Reporting from the other side in Aceh

December 3, 2003


William Nessen, a freelance journalist and photographer from the US, spent two months with Free Aceh Movement (GAM) fighters in the northern-most tip of Sumatra from mid-May. Now returned from the daring journey, which convinced him that the Indonesian government's "final offensive" in Aceh is failing, he will be speaking in Sydney on December 5.

Nessen's account of his trip with a 50-strong company of rebel fighters, and his close encounter with death, indicates that Indonesia is no closer to convincing the Acehnese to remain a part of the Indonesian Republic.

"GAM guerrillas are neither well-trained nor exceedingly fit. But my time in Aceh showed me again and again that as long as villagers — long angry about Indonesian rule and craving independence — continue to give information to the guerrillas, GAM can attack with little risk to themselves", Nessen wrote in the November 2 San Francisco Chronicle.

The Megawati Sukarnoputri government issued an ultimatum to GAM at the end of April: end the armed resistance and give up the demand for independence or face all-out war. GAM didn't, and martial law was declared on May 19. But despite some 50,000 troops unleashing the "final offensive", six months later martial law has been extended for another six months.

Since the birth of the republic of Indonesia in 1945, a struggle in which the Acehnese played a critical role, the desire for Acehnese independence has been strong. General Suharto turned Aceh into a military operations zone (known as "DOM") between 1989 and 1998, allowing the military and Kopassus special forces free rein — and fuelling the desire.

At least 10,000 have been killed over the last decade, and tens of thousands of people have been tortured, terrorised and made refugees.

After Suharto was ousted, DOM was officially lifted, but the military remained, using the same methods of "persuasion". Former president Abdurrahman Wahid, after briefly contemplating a referendum for Aceh, announced a "limited operations status". President Megawati has given more rein to the TNI generals to continue their terror campaign.

The Indonesian army and police are profiting handsomely from the conflict: they are involved in a wide range of illegal activities, including imposing illegal taxes, extortion, trafficking in women, prostitution, gambling, illegal logging, fishing and smuggling luxury goods into the country.

A combination of this, the militarisation and the sham "special autonomy status" has ensured growing support for independence.

While the government denies using "counterinsurgency" aircraft and other weapons supplied by the US and Britain and denies targeting Acehnese civilians, Nessen was witness to the aerial bombing of villages, and heard from refugees about the Indonesian military razing houses and killing suspected GAM members.

Nessen believes the Indonesian government's terror strategy has backfired. "The refugees said soldiers had relocated entire villages and made the men walk in front of them as protection against ambush by GAM fighters. The government had long ago cut electricity, limited transport of goods and denied access for even Indonesian journalists willing to parrot the official line."

Nessen's video operator, Panji, was killed in one incident. Nessen explained: "With 40 pounds of gear on my back, I pounded up a steep path in the open, cursing to myself because I knew some of us were going to die. In front of us, the forest exploded with automatic gun fire.

"Cocky little Nasir fell dead on the path. Somewhere below, Indonesian bullets hit Panji, who was a natural with my camera. I believe he died filming, not fighting, the TNI."

After weeks of living dangerously, Nessen contacted Indonesian authorities to arrange a safe exit to the other side. He was dumped into a Banda Aceh prison while the TNI searched for evidence to charge him with conspiracy (maximum sentence of six years), but was tried for two immigration offenses and sentenced to 40 days' jail — the time he had already served, plus one day. He was charged with failing to inform immigration officials of an address change in Jakarta and for not reporting to martial law authorities.

Since martial law was declared, very few journalists have been allowed into Aceh, the exception being those "embedded" with the TNI. Nessen is one of the few to have reported on Indonesia's dirty war — from the other side.

Nessen will be the guest speaker at a public meeting in Sydney on December 5 at 6.30pm at 23 Abercrombie Street, Chippendale, organised by Action in Solidarity with Asia and the Pacific, the Acehnese Community of Australia and Aid/Watch. For more details visit <>.

From Green Left Weekly, December 3, 2003.

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