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Indonesians Wary of Relocation Centers

Army Supervision Looms Over Tsunami Refugees

By Alan Sipress
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 31, 2005; Page A17

LAMBARO, Indonesia -- Along a narrow country road in Aceh province, the wood frames and peaked roofs of five barracks are beginning to rise from a marshy field. The Indonesian government plans to evict the few cows and goats grazing beside an army camp within two weeks and welcome into the new structures about 500 Acehnese uprooted by the tsunami late last month.

While international relief officials say relocation centers like the one in Lambaro are a good alternative for some whose homes were obliterated by the floods, aid workers and refugees acknowledged they remained wary of the role the Indonesian military would play in guarding and perhaps supervising the sites.


Barracks for Indonesians who lost their homes in last month's tsunami are under construction in the village of Lambaro, in Aceh province. Nearby is a compound for Indonesian army forces. (Alan Sipress -- The Washington Post)

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In recent years, the military has frequently herded Acehnese from their homes into camps so soldiers could hunt rebel fighters who have been battling for an independent homeland on the tip of Indonesia's Sumatra island since 1976. Villagers complained that they were often mistreated in these camps during periods of martial law and were prevented from carrying on their daily activities, including working the fields.

The Lambaro relocation center will be among the first of 24 compounds now being built across the province to house at least 30,000 refugees. Shelters for up to another 60,000 are to be erected afterward, according to Indonesian officials.

Robert Turner, of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said some relief agencies were concerned about the military's role in the proposed centers because of its track record in Aceh. He said the agencies were working with the Indonesian government to ensure the camps met international standards.

"Relocation by itself is not a bad thing. It's obviously necessary. We just want to help the government do it in the best way possible," Turner said.

The military's official role in the development of the centers is limited to securing them -- the province's civilian government will do most of the work in running them -- but military considerations have become a factor in designing them.

The commander of Indonesian forces in Aceh, Maj. Gen. Endang Suwarya, ordered that the centers be built close enough to a village so that soldiers could monitor who enters and leaves them, according to Mawardy Nurdin, who oversees the development of the centers for Aceh's public works department. He said the military wanted to ensure that food provided to the refugees did not reach the rebels.

The buildings were initially designed like army barracks, with rooms connected to a central corridor. The Indonesian government changed this layout after U.N. and other international relief officials suggested the rooms face the outside, providing occupants with more privacy from their neighbors.

Some refugees interviewed at temporary campsites on the outskirts of the provincial capital, Banda Aceh, said they would not object to living in relocation centers guarded by soldiers. But they said they hoped the soldiers' role would be minimal.

"I don't have a problem with the soldiers as long as they don't disturb us and they keep their distance," said Salahudin, 35, a tall, muscular carpenter from Ajun village as he sat in a long green tent at a chaotic refugee camp. "But if we could choose, I'd prefer not be guarded by the soldiers because, based on my experience, they limit our movement."

But others, like a homeless shop owner from Banda Aceh named Mulyadi, said they opposed any role for the military.

"With the military, you can't move around easily," said Mulyadi, 35, as he collected building debris to expand the tent where he has lived for the last month. "I've had enough bad experiences with the military during martial law when they treated me inhumanely."

He said he feared the soldiers would interfere with his ability to look for work outside the center, stopping him if he returned after nightfall and interrogating him about his activities. He suggested the refugees guard themselves.


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