‘Widows’ of Aceh fight for freedom in a bitter land

Fellows Fall 2000

By Jacqueline Koch

June 07, 2009

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia December, 9, 2000 -- Demure and modestly veiled in jilbab headscarves, women circulate through Aceh's coffee shops, food stalls and open markets.

Youth and gender shield them from suspicion as they gather bits of conversation, noting who meets whom. Most are in their early 20s and not yet married, but they are known as the inong bale, or "widows." They are trained in military operations, to fire weapons and gather intelligence; they are the reserve force and the eyes and ears of GAM, the Free Aceh Movement.

After 24 years of conflict, women in this northwest province of Indonesia are increasingly responding to the violence that surrounds them. Emerging from traditional Muslim roles, they have become activists, politicians, human rights defenders and rebel fighters.

Cut Nur Asyikin is known as the "Lion of Aceh." A mother of five and a devout Muslim, she is a soldier fighting to stop military aggression against civilians. The political activist is imbued with a personal commitment to her people.

Travelling to refugee camps, she distributes food, supplies and moral support. At the hospital, she is a regular, stopping in on recently wounded civilians, digging into her purse for money to help the family.

Her allegiance is to the Free Aceh Movement, which launched its struggle to gain independence from Indonesia in 1976.

Following the fall of president Suharto in 1998 and subsequent promises for reform, Acehnese demands for a referendum on independence grew more insistent. The political elite in Jakarta, dependent on Aceh's vast oil and gas resources, has refused and a repressive military and police presence remains.

Early this year, Aceh was again in the grip of violence. The situation prompted the government and separatist rebels to negotiate a "humanitarian pause," hoping to secure aid to victims and find a workable solution. Yet progress has been marginally successful at best.

Following the most recent wave of violence last month, where 51 people lost their lives attempting to attend a pro-referendum rally, talks have broken down.

Two weeks ago, President Abdurrahman Wahid threatened to impose a state of civil emergency and squash the separatist movement. The crisis continues to brew and the scenario becomes eerily reminiscent of East Timor.

In the mist-shrouded hills looming beyond the capital, Banda Aceh, 250 women attend a lecture on international human rights laws in a makeshift meeting hall. It is the nucleus of an extensive separatist military camp, carved out of the tropical forest. Their commander, the soft-spoken Teungku Tarzura, says: "These women were not recruited. They come here on their own, they come out of concern for their country."

The "widows" enlist for a month-long induction in military operations and intelligence gathering. They also learn pro-independence ideology, international human rights laws and further their Islamic education. At the end of four weeks, "we return to our villages, or start our university studies, but if our people need us, we are ready to defend them," explains one inong bale initiate who asked not to be named.

Indonesia has repeatedly tried to quell GAM separatists using brutal measures, but with little success. In 1988, then-president Suharto ordered special military operations in Aceh. Conservative estimates put the civilian death toll at 5,500. Thousands were wounded, imprisoned or simply disappeared. Countless civilians were confined to the institutionalized rumah geudong, or torture houses, where they were beaten, mutilated and subjected to electric shock.

Women have suffered the lion's share of the tragedy. Losing their husbands, sons and fathers, many are left unable to support or protect themselves or their children. Scores of women were systematically targeted by military personnel, raped, sexually abused and mutilated.