Campaigning for human rights and peace in Aceh - interview with Samsul Bahri

from Catholic Agency for Overseas Development
Published on 23 Jun 2003
Since he was a small boy, growing up in the rice fields of Aceh on the northern tip of Indonesia, Samsul Bahri has grown used to seeing friends and neighbours tortured - or even killed.
"Not only in my village, but in other places, there is no family who hasn't lost a relative," he said. "This is the reality."

It was this bitter reality that led Samsul to become a human rights campaigner, working for CAFOD's partner Kontras - the Commission for Disappearances and Victims of Violence. But since last month, 24-year-old Samsul has been unable to return to his home province, which has been plagued by violent conflict since two years before he was born.

On May 19, peace talks broke down once again between the Indonesian government and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), whose members are fighting for independence for their resource-rich province.

Since then, the Indonesian military has declared martial law across the province and launched the largest military offensive in the region since their operation in East Timor.

An estimated 21,000 civilians have already been displaced by the recent violence, and there are numerous reports of civilian beatings, killings, arbitrary arrests and kidnappings. As farmers are driven from their fields and transportation routes are blocked, there is a growing food crisis among the civilian population of Aceh.

Since martial law was declared last month, CAFOD's partners on the ground in Aceh and charity workers like Samsul have been unable to work. The offices of Kontras in both Jakarta and Aceh have been attacked and looted. Most of Samsul's friends and colleagues are in hiding. Even the United Nations Office of Humanitarian Affairs has been asked to leave the province "for security reasons."

And yet now is a critical moment for humanitarian aid to get through to the civilians of Aceh, who are caught in the cross-fire of this bitter conflict.

"It's a very critical point now in Aceh," said Samsul. "I am concerned not just for my own family but for all the other thousands of families in Aceh."

Samsul is anxious to return to Aceh as soon as possible to continue his work with Kontras -- making sure that victims of violence are given assistance and legal advice and that human rights abuses are documented.

"In the long-term, Kontras has an obligation to bring justice and democracy to the people. But it's difficult in this climate."

In the meantime, Samsul asks the people of Britain to campaign on behalf of Aceh's people.

"Now it's very important to lobby the British government to put pressure on the Indonesian government to stop the military operation - and solve the food crisis," he said. "The military operation is no solution for Aceh."

Background Fact Box

Aceh is a province on the Northern-most tip of Indonesia, about 1,000 miles from the Indonesian capital, Jakarta.

After Indonesia's independence in 1945, disaffection with central government grew as the province's natural gas resources were exploited by Jakarta. In 1976, the separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM) was formed. The government launched a campaign of repression and from 1989 to 1998, Aceh was designated a "military operations zone." At least 10,000 civilians have been killed in the conflict.

Peace talks between the Indonesian government and the rebels broke down in May 2003 and the government declared martial law in the province