dressed up as military and burnt down the rest of the town and said it was the military. His family lost their home that night. Clearly there was more to tell, but speaking poorly of GAM fighters is hard. They all nod; it’s okay. He says to this day he can hardly stand to be in the same room as a GAM member, he is so angry.

The night wears on and the stories go on. One of our group, who was a really smart leader is now crippled for life and has a serious brain injury. He was stabbed in the head with a bayonet and lived. He also has younger brothers and sisters he wishes he could help, but he can hardly support himself now. He doesn’t say so, but I know that he is volunteering to assist tsunami victims. He says it is better than doing nothing. The others look at him and remember better days, when he was their strength and their hope.

When we talk about the Peace Accord, I inquire whether or not GAM members will have a hard time reintegrating. “It’s not like the military,” they say. “The police and the military will have a harder time, since they have the adrenalin rush every day. GAM members are farmers and fishermen. Most of them only fight for a certain number of days per month. They won’t have as hard a time as many of the villagers will have accepting them back. Lately there have been increasing raids on poor villages, extortion, burning homes, killing people considered “supporters of the other side” and so forth. Will they be able to acknowledge their mistakes? Will they be able to ask for forgiveness? Will villagers be able to grant them forgiveness?

Peace Accord?

Only time will tell. The younger Acehnese think of revenge when they think of the conflict. Older Acehnese, however, remember the glorious days before the war—the 1940s and 1950s. They speak of those times with such pride. There is a strong sense of nationalism. They speak as proud Indonesians, building a nation, building a strong economy, building a bright future. They were very proud of their support of the newly independent nation. And then the cloud falls over the conversation. In 1965, when communism was wiped out in Indonesia in three to five days, the Islamic nationalist leadership of Aceh was also wiped out. It is a history long forgotten in the Indonesian history books, but not in the hearts and minds of the older Acehnese active at that time. It came as a tremendous shock. The very country they were so proud of building, turned on them and slaughtered their leadership. It was ten years before they recovered and the Free Aceh Movement was born.

Young fighters today don’t remember this. What they remember were the two other peace accords signed, when several months after their leadership reemerged into the public light, they were slaughtered. This was not only done by the Indonesian government once, but twice. They remember losing their homes as children, losing their parents, brothers, sisters, families. They remember fighting. Nothing else; just fighting.

Areas of the hardest conflict are the most closed to outsiders; not just foreigners, but Acehnese themselves. People from neighboring villages are afraid to go into each others’ villages. People who used to come to purchase the salt or the thatch, no longer come to purchase these items. They are afraid to enter the area. In these areas there is little oversight of the official forces and the local people can’t say anything because they have already been labeled GAM, true or not. In these areas, several posts, primarily mobile police brigades, have notified the people—just remember to tell GAM not to try to come back here as long as we are here. Troops have been removed from the areas of lighter fighting, but not from these areas. If GAM cannot return, where are they supposed to go and how are they supposed to make a living? They do not expect the government to make good on its promises for financial compensation. They are still going door to door requesting funds from citizens, primarily to pay off their debt. They don’t feel it is right for them to have to reenter their communities in debt. The war debt should be paid now.

But the Acehnese have been hit by a tsunami. The resources and reserves, as much as they had, have been depleted. The sense is strong that the peace accord is just the calm in the eye of the storm waiting for an excuse to begin the war again. In restorative justice we know that the primary need of victims is not a house, a boat or a net, no matter how much the assistance will help. The primary need of victims is for their communities to publicly acknowledge what happened, name the acts that were wrong and declare that they should not have happened. Only then do people begin to feel hope that people know their plight, know it was wrong and agree to never allow it to happen again. Otherwise, their lives feel hopeless, and the help, no matter how compassionate, is trivial in the face of such inhumanity.