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JAKARTA - The past 12 years have hardly been normal for Suraiya Kamaruzzaman. As a women's rights activist in conflict-torn Aceh, intimidation and terror have been part of the 33-year-old's daily life.
She said her telephone had been tapped on many occasions over the past three years. Whenever she called or received a call, there would either be threats uttered over the line, or the call would be cut off.
"I have also received anonymous letters, direct threats and have been picked up off the street. Our office has also been watched," she told The Jakarta Post recently.
"The methods of intimidation could at times become altogether more life-threatening for us activists. Some were beaten up badly, or even shot at. And sometimes, it wasn't clear who was carrying out all the terror. It could be either the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) or the Indonesian Military (TNI)," Suraiya said.
However, the most difficult part was being stereotyped by the TNI and GAM. Both see activists as "friends" of their enemies. And that comes with the ultimate risk: death.
But Suraiya, who is unmarried, has been willing to take the risk since she and her colleagues established Flower Aceh in 1989, an organization committed to empowering women in Aceh.
A small, thin, light-skinned woman who wears a head scarf, Suraiya appears too pretty and vulnerable to fit the image of an outspoken activist.
Born into a stable family (both her parents were teachers), Suraiya started to be aware of the problems around her when she was a student at the School of Chemical Engineering at the University of Syiah Kuala in the capital, Banda Aceh. At that time, the military operation zone (DOM) was imposed in the country's westernmost province.
Many women became the target of sexual violence. If men were branded rebels, their wives would also be kidnapped and investigated. Horror stories abound of rape and sexual abuse of women of all ages.
Even after the operation was stopped in late 1998, human rights violations continued as women were used as pawns by both sides.
"When trees were felled by GAM to block TNI personnel, women were asked by the TNI to move the trees, blaming their husbands for cutting them down and using the women as human shields so that GAM wouldn't shoot at them. Many women were also placed outside the camps for the same purpose," Suraiya said.
The issue of sexual violence was also used by both sides to topple one another. "Whether violence really occurs or not and by whoever, in the end it's women who suffer the most," said Suraiya, who teaches at her alma mater.
As of the end of last year, 300,000 people, mostly women and children, had fled the province. Suraiya's Flower Aceh initially aimed at improving the financial conditions of women in Aceh by establishing small enterprises.
They also developed health programs with traditional medicine, as the traumatic situation leaves many of the population with medical problems, and medicine is normally expensive.
"But eventually we realized that money doesn't necessarily open access to other areas for women. So instead we provided political education and knowledge about women's rights," Suraiya said.
With her colleagues, mostly women in their 20s and 30s, Suraiya visits villages. Sometimes they have to walk 80 kilometers as there is no transport.
These activities have led her to be placed on GAM's blacklist. Leaflets prohibiting NGOs like Flower from entering villages have been posted, which provides yet another obstacle for them to continue their programs. But her struggle, however, won her the 2001 Yap Thiam Hien human rights award.
"I feel so surprised and touched. That no matter how little we do, there's someone who's paying attention. It makes me realize what a journey we've been through. It gives me new spirit," Suraiya said.
"But somehow, it also makes me realize how abnormal life in Aceh has been ... how a lot of problems still remain," she said. Suddenly, she is quiet. Her nose turns red, her eyes glisten with tears.
Sobbing, she tells a story of a couple who were killed in their own house early this year. The woman was a respected midwife while her husband was a plain-clothed member of staff at the local police station. And they were about to have dinner.
"It was their children who reported their parents' murder to the neighbors the day after. The children were only six years old and three years old respectively. Their mother apparently rushed them to a room. Can you imagine them hiding under the bed ... and then the older child covered the younger child's mouth with her hand so the murderer wouldn't hear them? Can you imagine the trauma they have gone through?" Suraiya shook her head, still sobbing.
That was just one case, she said, only a small indication of how life is no longer normal for most Acehnese. "Intimidation, threats, terror ... Imagine that people now have to be tactical because it could either be GAM or TNI who do it. Or it could also be regular criminals who often take advantage of the situation," said Suraiya. Suraiya, like many of us, wonders why Aceh's problems remain unsettled.
"When the military operation started in Aceh, GAM was not even 200 people while TNI consisted of tens of thousands people. But GAM still exists. Even celebrities and reporters can meet GAM's commander, so how come TNI doesn't know its headquarters? And then there was the big celebrations for GAM's anniversary...I mean, what is this?"
Suraiya suspects that the prolonged conflict continues for some party's interest. There was a time when Suraiya felt extremely tired and wanted to quit the fight because of all the violations, none of which have been investigated or brought to court.
"But I'm lucky ... My colleagues are strong and supportive and that gives me strength," she said. Suraiya now waits for President Megawati Soekarnoputri to fulfill her promise to settle Aceh's problems.
"I still can't see that Megawati is concerned about women's problems. And remember her political speech before the presidential election? She said that if tjut nyak (a term for Acehnese women) was a president, there wouldn't be any more tears shed in Aceh'. Well, it is not just tears, but blood that still flows in Aceh. And I don't even know where tjut nyak is."

Posted in Politics @ 30 December 2001 by Jeroen · 'Blog' RSS feed · permalink

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