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By Andre Vltchek

Resting in a comfortable seat of super-express speeding towards northern Japan, I was admiring the snow-covered beauty of the rural countryside. It was getting dark and the wheels of the train were gently drumming against the rails in a monotonous and reassuring rhythm. The world seemed harmonious and safe.

Then suddenly my eyes caught sight of the letters of a news bulletin passing through the digital display above the door. Strong earthquake shook northern Sumatra. There were dozens of casualties. Just that - no further information was provided. I checked the news, one hour later, on the internet in my hotel in Sendai. It seemed that hundreds of people lost their lives in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand. An earthquake off the coast of Aceh, reaching magnitude of 9 on the Richter scale, was followed by a tsunami - a monstrous 10 meters high tidal wave - which crashed mercilessly and with unimaginable force against the shores of several unfortunate countries.

In the next few days the number of victims grew to thousands, then to tens of thousands. Whole villages and entire towns disappeared from the map. Hundreds of thousands of refugees hit what was left of the roads, but the roads were leading nowhere; as bridges were washed away/ Floods were fragmenting the entire North of Sumatra Island. Electricity and water supply collapsed (limited and unreliable everywhere in Indonesia even before the disaster); there was no food, no blood for the injured and no medicine. There was no reliable information either, since the foreign press was banned from traveling to the province, "for its own safety".

The Army - a tremendous contingent of it based in the province in order to suppress insurgency - did close to nothing. It was ordered to clean corpses and it cleaned some, but it otherwise showed no initiative, leaving a desperate population with almost no help.

The government did close to nothing. Instead of ordering special military units to travel immediately to the province, instead of using hundreds of military helicopters and aircraft to supply food and medicine, instead of ordering all seaworthy vessels to the area of disaster, the President of Indonesia urged the citizens to "scale down New Year's celebrations and pray instead."

Huge transport planes were sitting on runways all over Java, waiting for the order to take off - an order which never arrived.

Instead of employing professionals trained to cope with emergency situations, vice president Jusuf Kalla used military planes and commercial aircraft to shuttle Muslim militants (they called themselves "volunteers") from Majelis Mujahedeen Indonesia and Islamic Defenders Front (Front Pembela Muslim - better known as its acronym FPI - militant Muslim group from Jakarta devoted to enforcing Islamic law against drinking, gambling, and prostitution), a fact later reported by The New York Times. Then Laskar Jihad, one of the most militant Muslim groups in Southeast Asia made inroads into the province. Hundreds of Christians, mainly of Chinese origin, were forced to flee Aceh.

The presence of "volunteers" - directly sponsored by the government - had one main purpose: to secure Indonesian and religious order (already the strictest in entire Indonesia) in the province which was fighting for independence for almost thirty years, at enormous cost. Practically speaking, these untrained urbanites were only taking precious space in scarce flights to the province, although the propaganda machine fired the stories how some of them single- handedly managed to restore electric supplies and telecommunications in Banda Aceh.

And the dead kept mounting, diseases were spreading, hunger began to kill those who miraculously survived the brutality of the nature.

At one point the refusal to help Aceh began to look like a vengeance killing by the government and the military. Then Aceh suddenly appeared in the spotlight of interest of the international community and after some hesitation, the government "benevolently" allowed foreign aid and some international press agencies to enter the province. T

he results were almost immediate. International organizations and foreign military flew in and began building infrastructure from scratch. Not to rebuild it - there was not much social infrastructure even before the tsunami - but to construct provisory hospitals, food supply centers, shelters for the homeless. It was not enough, but it was at least something; definitely more than the state did in the last three decades when it came to investment in social infrastructure.

While this was happening, the Indonesian government was bragging that the disaster would not jeopardize predicted economic growth for the year 2005 (the lowest in the region even before the tsunami).

The Finance Minister openly declared that it expects foreigners to rebuild the area, while not diverting any substantial funds from state coffers. He was also quick to point out that vital oil production (the main reason for the occupation and the main income of the province - basically controlled by foreign multi-nationals after corrupt deals signed by Suharto's government few decades ago) suffered only a minor setback, although some inside reports suggest the contrary.

The government also suggested that Aceh is an outskirt of Indonesia; therefore its plight will have no major impact on the economy. In fact, it argued with no scruples, Indonesia could benefit, because it may attract thousands of tourists who will be avoiding damaged holiday resorts in Thailand.

To put the situation into perspective, the social system in Indonesia collapsed during the years when Suharto, supported by the West, fully controlled the political and economic life of Indonesia. This was also a period when Indonesians went through rigorous religious indoctrination which was supposed to reinforce the culture of obedience, which in turn served the regime.

Almost all public services were privatized, the quality of education nose-dived and life expectancy stagnated at around 64 years (one of the lowest in the region). Indonesia has, per capita, one of the highest numbers of orphans anywhere in the world and one of the worst records of child prostitution in the region. The poor have no safety net and justice is for sale. Indonesia, according to "Transparency International", is one of the most corrupt nations on earth.

The Indonesian military had been involved in a massacre of Sukarno's supporters after the coup in 1965 (up to 3 million people were butchered in a matter of months), it led genocidal war in East Timor (one of the most horrific barbarities of the 20th Century, happily applauded by the West), and caused gross human rights violations in Papua, Ambon, Aceh and elsewhere. It was and still is much better trained in raping and torturing civilians than in any sort of humanitarian assistance.

This compassionless, paralyzed and morally corrupt society was now facing one of the most terrible natural disasters in human history. Government officials and their business associates smelled a tremendous influx of foreign aid, which could, if unchecked, easily meet the same fate as the money from former foreign loans originally intended for development, infrastructure, and social programs but which disappeared in the deep pockets of elites, never reaching the impoverished majority of Indonesians.

As foreign governments were trying to outdo each other in pledging hundreds of millions of dollars for reconstruction of disaster stricken areas, Indonesian officials and military on the ground in Aceh were openly sabotaging relief efforts.

Food and medicine were piling in Medan and Banda Aceh, while almost no help was reaching desperate communities. A chartered Boeing 737 hit a buffalo after landing, shutting down for hours the only runway in the then only functioning airport in all of Aceh. Apparently it was not worth it to assign the military to guard this vital lifeline. But was it really an accident?

"One of the consequences of the lack of distribution of aid and medical assistance to several refugee camps has been the death of many refugees, especially women and children", says Yulia Evina Bhara from SEGERA (Alliance-Solidarity Movement For the People of Aceh). "This has occurred in Mata Le, Ulee Kareng, and large part of Pidie and Aceh Jeumpa... It is evident that the government has not taken any cooperative steps in terms of allowing easy access to areas in which aid needs to be distributed. If this continues to be the case, it means that the government is effectively disregarding the much needed humanitarian solidarity..."

Shortly after the tsunami hit the coast, GAM (Free Aceh Movement) declared a ceasefire. Few days later there were reports that Indonesian military continued with its operations. Sporadic exchanges of fire erupted in several places of Aceh. With no shame and no hesitation, the President of Indonesia began accusing GAM of breaking the ceasefire.

Foreign mainstream press (traditionally friendly to the post-1965 Indonesian regime), which initially concentrated its coverage strictly on disaster itself and later on the foreign relief operations, began asking some uncomfortable questions. Although still omitting information concerning the horrific human rights record of the Indonesian state, it couldn't fully ignore voices of Acehnese people who were accusing the government of sabotaging relief operations.

Sharp criticism of Indonesian government and military also came from foreign aid workers.

That seemed to be unacceptable for the establishment. On January 9th, the government began tightening restrictions on the movement of foreigners in the province. Reuters reported that on the 11th of January all good will vanished. Indonesia restricted foreign aid workers to two large cities because of "militant threats".

Indonesian army chief - General Endriartono Sutarto - declared that GAM might soon attack foreign aid workers or troops in Aceh. All aid agencies and NGOs operating in the province were urged to provide a full list of their staff.

GAM responded by denying all accusations made by the government, claiming that it never intended to cause harm to those who came to help, be it foreigners or locals. Foreigners operating in Aceh confirmed that they felt no threat from the independence movement.

A crackdown on independent sources of information by the Indonesian state is becoming inevitable. As in East Timor, Papua, and Aceh (before the disaster) it will be done under the cover of "protecting" the lives of the foreigners. The question is what will happen to Acehnese people afterwards. Even now, several members of Indonesian NGOs claim that the government actions (or more precisely - inaction) are responsible for at least 50 thousand out of 100 thousand known victims of disaster.

Is Aceh going to become another East Timor? Is the present situation just a result of impotence and incapability of the government, military, and the whole system, or of something much more sinister? Is it revenge; an extermination campaign design to break and secure this economically vital province?

Acehnese are proud and tough people. When Javanese elites were selling their country to foreigners, when most of the islands of today's Indonesia were accepting the presence of Dutch colonizers; Aceh fought bitterly for independence. "Under the Dutch, Java used to send assassins to break Aceh", said Pramoedya Ananta Toer, the greatest Indonesian writer and intellectual father of Indonesian state. "We have so much to learn from them!"

Recently, exploited by foreign multinational companies and by new Javanese elites, the people of Aceh began to fight again, against all odds. This time they fought against the Indonesian state - against one of the largest military forces on earth. 10 thousand men, women and children died in almost three decades of the conflict; maybe many more.

One of "profound" religious interpretations of this disaster in Indonesia was that God punished the people of Aceh for fighting for their independence. Official media even managed to find some Acehnese who declared it on the record. "If we don't stop fighting, we'll all go to hell."

Those who always suspected that there are no eternal flames, those who respect human life above anything else always knew that Aceh was already going through hell for many years. But "hell is the others" - those who fight innocent civilians, those who torture, those who are blocking help from the suffering people in their moment of tremendous need and catastrophe.

If those who are using disaster and human suffering for their own political, economic and military goals are not stopped soon, the entire country of Indonesia may soon go to hell. Not to some hell depicted by religious books - but to a real hell which is life in a society which has lost all basic moral human values; which allows small minority of people vulgarly lavish lifestyles at the expense of tens of millions who are starving and desperate.

Aceh is bleeding and the worst may still be ahead. Those who are arriving in Aceh should know that they are not only entering a land devastated by horrific natural disaster; they are entering a territory which was brutalized and exploited for decades and which still is. It doesn't only need aid - it needs solidarity, protection, and determined long-term help; and it needs it now! It needs a referendum and if it decides to vote for it - freedom. Anything will be better than the present situation - from here Aceh can only go to heaven!

ANDRE VLTCHEK, writer, political analyst and filmmaker lives and works in Southeast Asia and South Pacific and can be reached at: [email protected],/i>