Reporter Orlando de Guzman has made several trips to Indonesia since first reporting there in 2000, and has spent the last 18 months living in the Javanese city of Yogyakarta. In these diaries, he writes about his time in Aceh and some of the physical and emotional changes that have swept over the province. He talks to those seeking justice for crimes committed during 30 years of war and to the new governor, who colleagues say has yet to lay out a clear plan for securing Aceh's future. There's also Western aid and to some degree Western culture pouring into the province after the devastating tsunami; and crackdowns from the Sharia police who are enforcing a more conservative form of Islam [watch the accompanying video of a public caning]. Beyond war and peace and rebuilding, de Guzman also shares some of the paradoxes and beliefs that make this archipelago of countless islands such a complex and diverse place.
In the town of Muelaboh, Orlando de Guzman and his crew witnessed a public caning outside a local mosque. The woman, a widow, had been reported to the Sharia police by her neighbors. Watch Now »
The Language Barrier
In January 2006 I took a year off from journalism and moved to Indonesia for a fellowship that let me study Bahasa Indonesia, the country's official language. Indonesia has more than 300 languages, but Bahasa Indonesia is the one that unifies the sprawling archipelago of 14,000 islands. I've been traveling to Indonesia since 2000, but I felt that being more fluent in the language would allow for a deeper understanding of this incredibly diverse and fascinating country.
I packed my bags and brought my wife and son to Yogyakarta, a teeming city in central Java that's regarded as the epicenter of Javanese culture. For an entire year, I buried myself in Indonesian grammar and history books and rode an antique Dutch-era bicycle to my language classes. I had been drawn to central Java because of its layers of beliefs -- Islam on the surface, older influences beneath. Hinduism and Buddhism once were the dominant religions here, and the ruins of old temples devoted to the Hindu gods of Vishnu and Shiva pepper the landscape. Yogyakarta is still ruled by a sultan, much the way it has been for hundreds of years, and the city's location -- only 12 miles from Indonesia's most active volcano, Mount Merapi -- has spawned rich mythologies.
The Baiturrahman Grand Mosque in the provincial capital Banda Aceh is a majestic symbol of Aceh's devout Islamic culture. First built in the 12th century, it was razed and rebuilt several times. In 1873 the mosque was burned to the ground when colonizers wrested control of Banda Aceh. The mosque was again damaged during the December 2004 tsunami but has since been repaired. Acehnese are proud of their Islamic heritage and refer to their province as Southeast Asia's "Veranda to Mecca."
Yogyakarta's main draw is its universities -- there are more than a dozen of them. It is these places that give the city a youthful atmosphere, despite its ancient history. Yogyakartans will tell you that the Indonesian spoken here is the most comprehensible and refined, and Indonesians I've met elsewhere in the country immediately recognize my excessively polite Yogyakarta accent.
“Yogyakartans will tell you that the Indonesian spoken here is the most comprehensible and refined, and Indonesians I've met elsewhere in the country immediately recognize my excessively polite Yogyakarta accent.”
To pass my language program, I had to write a research paper -- delivered in standard, formal Indonesian -- about any topic of my choice. What most interested me were the region's folk mythologies and how they co-existed or clashed with newer Islamic beliefs.
This curiosity led me to a small village about a two-hour drive from my Yogyakarta home. Thousands of Muslim pilgrims from all over Java travel to this village to pray over the grave of a mythical prince known as Pangeran Samodro. In 1417, when the last Hindu kingdom in Java collapsed under the rising power of the new Islamic sultanates, Samodro, according to myth, fled to this village with his mistress, who also happened to be his mother. This young Oedipus was then stoned to death. As he lay dying, he whispered that if anyone were to commit acts more shameful than his, their wishes would come true.
"Over the years, the myth has been interpreted in different ways, but the most enduring interpretation challenges anyone's notion of what Islam represents in Indonesia. Pilgrims must bring a lover to Prince Samodro's grave and have sex.”
Over the years, the myth has been interpreted in different ways, but the most enduring interpretation challenges anyone's notion of what Islam represents in Indonesia. Pilgrims must bring a lover to Prince Samodro's grave and have sex. The partner cannot be the lover's husband or wife; he or she must be another pilgrim found at the gravesite or picked up along the way; and every month, the couple must return to the grave and have sex. If the ritual is done properly, wealth and prosperity will follow. On one trip to the village, I met a woman who'd driven 8 hours to find her partner in the crowd of pilgrims. She was dressed in traditional Muslim clothing -- arms, hair and ankles covered. She was nervous, and said it was her first time to the village. Her neighbor, who she says is doing well now in business, told her to come here.
Young women sing along at a rock concert in Banda Aceh in 2007.
During the Asian economic collapse of 1997, the number of pilgrims swelled, with more and more desperate people turning to ancient mythologies to solve their financial troubles. Shacks were set up around the grave so that couples could consummate the ritual in privacy. Even today, on busy nights, the village resembles a seedy red-light district in Jakarta.
The longer I stayed in Indonesia, the more I realized that beneath the obvious lay a deeper, more complex story. Reports in the English-language newspaper varied greatly from those written in the Indonesian-language papers. Indonesian words have double meanings, and the culture, politics and beliefs are reflected in the nuances of their speech.
My FRONTLINE/World assignment took me to Aceh in northern Sumatra, a place I'd visited many times in the past. Since the tsunami struck, it had become more Islamic -- adopting Sharia law and punishment for criminal offences. Its culture couldn't be more different from that in central Java.
When I arrived in Aceh's capital, Banda Aceh, to research this story, I felt that something else was different. I hadn't realized it right away, but then it struck me: For the first time, I could understand people and they could understand me. Bahasa Indonesia was no longer a foreign language -- it had become my own.
The Sharia Police
The small airport in Banda Aceh has undergone little improvement since I started coming to the province in 2001. It's always chaos at the baggage claim area: Inevitably, the plane's cargo gets dumped at the end of what may be – at about 12 feet -- the world's shortest baggage conveyor.
The most striking change can be seen at the departure and arrival hall. Since the tsunami, it's packed with dozens of foreign aid workers and consultants, tapping away at their Blackberries or going over project proposals.
Aceh feels much more connected to the rest of the world now. I counted more than six flights a day to Jakarta, and soon this dumpy building will be torn down and replaced with a multi-story terminal to serve direct flights overseas.
An Indonesian soldier stands guard at a government school in Aceh after martial law was enforced in the province four years ago. More than 200 school buildings were burned in Aceh during the first weeks of fighting in 2003. For many Acehnese, the heavy military presence became a fact of life. Most of the Indonesian soldiers have pulled out of the province and for the first time in decades the province is enjoying a rare peace.
Stepping out of the airport, I noticed another change since the tsunami struck. A large green sign in Bahasa Indonesia reads, “Welcome to Aceh, the Land of Sharia Law.” It depicts a large mural of an Acehnese family standing in front of a mosque, with everyone dressed in appropriate Muslim dress.
My Acehnese friends tell me that since the tsunami, there has been a rising tide of Islamic conservatism and an obsession with moral conduct. The local newspaper, Serambi Indonesia, has methodically reported case after case of young unmarried couples getting caught, often in the act, of "illicit relationships." Sharia police patrol the streets, dragooning women into wearing headscarves and making sure no Acehnese loiter in cafes that serve cold beers to foreign aid workers. There was a new moral vigilantism going on, with neighbors reporting on neighbors for perceived violations of the newly enforced Sharia laws. Public lashings of young couples have taken place in the Banda Aceh and in remote villages.
“Sharia police patrol the streets, dragooning women into wearing headscarves and making sure no Acehnese loiter in cafes that serve cold beers to foreign aid workers.”
“First we had to live under the conflict, then we had the tsunami, now we have to live under Sharia law,” said Nani Afrida, a journalist friend in Banda Aceh who I've known for many years.
I wanted to learn more about the relationship between the tsunami and the Islamic conservatism. Acehnese are devout Muslims, and they proudly refer to their province as the “Verandah to Mecca,” a reference to Aceh's historical importance as a trading port where Islam surfaced early on. From here, Islam would spread to other islands in Indonesia. Aceh was not just a launching point for Islam, it also produced influential philosophers and religious leaders who transformed and reinterpreted Islamic teachings.
Islam has long been closely linked to Acehnese identity. But prior to the tsunami, the local government made no efforts to legislate proper Muslim behavior or punish those who've broken Sharia laws.
In fact, Aceh's current Sharia laws do not have their roots in Aceh. It was a so-called gift from Jakarta; government officials there thought the laws would placate Islamic Acehnese wanting independence and stop their efforts to break away from the rest of Indonesia. But few Acehnese paid attention when Sharia law was granted. Their attention rested on more pressing problems: military repression, poverty and the desire for independence.
“It was the wrong prescription for Aceh's problems,” recalls Humam Hamid, a sociology lecturer in Banda Aceh. “It wasn't a gift. It was a poison.”
After the tsunami, Sharia law took on a life of its own.
One night, I joined a Sharia police patrol around Banda Aceh. We were staking out a park, looking for errant 20-somethings making out in the dark corners. Armed with radios and a zealous mission to rid Aceh of un-Islamic behavior, these men had significant powers to search and pick up offenders.
“The tsunami happened because we Acehnese were not being faithful enough,” a burly Sharia police officer told me as we sat in his patrol car. “If we don't correct ourselves and move away from immoral behavior, another tsunami will come and destroy us all.”
I found such beliefs even stronger in Muelaboh, a town of 40,000 people on the western coast of Aceh. The 11-hour car journey from Banda Aceh took me past hundreds of new villages built and fed entirely on international aid.
Muelaboh was only 80 miles from the epicenter of the 9.1 magnitude earthquake, and within minutes, giant waves had swept away 80 percent of the town. In Muelaboh, I went on more patrols with the Sharia police. I could tell they took their jobs seriously. Unlike their counterparts in Banda Aceh, the Sharia police in Muelaboh wore no uniforms, and they preferred stealth-like sting operations to more public raids.
“If we wear uniforms and use the patrol car,” one of them said, “people will see us and run. But if we dress like civilians and sneak up on them on our motorcycles, we catch more of them.”
I arrived in Muelaboh in time to watch a public caning outside one of the local mosques. The unfortunate couple had broken the Sharia law with what appeared to be an illicit relationship. The woman, a poor widow from a village on the outskirts of Muelaboh, had been reported to the Sharia police by neighbors. Her crime? She had been seen in public with a man whose neighbors suspected was her lover.
“Elaborate preparations were underway for the public caning, with VIP seating for politicians and prominent members of the community. By the time the couple was brought to the stage for their punishment, there were more than 1,000 people jeering.”
Indonesian police van carries a man and a woman who are about to be publicly caned for transgressing Sharia law.
Elaborate preparations were underway for the public caning, with VIP seating for politicians and prominent members of the community. By the time the couple was brought to the stage for their punishment, there were more than 1,000 people jeering. Masked "executioners" gave the woman and the man seven hard lashes with a rattan cane. It was a shocking scene.
The Acehnese I know have always seemed comfortable with their faith -- they've neither appeared threatened by outsiders nor defensive about their religion.
The longer I stayed in Aceh, I wondered if the province's new peace was in part to blame for this conservative backlash. For years Aceh was closed to the rest of the world, and teenagers were best kept inside at night because of the fighting. With peace has come a more liberal, carefree atmosphere, and Acehnese youth are embracing this. Young Acehnese now have boyfriends and girlfriends, and they are ditching their headscarves in favor of global popular fashion.
“Just because our parents grew up in the time of their grandparents, does that mean we should, as well?” asks Ninong, a 22-year-old university student in Banda Aceh, who has been caught by the Sharia police for not wearing a headscarf.
“My own parents never told me that I should wear a headscarf,” says Ninong. “What right do the Sharia police have to force me to wear one?”
Ninong and her friends were hanging out at a local radio station that played American gangland hip-hop. They also take calls from friends and chat about boyfriends, sex and how to outrun the Sharia police.
Revisiting a Troubled Past
In May 2003, I witnessed the aftermath of the execution of seven young men in the village of Matamamplam, in Aceh. The men, according to witnesses, were lined up in a row and shot in the head at close range. I had arrived just as the Indonesian troops, belonging to a special-forces unit known as Kopassus, were leaving the village. “You're too late,” one of them said. “We just killed some rats over there.”
The youngest of the boys was 11 years old, and the oldest was 18. They had spent the night sleeping in a hut overlooking the prawn ponds next to the village. They were there to guard the ponds from midnight thieves, who would scoop up their prized prawns with nets. The next morning, relatives fished out the bodies of the boys from the murky water. I arrived as they were wrapping white burial clothes around their bodies, blood spilling out of the back of their heads; I stayed until the funeral. A few days later, the military operation had intensified, and the Indonesian government declared martial law throughout the province. Foreign journalists were banned from reporting in Aceh, and I was forced to leave immediately.
The next time I returned to Aceh was shortly after the December 2004 tsunami. The death and wholesale devastation I saw was beyond anything imaginable. What I'd witnessed during the conflict in Aceh seemed pale by comparison, as entire towns were swept away and the death toll reached 170,000.
But returning to the province, I found that it isn't the tsunami that haunts people. Rather, it's the memory of systematic and brutal violence against people, such as the young men at Matamamplam. In the village of Lampuuk, a seaside community that was nearly wiped off the map, I met with tsunami survivors, who say they fear a return of the war more than another wave.
“With the tsunami, all you need to do is run away from it. When the tsunami waters come roaring in, it will eventually go back to the sea,” says Maimunah Abdullah, a 57-year-old woman from Lampuuk. “But the soldiers, they will stay and continue hunting you down.”
Acehnese are quick to point out that the trauma from the tsunami and the conflict are two very different experiences. The tsunami was Allah's judgment, and no one can be held accountable for that. Humans must submit to God's judgment and use it as a lesson to strengthen their faith. The conflict, on the other hand, involves the hand of mankind and the failure of its leaders. Until someone is held accountable, there will never be closure, no peace of mind, according to many of the villagers I met.
“The Aceh I see today is a disturbed place. In Takengon, among Aceh's central highlands, shallow graves of victims are still being dug up. At a coffee plantation high in the mountains, I met a woman whose legs are chained together by her family whenever she relapses into mental illness.”
The Aceh I see today is a disturbed place. In Takengon, among Aceh's central highlands, shallow graves of victims are still being dug up. At a coffee plantation high in the mountains, I met a woman whose legs are chained together by her family whenever she relapses into mental illness. Her trauma began, according to her family, when a soldier pointed his rifle at her and threatened to kill her.
At a treatment center for people suffering from mental illness, I met more people in shackles. Behind a corrugated-iron fence on the outskirts of a remote village near the industrial city of Lhoksuemawe, I was taken to a row of shacks the size of closets. Patients slept on straw mats; the stench of urine was overwhelming. The man who runs the center is Ridwan Yunus. He has no medical background, and believes that those who are suffering from mental trauma have been possessed by evil spirits.
“These evil spirits are from people who died because they've been beaten, shot, strangled or had their necks slit,” said Yunus, as he flipped through the pages of his patients' logbooks. “They are dead and empty inside, and they look for people to possess -- bodies they can inhabit.”
I asked Yunus what medication he gave to those suffering from trauma. He went into a dark room, rummaged around for a minute and came back with an empty Sprite bottle and some twigs. They were sacred objects, he said, that would help ward off evil spirits.
Still, I wanted to know why it's been so hard for Acehnese to forget about the war. After all, 170,000 people were killed within a single day by the tsunami; 15,000 were killed over 30 years of fighting.
My answer came when I spoke to Ali Jamjami, a man who is starting to fight for the rights of war victims. He says both his parents were burned alive when the Indonesian military raided his village. The military arrested him; he was beaten and given electric shocks.
"With torture, they deliberately don't kill you," said Jamjami. "But they give you a taste of what it's like to die. And you live with that death for the rest of your life."
Today, as billions of dollars pour in to reconstruct Aceh after the tsunami, conflict victims like Jamjami are left out. He told me he has received no aid, not even an official acknowledgment that horrible things happened to him and his family.
Today, as billions of dollars pour in to reconstruct Aceh after the tsunami, conflict victims like Jamjami are left out. He told me he has received no aid, not even an official acknowledgment that horrible things happened to him and his family.
“The issue of the tsunami has already been turned into a major business,” says Jamjami, as he sips a cup of bitter Acehnese coffee. “But our officials are afraid to approach the issue of human rights abuses and open dialogue about it.”
The tsunami has washed over Aceh's brutal past, but his fear and pain remain.
On May 25, 2003, on a deserted stretch of road in Aceh, my car was sprayed with bullets, nearly killing me and several other journalists inside the vehicle. Amazingly, no one was hurt. But the attack -- most likely by trigger-happy GAM rebels -- came as a surprise; we had been careful to coordinate our movements with our GAM intelligence contact, a man who went by the name Iskandar.
My colleague, a journalist from Time magazine, was furious about the shooting incident, and we both sent text messages to Iskandar, to make sure his men would not shoot at us again. We still had a long way to go on the dangerous road to Banda Aceh, and the possibility of another ambush worried us greatly.
We never heard back from Iskandar; little did we know that the police had arrested him. His mobile phone was seized, and our SMS messages further incriminated him, as they revealed his GAM connections. He would later be beaten, tortured and jailed.
Iskandar's real name, I would later learn, is Irwandi Yusuf.
Now, almost four years later, I was in Aceh to finally meet Yusuf in person. Back then, like many GAM contacts, he had only existed through cryptic text messages on my cell phone.
Today, his face is on nearly every street corner in Banda Aceh. I arrived the day before Irwandi was being inaugurated for his new job -- as the province's governor. There were elaborate preparations: Roads were swept, freshly printed banners hung, sound systems checked and VIP convoys pushed their way through the morning traffic.
There was an air of anticipation and hope. This was Aceh's first popularly elected governor and, more significantly, the first elected leader with GAM credentials. During the conflict, he secretly ran GAM's intelligence operation from his post as a lecturer in veterinary medicine -- a degree he earned while studying in Oregon in the early 1990s.
I would never have predicted this outcome for Aceh, and neither did Irwandi, who had been serving a 14-year sentence for treason before the tsunami.
“I told myself that I would only stay in prison until January 2005,” Irwandi said, when I finally met him. We were sitting in an office at the Banda Aceh police station, where Irwandi had been interrogated and tortured.
“I told myself that I would only stay in prison until January 2005,” Irwandi said, when I finally met him. We were sitting in an office at the Banda Aceh police station, where Irwandi had been interrogated and tortured. (Read about how Irwandi escaped from prison and helped broker peace in the province in this interview with him.)
The governor's challenges are immense: His province is recovering from 30 years of war and one of modern history's biggest natural disasters; thousands of GAM fighters remain jobless; a split in GAM leadership between its older guard and new cadres (such as Irwandi) is reaching a crisis point and could threaten political stability. Compounding all this are ultra-nationalists within the Indonesian government, especially the armed forces, whose members have expressed suspicion of Irwandi's motives. (Irwandi, for his part, says he's uncovered a military intelligence plan to undermine his government.)
Irwandi's story is much like Aceh's -- unpredictable and subject to uncontrollable, external forces. But Irwandi himself is an incredibly difficult man to know: He speaks in abstractions, abhors interviews and -- up to now -- has never clearly laid out his vision for Aceh over the next few years. He remains a mystery to many Acehnese, including his closest aides.
"We don't know what his positions are on issues," said one of Irwandi's lawmakers. "He hasn't bothered to tell us anything yet. He seems more interested in traveling and attending official ceremonies."
Irwandi's task for the moment, it seems, is to strengthen his position and stabilize the economy. He spends much of his time entertaining foreign investors with grand blueprints for Singapore-style ports and roads.
As governor, Irwandi has inherited an entrenched bureaucracy renowned for its inertia and reliance on higher orders and budgets from Jakarta, and one that is notoriously corrupt.
"You know, I fought for the independence of Aceh, but now I have lost my own independence," says Irwandi, before presiding over a legislative meeting at the provincial parliament.
The session lasted more than five hours, and while he listened to official speeches drone on, a few legislators nodded off. Irwandi stayed awake, but said nothing.