They could have been best friends

Indonesian journalist Adeline M.T. encounters both sides of Aceh's rebellion

The Jakarta Post
Sunday, April 24, 2005

By Adeline M. T.

The night was dark, and rain started to pour down heavily. We heard earlier that a tropical storm might be heading to the coastal area of Greater Aceh. Lighter than a tsunami, certainly, but still a storm.

Driving in the rain out of Banda Aceh, we went looking for a village where we were supposed to meet and interview Teungku Mucksalmina. We were not really sure where it was.

I have covered news in this war-torn province several times before, but this would be the first time that I would interview a GAM (Free Aceh Movement) representative in person.

An exclusive interview with GAM is an Indonesian journalist's dream. However, "safety" has many different shades of meaning. Having worked as a fixer for several different foreign media organizations, I discovered that most foreign journalists in Aceh keep the dream as a dream. "Covering both sides of the story is very important, but the safety of our crew is also very important," said a TV producer.

It was different this time. Besides the fact that Aceh was no longer under martial law that restricted journalists from covering both sides, the Canadian journalist I worked with, Stepphen Puddicombe from CBC Radio, was a rare kind of person who would go the extra mile.

"It's always about the people; not numbers, not press conferences, not dignitaries, not me, not us the reporters; it is about the people!" he kept telling me. He and his colleague Sylvain Desjardins from the Francophone Radio Canada jumped at the chance to cover both sides of the story.

"We had heard complaints about both sides; about TNI and GAM disrupting relief efforts after the tsunami. How do people on the other side of the world decide who is telling the truth?" was the question Stephen asked to both Mucksalmina and, later, a TNI Lieutenant. As a fellow journalist, I could not think of a better question, or of a better reason to go to the villages and take the risk.

We made contact and exchanged text messages with Mucksalmina over a couple of days. "I'll look for a safe place to meet. The military campaign has been more aggressive these last few days," he answered.

One afternoon, he suddenly gave us the green light. "I'm up on a hill and will come down to meet you. I am concerned about journalists' safety, so I'll look for a safe place to meet later today," his text message said. So we prepared ourselves for a trip to who-knows-where.

Later that evening a text message came, "Call me." We called the guy; he asked how many of us would be coming, what type of car we would be driving, and asked for the car's license plate number. He told us to wait in a village in Greater Aceh. We took off immediately.

We drove to the place, not telling the local driver who we were meeting. As the driver asked people where the village was, a man came up to our car and asked me through the window, "Are you looking for 'the man'?" By the way he talked and looked at me, I knew who he meant. I said "yes". He got into our car, and we drove a few hundred meters and he told us to wait in a small coffee shop. The man vanished into the night.

We waited there for almost an hour, not knowing what to do, who would come out and meet us, or what would happen next. Meanwhile, villagers came and gathered around us, asking who we were. Children giggled at the sight of two awkward foreigners and a woman without a head scarf.

Then, suddenly, everybody disappeared, except for a teenage boy. The lady of the house closed the coffee shop's front door; and the boy told us, "Come with me."

We went out into the dark through a back door. "No light please," said a voice which seemed to come out of nowhere. As our eyes got used to the darkness, we saw figures of men carrying guns. AK-47s and Indonesian-made SS1s.

There were at least three men. They took our hands and led us into the forest. "Don't be afraid, I've got your hand. You are safe," said a voice, as I felt a hand holding mine. We walked a while and stopped. In the moonlight we saw people carrying sacks of rice, water and other supplies. "They have to go back and forth at night to bring supplies to us," said my armed guide.

I could not tell for how long or far we walked. All I could think about was keeping an eye on my guide and my two colleagues with their guides.

We stopped abruptly in the middle of nowhere. We saw a small hut in front of us. Our guides invited us to come in and lit some candles. A few minutes later there entered a man in uniform -- exactly the same kind of uniform worn by the Indonesian military. He was in his thirties and obviously the leader of the other ten people accompanying him. He greeted us, "Welcome to Aceh." He was Teungku Mucksalmina.

"You can use any lighting, cameras, and record everything," Mucksalmina said. We shared cigarettes, and so the recorded interview began.

"Thank you for coming to Aceh. With the presence of international media, people can see what is really happening in Aceh. We have experienced not only natural disaster, but also political disaster. Since the imposition of martial law, the Indonesian emergency authority here has forbidden the presence of human right bodies or NGOs to cover news on the practice of killings by the TNI in Aceh," Mucksalmina proclaimed.

Mucksalmina answered all questions without hesitation, even when asked, "Have you or your men ever had to kill?" However, he hesitated when Stephen pointed to the teenager who had brought us there, and asked, "I know you would die if you had to in defending your homeland. But...look at this old is he? Are you willing to see this kid die?"

Two weeks later, through a text message, one of the armed men who guided us all the way to the hut said, "Actually, I think children like him should not fight with guns. But what can we do? He had a very strong will to fight for his homeland; but don't worry, we take care of our little brothers."

Mucksalmina answered the question, "We want to defend our land from Indonesian-Javanese colonialism. What my generation went through, the colonialism, we hope will never have to be experienced by next generations. People of my age will keep on fighting for independence. We don't want him to suffer as we did. Therefore, we fight. We are fighting for his future."

The interview lasted about 50 minutes. Before escorting us back, Mucksalmina and his men allowed us to take pictures. He then shook our hands. To Stephen and Sylvain, he said solemnly, "I hope we meet again in different circumstances. When we have our independence, you will be the first Canadians we'll invite to sit with us and celebrate."

We said goodbye and walked back to the village where our driver waited fearfully -- later he said that some people had threatened him. Half way down, the hand that held mine changed. When we arrived at the village, the armed uniformed men had vanished into the dark. The hand that held mine turned out to be the 13-year-old boy's hand.

We had also intended to follow the TNI into villages, for they had two different kinds of tasks to handle: humanitarian aid, as well as fighting rebels. However, covering both sides of a story is never an easy task.

Over the days that followed, we tried to contact TNI spokesperson Maj. Gen. Bambang Dharmono, however it turned out that he was in Jakarta. We later managed to contact Col. Ahmad Yani Basuki. Yani Basuki admitted that along the west coast, where Army and Marines are beavering away to repair the Banda Aceh-Meulaboh road, security disturbances had been occurring. However, he did not have exact data. "Just go there and see for yourself; the soldiers are working hard and doing great work. The road will be ready by March 26," he said.

We did not get a chance to follow any troops along the west coast. So instead, we headed east and met Second Lieutenant Nasrokin of the Army's 8th Cavalry Battalion in Krueng Manee, North Aceh. As the company's commander, Nasrokin allowed us to have a closer look, inviting us on a night patrol and a road sweeping exercise.

After a briefing and a prayer, we departed an hour before midnight in a TNI armored personnel carrier.

Along the way, Nasrokin and his men told us about their previous assignments in a nearby village in Piddie. "We were attacked in Piddie once. Some of our men were wounded, but we captured four rebels."

We stopped for a while on the main road to undertake a road sweeping operation. It was a routine check. "There are also special sweepings in which we already have information that there is something suspicious in a certain car. We once found a gun underneath a car seat and found weapons underneath a truck full of vegetables," Nasrokin said.

The road sweep took about an hour. Busses and private cars on the Banda Aceh-Medan road were stopped, passengers lined up and their ID cards checked.

Asked the same question about how Nasrokin would feel if one of his men was killed, he answered with conviction, "When signing on to the Indonesian Army, we signed a contract for life. So we are all ready to give our lives for this cause. But thank God, my battalion -- we have been assigned here for eight months -- has never lost anyone. There have been gun fights, we have been shot at, one of my men was wounded badly, but he survived. And I hope that I'll never lose any of my men."

The night patrol ended at two in the morning. Stephen and I were exhausted, but Nasrokin and his men still have to continue their duties guarding an IDP (internally displaced persons) camp near their post.

On our way back to our hotel, we were silent -- tired and absorbed in our thoughts. Stephen, my boss and colleague said, "Did you feel his dedication? If it wasn't because of this war, Nasrokin and Mucksalmina could have been best friends."