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In Tsunami's Wake, Peace Takes Hold in Aceh

The toll the giant waves took on the Indonesian province, and fear the long conflict would imperil foreign aid, led to push for resolution.

October 09, 2005|Robin McDowell | Associated Press Writer

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia — Irwandi Yusuf was in jail for treason when the tsunami crashed into Aceh, sweeping away everything in its path -- people, houses, cars and the walls of his cell. He scrambled to the roof and watched as hundreds of inmates disappeared in the torrent of water.

The tsunami that took more than 131,000 lives in Aceh sprang him from prison. It also helped usher peace into an Indonesian province whose wars date back 130 years. And by an extra twist of fate, it made the 45-year-old former fighter and intelligence officer part of the solution.

Yusuf fled to the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, then Malaysia and finally Finland, where he ended up joining exiled leaders of the Free Aceh Movement in negotiating an end to the fighting.

Many obstacles lie ahead, but nearly two months after the signing of the Helsinki accord, most agree peace prospects have never been better.

Thousands of Indonesian troops in camouflage gear have left in warships -- the first of 30,000 soldiers and police slated to pull out by year's end. Young rebels in bluejeans and dark sunglasses have handed in about a quarter of the movement's declared arsenal of 840 weapons.

"The tsunami changed our minds," said Yusuf, noting that tens of thousands of his fighters lost family members in the Dec. 26 disaster that struck 11 Indian Ocean countries. "With so many people suffering, we want to focus now on how to rebuild."

The province on the northern tip of the island of Sumatra is not the only place where the killer waves appeared -- for a moment anyway -- to be a catalyst for peace.

In Sri Lanka, too, foes reached across ethnic divides to help shelter and feed survivors. But today things are bloodier than ever in the island republic, in part because of disputes over tsunami aid but also because the secretive Tamil Tiger rebel movement has too much to lose, and the coalition government isn't strong enough to follow through.

Aceh's story is different.

Its latest fighting broke out in 1976 when rebels picked up arms to carve out an independent homeland in the oil- and gas-rich province. Nearly 15,000 people have died, many of them civilians caught up in army sweeps through remote villages.

A lot can go wrong. Three earlier accords collapsed, and some rebels are still afraid to leave their jungle bases.

But others have slowly started climbing down from the mountains to visit family and friends in Banda Aceh, the provincial capital, and other areas previously off limits to them. Some have recently traveled along coastal roads by motorcycle to see the devastation for the first time.

Hundreds of thousands of Acehnese remain homeless, many in tents on trash-strewn lots that were once thriving middle-class neighborhoods. Many of the houses still standing are patched up with tarps and scrap wood.

But life is springing back: Young men play soccer on a field that was littered with hundreds of bloated bodies for days after the tsunami. Lovers walk hand in hand along the beach, and thousands turned out recently for a pop concert.

"To have peace after a disaster like the tsunami is really heaven after hell," said Suadi Sulaiman, 27. He was strolling through rice paddies and alleyways in the village of Simbe where, until a few months ago, he was fighting soldiers or fleeing them -- once with a bullet in his side.

Conditions for peace were improving even before the tsunami.

The rebels were reeling from a 2003 military offensive that followed the collapse of the previous accord.

Thousands had been killed, leaving them with only 3,000 fighters pushed deeper and deeper into the jungle, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group said in a report.

Many were young, uneducated and lacked their predecessors' ideological zeal.

"We just like fighting," said Fachruvrazi, 24, who took up arms in the rebel stronghold of Pidie when he was 19. "We told our parents, 'If you don't let us go to battle, we won't eat our rice.' "

Weapons were so scarce that fighters had to share their guns.

In contrast, Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers are well armed and organized. After nearly two decades of fighting that claimed 65,000 lives, they control large swaths of rural Sri Lanka, complete with their own border guards and tax collectors.

At the same time, Sri Lanka's government has been riven by inter-party disputes and opposition to the peace process.

Those divisions were reflected in the Tigers' demand for a say in distributing the billions in aid that poured in after the tsunami, which killed more than 30,000 Sri Lankans. When President Chandrika Kumaratunga finally agreed, some coalition supporters abandoned her.

By contrast, the peace process in Aceh had the full support of the government of newly elected Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who had promised to end festering insurgencies in Aceh and Papua provinces.

Vice President Jusuf Kalla was in secret talks with the rebels even before the tsunami struck.

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