washingtonpost.com  > World > Special Reports > Tsunami in S. Asia

Aceh Rebels Describe Effort to Aid 'Our Own'

Men Descended From Hillsides After Tsunami

By Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 19, 2005; Page A12

ACEH BESAR, Indonesia, Jan. 18 -- A rebel commander, Muharram Idris, said he knew the risk when he sent his men down from the mountains on a rescue mission after the tsunami crashed ashore.

Evading Indonesian military patrols, they slogged for hours through the mud to the seaside villages closest to their hideouts in the hills, bringing all the supplies they could.

"What we had we gave to the refugees," said Muharram Idris, a rebel commander in the Free Aceh Movement in Indonesia. Muharram, sitting in front of the rebel flag, said all of his men had lost family in the tsunami. (Ellen Nakashima -- The Washington Post)

"What we had we gave to the refugees," said Muharram, as he is known, in an interview Tuesday at his remote base. He said what they had was not much -- iodine, bandages and antibiotics, some food and water. But for four or five days after the disaster, members of the Free Aceh Movement provided the first and often the only medical attention available.

They established a shelter and a first-aid station for hundreds of the injured and homeless, according to the rebels and survivors they rescued. They hiked hours back and forth through the sodden wreckage, dodging military patrols. The rebels finally transported some of the injured to Aceh's provincial capital, Banda Aceh, for medical care, fashioning stretchers out of wood beams and sarongs found in the rubble.

Muharram and his comrades deny they are taking advantage of the disaster to stage attacks, saying they have respected a cease-fire declared by their leader, Malik Mahmud, who is exiled in Sweden. But Muharram said the Indonesian military has patrols in the vicinity of rebel encampments and has tried to draw rebel units into combat.

Guerrilla commanders allowed a reporter to meet with them Tuesday in a mountain clearing surrounded by palm and banana trees that obscured the ruined coastline hundreds of yards below. Six rebels, with AK-47 and M-16 assault rifles, met the reporter and an interpreter and escorted them part of the way.

The path to the remote rebel base, known as Camp C, passed along the coast, still strewn with corpses 22 days after an undersea earthquake and resulting tsunami devastated northern portions of Indonesia's Sumatra island. More than 10,000 people are reported missing, and at least 700,000 people are without housing. More than 150,000 people were killed in 11 countries affected by the Indian Ocean tsunami.

Muharram, who leads more than 1,000 men in the Aceh Besar district, said most of his men are unmarried and come from fishing villages along the coast. All had lost family members. "We're victims, too," Muharram said, adding that his wife was among those killed.

The Indonesian government calls the rebels terrorists, and last week it imposed reporting requirements on aid workers, citing the rebels as a threat to the volunteers' safety.

But in interviews, Muharram and other members of the rebel organization, known by the initials GAM, said they welcomed foreign volunteers.

"This has been a golden opportunity for us to be united with the people," said Muharram, 30, who wore a camouflage T-shirt and pants and sat cross-legged, smoking a cigarette, during the rare interview. The red rebel flag, emblazoned with a white crescent and star, served as a backdrop on the tarp-covered wooden platform where he spoke. About 50 fighters were with him at the camp.

Muharram, a square-jawed, cleanshaven man, said he joined the rebel organization in 1995 after working construction. He expressed concern about efforts by the military to provoke confrontations, or to capture rebels who come down from the hills.

"We wish to thank the international volunteers who have come into Aceh and given aid to the tsunami victims," he said. "We hope that they will continue to help the people and will not set any time limits on aid."

The rebel relief workers returned upcountry after international relief workers and others began providing resources to the province on a large scale. Rebel leaders said they mobilized after Mahmud issued an order Dec. 27 to begin relief efforts.

"We wanted to help because these are our own people," said Irwansyah bin Muhammad, known by his nom de guerre, Wan Rambo. He is a platoon commander who lost five siblings and his parents in the tsunami and spoke by cell phone from another camp, a day's hike from Camp C.

He and his comrades described hiking for hours to deliver aid through mucky rice fields and around roads blocked by debris that also were patrolled by soldiers who might recognize them.

Irwansyah said he led a team of rebels to several coastal villages whose survivors were stranded on hillsides. One village, Lamteungoh, was his own.

"I was so shocked to see my village completely flattened," Irwansyah said. "When I looked at my house, there was nothing left, only the foundation." He said he did not focus on searching for his family, but on aiding the survivors.

He carried people trapped in water to higher ground and, leading a team of 15 rebels, tended to the injured, splinting bone fractures and cleaning and bandaging wounds. Because they did not have enough medication, some of the wounds became infected, he said.

The rebels and the government have been fighting since 1976, but the conflict is rooted in a history of subjugation dating to the Dutch colonial era of the 1870s.

Until the tsunami struck, the government had closed the province to foreign journalists and aid workers in an effort to block access to the rebels. But the scale of the tragedy has forced the government to allow in foreigners, including journalists, and the rebels have taken the opportunity to voice their views to an unprecedented international audience.

The guerrillas said they now feel a new connection to the people of Aceh, that they showed their sincerity by their reaction to the disaster. The rebel commanders said their humanitarian efforts were prompted by a sense of duty to the Acehnese people.

Previously, Irwansyah said, direct contact with the people had been difficult under martial law and civil emergency restrictions imposed by the Indonesian government. "The military always broke up the relationship between us and the people," he said.

Muhammad Nasir, a 40-year-old villager from Lamteungoh, said he was among those evacuated by the rebels. Resting on a mat in an elementary school serving as a relief camp, his left leg injured by a jagged scrap of tin roof, he recalled how he was carried there by stretcher.

"It was very painful, and so I screamed," he said. "They said, 'Be patient. We're almost there.' "

Nasir, a fisherman whose family died in the tsunami, said he knew some of the rebels, because some had grown up in Lamteungoh. He was not surprised, he said, to see them come to his aid, "because they are my fellow villagers," he said.

The rebels moved him three days after the tsunami. "Nobody had helped me till then," he said. "I'd still be on the mountain if it weren't for them. If we didn't get assistance from them, maybe there would be more victims from our village."

The rebel movement is opposed by some in Aceh. Especially in Banda Aceh, where the military conflict has not been as intense, some residents say the rebels have practiced extortion and kidnapping-for-ransom. Human rights groups say the rebels and the government have been guilty of human rights abuses.

The rebels say they continue to honor the cease-fire. They say they respect a gesture from Indonesian military headquarters in Jakarta to also abide by it, but they say soldiers in Aceh have violated orders from central command.

"The soldiers on the ground here keep trying to provoke GAM," Muharram said. "They issue propaganda that GAM is disrupting the relief effort. It's not true."

Although Aceh was once an independent sultanate and the rebels are often described as Islamic separatists, the rebels said their struggle was less about Islam than about autonomy and self-determination.

Muharram said the rebels did not feel any solidarity with militant Islamic groups such as Jemaah Islamiah, which is accused of several major suicide bomb attacks, including the 2002 Bali nightclub bombings. Muharram condemned that attack, which killed 202 people.

The rebels are not sure the lull in the conflict will lead to negotiations or a breakthrough. But they are grateful for the international attention focused on Aceh, they said.

"We would like the international community to impress on the Indonesian government to go back to the negotiating table without conditions," said Teungku Jamaica, a rebel spokesman in North Aceh, speaking by cell phone.

In the meantime, at Camp C, Muharram and his men were awaiting orders. Some sat on green plastic chairs, holding their weapons. One soldier fried food in a tent. A baby goat wandered by. No matter what happens, they said, they'd break camp soon. They never linger in one place. "We're guerrillas, always on the move," Muharram said.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company