Forgotten Victims Receive IRC Help in Aceh
The village of Pantong Krueng, set amid towering coconut and bamboo trees, lies in what was the heart of rebel-held territory. Clashes between the Indonesian army and GAM rebels were frequent here up until a peace agreement was signed on 15 August 2005.
While international support has helped tsunami victims get back on their feet, little has been done to help inland villages, says Samwel Wandera, the IRC's Teunom program manager, as our car bounces up and down on the potholed road leading to the village.
Most of the people from these communities have now returned to their villages, but they have little to look forward to. Their rice fields are overgrown with tall grass, the roads are falling apart, and drainage and irrigation systems are clogged up.
In response, the IRC is launching several small programs in a dozen villages including Pantong Krueng, to help people recover and repair crucial infrastructure.
"Some of the families who lived here were displaced from the fighting and forced to go live on the coast. And then the tsunami hit, which killed many of them," Wandera explains.
The peace agreement that brought the three-decade armed conflict to an end, calls for the reintegration of former GAM rebels into their communities.
"By creating a way for people to earn a living and making life better in the villages, we are aiding the reintegration process," Wandera says. "If there's hope for the future, people are less likely to take up arms again."
Under the straw roof of a small bamboo shack where sweetened Acehnese coffee is being served, Anhar, the village chief, explains that life in the village was good before the escalation of the conflict here in 2000.
"After that things became very bad. GAM attacked the army post in our village all the time and the army beat us up because they thought that we were collaborating with the rebels. One time they shot a man in the foot because he took too long to get out of his house."
Anhar's 17-year-old brother Mustaryadi wasn't as lucky. One morning, as he was sleeping in a house with a friend suspected of being a GAM-member, the army burst in.
"They crushed Mustaryadi's head, Anhar said. "We found his dead body later that day by a big tree near the house."
During the fighting, villagers were not allowed to leave Pantong Krueng without special permits and the local economy suffered. In 2000, and then again after a state of emergency was introduced in 2003, many people from here and other nearby villages were relocated. When the tsunami hit, some of the displaced were among those who perished. Eventually, they were able to return to their homes.
In addition, most of the villages in the conflict areas suddenly found themselves supporting tsunami victims. This placed a huge additional burden on already impoverished communities, says Lisa Owen, the IRC's field coordinator in nearby Calang.
"When the emergency period was over and victims of the tsunami started to return to their villages, interior communities found themselves neglected and ignored, as most humanitarian assistance was going to the coast."
"Our communities are broken, as you can see," says Anhar, pointing in the direction of the miserable dirt road outside the coffee hut. "We used to grow rubber trees here but most of the plantations have died. The rice fields and our peanut fields are overgrown."
To make money, most of villagers work as day labourers in the area, Anhar says. He himself earns a living by cutting down trees which he sells to companies rebuilding houses for tsunami victims.
In the short run, the IRC plans to repair the road, open up the neglected drainage system in Pantong Krueng and help villagers replant peanuts, among other projects. Similar plans are being made for eight other villages in the region. In some, the IRC will help people to raise goats.
"In the future we would like to help villagers rehabilitate their crop and plantations, so that they can sell rubber and palm oil again," says Samwel Wandera. "There's a lot to be done here."