ACEH’S CHILDREN: SCARRED AND SILENT

When you land at Banda Aceh airport today and drive into town, there is not much that seems different from any other smallish provincial city in Indonesia, except perhaps for a much higher percentage of women wearing jilbab head shawls and a terminal designed to look like a mosque. Along the main roads and protocol areas leading to town, there are no major physical indications of the tsunami that ripped through huge swathes of flat-lands in this outlying province of Indonesia 5 short years ago, killing hundreds of thousands of people. And much less so the forty years of armed conflict that has shredded the fabric of Aceh’s society.

Some of the more freakish sights, like a huge floating electricity generator pontoon which the tsunami propelled five kilometers inland, have become local tourist attractions and somehow have lost the aura of tragedy.

But the prolonged, bitter conflict and the apocalyptic devastation left behind by the tsunami, have gouged deep scars in the Acehnese psyche, and nowhere more so than in the hearts and minds of it’s children. The worst hurt seem the most taciturn. Their voices recounting their stories are matter-of-fact, tempered by suffering. Few adjectives enter their sentences.

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Today there are still many children who are separated from their families, many of whom have little choice but to live in a variety of child care hostels ranging from traditional local Islamic boarding schools (‘Dayah’) to state institutions, which in Indonesia go under the generic term of panti asuhan.

The quality of care, education, living conditions and social atmosphere of all these institutions, particularly the newer ones, vary greatly. Often it boils down to the motivation and character of the directors of the institution itself, who in the case of the private institutions tend to be the ‘owners’. In not a few cases the children have become a commodity, the ‘bait’ for funding and grants – the more the children, the more the money. More often the atmosphere of these institutions is less spiritual than repressive.

The children register everything quietly, but remember vividly. Dormitory rooms so full that the only place to sleep is on the floor. Sharing 3 bathroom/toilets with 65 others. Punishments: “I was forced into the got (open sewer like gutter) because I couldn’t memorise the religious texts well” said one 15 yr old girl who eventually went home.

Many endure for lack of choice, parents killed or impoverished by war and tsunami. They know they are a burden for their families. Says one 12 year old orphan “I would like to stay with my aunt, but she is already looking after 5 of her own kids and my little sister, it’s very crowded and my uncle doesn’t work”. Some are determined to weather the worst to improve their lot: “My father is gone. My mother is a seasonal farm laborer. I want to be a doctor” states a petite teenager in a baby blue gauze jilbab.

Others are just happy to have any sanctuary. A 13 year old ward of Dayah Darul Amna in Pidie whose father was killed by GAM rebels and whose mother was lost in the tsunami when she went to Banda Aceh that fateful day, feels secure here: “I like Walid (Rachmat, the director), I can talk with him.”.

Perhaps one of the reasons why is that ‘Walid’ Rachmat really understands: his own father was killed by GAM rebels demanding a cut of money granted to Dayah by the government. That’s not to say the 13 yr old in his charge doesn’t miss his parents: “I wish I had gone to Banda Aceh that day. At least I would be with my mother now.”.The adults in the room fall into a delicate silence.

There are many such stories. Ironically, the tsunami has washed away public attention from the deeper wounds of the armed conflict. Though the Memorandum of Understanding remains in place til now, long term suspicions remain, some barely beneath the surface. Both sides committed atrocities. Both remain suspicious of each other, and of each other’s children. In my local guide’s words: “Acehnese revenge lasts 7 generations”.

What is even sadder is that those who tried to remain neutral in the conflict and simply get on with their lives, were not only caught in the middle but were labeled traitor by both sides. The Acehnese even coined a new word, “Cua’ak”, for these ‘fence sitting traitors’. The same twisted logic applies to the cuâ’aks children, who inherit this dubious title and the double discrimination that goes with it.

In this atmosphere of political and religious tension, these young charges of institutionalized care, these tenacious victims of circumstance, are not really just statistics. These children of Aceh, so sparing with their adjectives, living by their own rules of emotional survival, are the heirs of a fractured community.

Some of them are determined to fight for a better future. Others have neither the will nor the help to overcome their hurt. Meet the time bombs of the future.

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