But the troubles facing this remote region are not the work of
Mother Nature alone. Acheh was awash in violence, poverty and tragedy
long before the tsunami swept over its shores.
The province has been engulfed in what is often described as one
of Southeast Asia's longest-running and most-brutal conflicts. At
least 15,000 people have died and thousands more have disappeared in
a string of military campaigns since 1989. Most of the victims are
civilians, caught in the cross-fire between Indonesian troops and
separatist rebels of the Free Acheh Movement, known as GAM.
The latest chapter in this conflict began in May 2003, when the
government abandoned a peace accord and imposed martial law. More
than 40,000 troops were dispatched to Acheh to crush GAM. At the
onset, Indonesia's generals predicted the anti-insurgency campaign
would wipe out an estimated 5,000 rebels in five months. But 19
months later, combat operations drag on.
"Acheh has been in a state of misery for years and years and
years," said Daniel Lev, University of Washington political-science
professor emeritus and Southeast Asian expert.
The world, though, knew little about the conflict in Acheh. When
the Indonesian government declared martial law, it also imposed a
virtual media blackout and ousted international relief groups
providing aid to refugees displaced by the violence.
"Before the disaster hit, Acheh was the most closed and
inaccessible part of Indonesia," says Sidney Jones, director of the
Southeast Asia Project for the International Crisis Group.
"Acheh has already suffered so much," said Hendra Budiansyah, 24,
who fled political persecution in Acheh in 2001 to find asylum in the
His mother, a well-known pro-independence activist imprisoned for
her political activities, is among the countless who have perished.
"She was locked in her cell when the earthquake struck," Budiansyah
said. A dark, churning wall of water followed, flattening the prison
completely and entombing it in mud.
Budiansyah hopes his mother's body might be found for a proper
burial. Meanwhile, he is trying to track down surviving family and
Some aid workers worry that relief efforts will be hampered by a
legacy of government neglect and corruption, and a dismal
The road network is limited, the electric grid fragile and
unreliable, and clean-water supplies are scarce.
"No one bothered to prepare for this kind of disaster," said Lev.
"The people of Acheh are paying the price for that."
Acheh is home to 4.2 million people. In a country that is home to
the world's largest Muslim population, Acheh, known as the "Porch of
Mecca," is considered among the most devoutly Muslim areas. The
once-prosperous sultanate was the historic departure point for
pilgrims heading to Mecca.
While the Dutch easily colonized the rest of Indonesia beginning
in the 17th century, the Achenese fiercely resisted, losing up to a
fifth of their population. During World War II, Acheh joined the rest
of Indonesia's struggle for independence from the Japanese Imperial
Army and later the Dutch. Acheh was incorporated into the new
Indonesian republic born in 1949.
Ten years later, Indonesia granted the province a "special
territory" status that included autonomy in some matters.
The province is strategically perched along shipping lanes of the
Straits of Malacca. Most importantly, Jakarta relies heavily on
Aceh's considerable resources: natural gas, oil and timber. In 1998,
the Arun gas field alone produced $200 billion in liquefied natural
"Acheh can live without Indonesia, but Indonesia cannot live
without Acheh," Dewi Fortuna Anwar, an adviser to former President
B.J. Habibie, once told reporters.
"Acheh is rich, but the people are poor," a common grievance heard
there, is at the core of Aceh's differences with Jakarta. Many
Achenese have long complained that the central government has drained
away the province's riches without investing in local development.
GAM, whose leadership is now based in Sweden, launched its
struggle for independence in 1976. In 1989, then-dictator Suharto
placed Acheh under complete military control in an intensive
When student protests brought Suharto's tenure to an end in 1998,
the Achenese were finally free to speak out against a decade of
atrocities: institutionalized "torture houses," mass graves,
disappearances and extra-judicial executions of suspected rebels and
And Aceh's demands for independence grew louder. To quell calls
for freedom, the government negotiated its first cease-fire with GAM
rebels in 2000 and offered Acheh "special autonomy," granting the
province a greater share of revenue from local resources.
While the government apologized for human-rights abuses under
Suharto, it never held military leaders accountable.
Despite peace talks, the violence has continued. In recent years,
activists have disappeared, students have been beaten and detained,
and humanitarian workers were intimidated as they delivered aid.
Villages suspected of harboring rebels were torched.
GAM also stepped up its campaign, recruiting fighters and
extorting villagers and businesses to fund its operations. In 2003,
rebels kidnapped and detained a pair of journalists. One was killed
in a cross-fire between troops and rebels, while the other was
released 11 months after his abduction.
The Indonesian government has portrayed GAM as Islamic extremists.
But Jones said the separatist movement has no fundamentalist
agenda. "There was no act of terrorism in Acheh; this was not an
insurgency that had any links to the jihadist movement," she said.
Now that the fury of Mother Nature has heaved Acheh back into the
international spotlight, there are both hopes for peace and fears
that violence will escalate.
Jones worries that the Indonesian army will continue to pursue its
own interests in the region and that GAM may also use the disaster as
an opportunity to recruit supporters.
On the other hand, she sees some positive developments. The
disaster-relief effort also ushered in the first U.S.-Indonesian
military cooperation in years, after a military embargo against
Indonesia for atrocities in East Timor. She believes pressure from
donors operating in Acheh might prompt the military leadership to
scale back operations.
However, graft remains a primary concern, since she and other
experts say Acheh has one of the most corrupt administrations in
"Donors have to demand very, very strict auditing so that the
money goes where it was intended to go," Jones said.
Jacqueline Koch is a
Whidbey Island freelance photographer and writer. She has spent
considerable time in Indonesia and has made four reporting trips to
Acheh since 2000. Statistics on the dead and homeless were provided
by The Associated Press.
DONATE TO TSUNAMI VICTIMS (COLLECTED BY THE ACHEHTIMES.COM)
How to Help
(Network for Good)