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Tiro's people: in 2006 journalist Linda Christanty interviewed founding members of Aceh to find out if the historic Helsinki Pledge will bring real peace.

Several men were in the room, sitting cross-legged on the floor. Before I set foot in the room, Fatimah binti Ali hurriedly whispered, 'Put on a veil, you must wear a veil. There is an elder present'.

A man in his sixties wearing a black peci (Indonesian traditional hat) and white koko (Indonesian men's traditional cloth) was engrossed in talking to the other men in the sitting room.

Opposite the old man sat Sarjani Abdullah, former Pidie area-based commander of the Free Aceh Movement. Sarjani was of normal build, with skin the brownish yellow of cooked sapodilla. He wore a brick red shirt and black pants and was silent as the old man addressed the male group.

Next to Sarjani sat Tengku Maatmuda, a member of the Acehnese Transitional Committee, also listening attentively to the proceedings.

After a few minutes the host, Tengku Muhammad Mustafa di Tiro, emerged in the doorway and immediately sat next to the old man.

'What do you want me to tell you?' The old man asked me, laughing.

He groped in the pocket of his trousers, took out his wallet and showed me his red and white ID card in the name of Tengku Darul Kamal.

Kamal first met Tengku Muhammad Hasan di Tiro in 1971. Tiro is the top leader of the Free Aceh Movement, more popularly known as GAM. Tiro had just returned from a long period in the United States where he earned his doctorate in Political Science from Columbia University. Tiro was the very first Indonesian to earn his PhD Kamal was studying at the National Islamic Institute Ar-Raniry, in Banda Aceh that same year.

Kamal came to visit Tiro and to hear his stories and travelogues. Tiro's mother was the sister of Kamal's grandfather. Tiro often spoke about the Acehnese past glories and traditions, but never about his experiences in United States. 'He wrote the book Aceh in the Eyes of the World.' I admitted that I had not read it.

Shortly after beginning our discussions, Kamal and I decided to move into the dining room to escape the noise of the rain outside and continued the interview. Mustafa followed us while the rest stayed in the sitting room. The women in the dining room stopped talking immediately and left the room one by one when we entered.

'Tiro decided that Aceh had to be independent. There was no option', said Kamal.

'The country was too big to be controlled by the government in Java. There was widespread hunger and the workers were out on strike. Big countries like the United States are shrewd and divide their country up into self-governing provinces. The government cannot control this country unless they applied a communist system. But it is impossible. Because of this Tiro decided that Aceh had to be independent.'

Tiro returned from the United States to Aceh on 30 October 1976. He immediately went to the jungle and led the guerrilla Free Aceh Movement. Kamal was in Sabang, on Weh Island, working as a volunteer to improve village administration. Returning home to his own village, his friend told him about Tiro.

Kamal was curious about Tiro's activities and decided to try to meet up with him. They met again in the Tjokkan Mountains in April 1977, six months after Tiro's return.

Kamal was not alone in his travels. He was accompanied by his intimate friend Tengku Syeh Ibrahim. Kamal reported that after leaving a village called Pintu Satu (First Door) they walked together up the mountain, meeting along the way another ten men who shared the same goal--each was interested in learning why a highly educated and successful business man like Tiro would chose to live in the jungle.

After hours of walking, fording rivers and battling through thick jungle, they came across a small shelter used by farmers to guard their ripening rice. They fell asleep exhausted by the day's arduous travels, before making the onward journey the next day.

'In the morning one village woman turned up and told us there had been a violent outburst of gunfire from the village of Pintu Satu. After that, one village man came to us and he said that a large number of cars and men had arrived and the residents' houses were raided'. Kamal explained this to me in the dining room in the absence of any of the other women.

'One of the houses that were raided belonged to a man called Geusyik Umar. The meaning of geusyik is head of village', Kamal explained, knowing that I did not speak Acehnese. 'He was a committed follower of Tiro and he was armed. When the Indonesian military raided his house he fired at them. Those were the first shots fired in the battle for Aceh Independence. Those were the first shots fired by GAM.' Kamal smiled as he said these words.

Although the Javanese troop's blockade totally surrounded the village, Umar managed to escape to the mountains. Nevertheless, he would be shot dead by the Indonesian troops in 1992, during a military operation code-named 'Jaring Merah' (Red Needle). At age 70 he was still fighting for the Free Aceh Movement--the dream of an independent Aceh--and he died fighting for that dream.

'All except two of his children had been killed by Indonesian troops. One escaped to Sweden and another, the youngest child, was already there', Kamal continued to share with me. Umar's son, Bachtiar Abdullah, still lives in Sweden today and continues to serve as one of the Free Aceh Movement's senior figures and spokespersons.

When Kamal and his friends finally arrived at Tiro's camp after their three-day trek up the mountain, they found fifteen men already there. Not all were armed. The six that were armed had Springfield rifles. Kamal was reluctant to talk further about his three early years in the bush with Tiro, but paused to reassure me that he himself had never raised a rifle or shot at anyone. His weapon was the printing press. For years he churned out leaflets demanding that the Javanese go home. He sent most of these to the natural gas company, PT Arun.

At that time PT Arun established its main office in Lhokseumawe, North Aceh. In 1974 the refinery began to extract the natural gas found in Aceh. Shortly after PT Arun opened its doors it was followed by a fertiliser factory named Iskandar Muda Prop. Ltd, Asean Aceh Fertiliser and a paper factory named Kraft Aceh.

These companies realised that Aceh was rich in natural resources and were quick to exploit them for profit. To protect these economic assets Indonesian President Soeharto sent thousands of troops into Aceh. Over the next ten years, approximately 10 000 lives were lost in the resulting conflict between GAM and the Indonesian government. A fact-finding team from the National Human Rights Commission visited Aceh after the military operations found the biggest concentration of deaths happened in North Aceh.

By 1980 there were regular exchanges of gunfire between the Free Aceh Movement and the Indonesian military. Eventually Kamal was arrested after being shot and wounded.

Kamal was kept in Kedah jail, Banda Aceh, for three years. On release he set up a Moslem boarding school using the curriculum which paralelled the Indonesian National Department of Education, including maths and Indonesian grammar.

But Kamal soon found himself back in jail, this time in a Lhok Nga jail. An Achenese legislator who wanted to join the Free Aceh Movement in Malaysia was arrested by the army and informed on Kamal as a key man. Without due process, Kamal was marooned in jail for another year.

When given his freedom the second time, he decided to be a farmer like most of the people in his village.

In 1998 the governor of Aceh Samsudin Mahmud asked Kamal to accompany him on a political mission to Sweden. The team was to be led by Noer Naemat, an Acehnese businessman. The team wanted to meet the exiled Tiro and negotiate the future of Aceh with him. Tiro had no interest in meeting with them.

'He knew I was coming and said that I could meet him up but I would not be able to return home again'. Recalling that moment, Kamal laughed.

'Tiro is the leader of our people, but we are just representatives from Aceh. We are not representatives of the Indonesian government. I think Tiro was right. He didn't meet us, because we were just representatives of local government.'

The narrow dining room could barely hold all the food-laden tables, but there was enough space between the chairs to enable us to sit comfortably.

'Politics is dangerous. I don't like it', Muhammad Mustafa di Tiro said in a soft voice. 'For example, if you want to take over a political position, you will do anything to get it. Politics is like that. Cruel. I don't like politics.' His gaze was direct, and his white Haji cap contrasted strikingly with his dark skin.

Mustafa was 45 at the time of my interview. He never had the chance to meet Hasan Tiro, his very politically involved uncle.

Wonderful smells eminated from the bubbling food and the open kitchen door as men and women passed close by. Every now and then one or two women would arrive smiling, spend some time watching the conversation and then leave. They could not speak Indonesian and came from nearby villages. They had offered to help prepare food for the expected 10 000 guests who would come and go to Mustafa's house on this day of celebration. It was a party for peace time in Aceh and the Maulid Nabi, an Islamic day of celebration.

I walked over to the verandah of the house which was crowded with women both young and old. Small boys and girls sat together eating and drinking.

There I met Fatimah binti Ali. A big woman with a deep alto voice. She was friendly and happy to talk to. Since childhood she had wanted to be a teacher. Consequently she was nicknamed by her small schoolmates as 'Ibu' (mother).

Until two years ago when she retired, she had been head of the school here. Even now she is busy with many activities pulling her back to the school.

'Yes, even now I sometimes have to be the office boy, buying coffee and making it for everyone. Sometimes I have to teach when teachers are not available', she explained, chuckling.

When I asked whether she would prefer to teach Indonesian or Acehnese children, she went silent, as were all the other women in the room. Just the question caused everyone to stop talking.

'My duty is to teach students as the state needs me to', she replied, carefully.

When I looked around, Rasidah, wife of the village head, had tears in her eyes. After her tears dried, she began to speak using the Acehnese language. Because I could only catch a few words, a woman translated for me.

'What was it like?' I asked her. 'What were your experiences'.

'I was really scared', she said quietly. 'So many houses were burnt'.

'What happened to your husband?'

'My husband tried to run, but the army hunted him down. They threatened him and shot him, but he was only injured. He was OK. After that they came to our house in trucks and on motor bikes, all in uniform. They took away a lot of members of our family, including my brother in law, who we never heard from again.'

'What do you want now?' I asked.

'Only peace and a contented life. I just want peace, safety and the ability to make a livelihood again. No more violence. When I think of what happened then I want to cry, and I see the army took my brother in law in front of my eyes.' She started weeping again.

Rasidah wants independence from Indonesia if the army continues brutalities during the promised peace.

Tengku Darul Kamal knows that real peace is still a distant reality for Aceh.

'Maybe the Indonesian government has good intentions ... but sometimes in the field, the army doesn't care about the government rules ... Sometimes GAM does it too. What the leaders need is not always the same as what the followers do.' He laughed loudly.

'What about Syariah (Islamic) law? Does it contribute to peace in Aceh?' I asked Kamal. He replied, 'The problem being that Acehnese independence was never about the matter of Islamic canon law'.

Kamal does not believe that imposition of Syariah law would guarantee peace in Aceh. Far more important are economic concerns. Economic independence and sovereignty.

'The Aceh Free Movement position', Kamal went on, 'is that Islamic law is of no importance. What we fought for was Aceh to be handed over to Acehnese who had become poor in a resource-rich area from years of colonisation. It should have been up to us to decide if we wanted Syariah or not, not the central government in Jakarta. It's up to us', he reiterated, now looking very serious.

I asked him, 'Is GAM fundamentally anti-Javanese?

'Well, it's more about the Javanese culture. The Javanese are always saying "inggih, inggih" [yes, yes]. Acehnese are different. Although a person might be our commander, we can laugh and joke with him. Not possible in Java. They have a different way of being, and are too feudal. For example, when they pay their workers for working in the field, the workers have to sit on the ground.' Kamal laughed loudly at this aphorism.

Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Indonesia's most famous author, hated what he called the cult of 'Javanism'. He wrote that it was this subserviant attitude that made village heads in Java collaborate and co-operate with the Japanese occupation army and commit their fellow villagers to forced labour. The mentality of 'lick and flatter above, step on below' is the dominant culture of the Indonesian elite, he wrote.

Currently Kamal is spending more of his time in the Seulimum mosque, Lam Jeruk, in Pidie, where he is the preacher. He established an organisation to help the local villagers protect their gardens and rice fields from wild boars. 'The group is called Litbui. Lit which is Indonesian for chase and bui for wild boars'.

Despite this new vocation and being separated for 26 years, Kamal has stuck to his memories and links with Tiro.

On 10 April 2006, Hasan Tiro had still not returned to Aceh, although the Indonesian government and the Free Aceh Movement have signed the peace accord in Helsinki on 15 August 2005.

BEFORE leaving Treuseb, I saw Mustafa standing on the threshold of the musholla, from where one can enjoy a wide panorama. People passed up and down the stairs, passing him by. He remained where he was, not moving. Not far from there on the grounds of the Islamic senior high school stood tents overflowing with invited guests. Many people sat on the school terrace.

As far as one could see, the long road was full of arriving visitors. Parents with their children, all dressed in their best clothes. Grandfathers sat dazed in the side of the road. It was hard to know what was in their hearts. Were they happy? Were they sad or reflective? They had all been witness and participants, maybe even victims of 30 years of conflict.

Five hundred meters from the religious school a Toyota Patrol was in the parking bay, sticking out on the right-hand side of the road. A plain-clothes cop recorded everyone's arrival with a handy cam. He filmed everyone who passed without regard to the intense heat or anyone's scrutiny. He just continued recording everybody who came and went.

I immediately took off my veil, and walked quickly away.


On the 3 July 2006, three months after this report, there was an incident in Paya Bakong, Lhokseumawe, Northern Aceh. The Indonesian army shot and killed an Acehnese citizen outside the military complex. At that time, they also shot a member of the Aceh Monitoring Mission (AMM), who as a result was paralysed by the bullet. Up until now no-one from the military has been brought to trial or punished. The AMM has also not taken any action.

Linda Christanty is a writer and journalist. She is editor in chief in the Pantau News Agency (Pantau Foundation) Aceh.
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Author:Christanty, Linda
Publication:Arena Magazine
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:9INDO
Date:Apr 1, 2007
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