Indonesia: Aceh's struggle to survive overshadows peace dream

By Achmad Sukarsono

LHOKNGA, Indonesia, July 19 (Reuters) - At a coffee shop set up under the stern of a hulking coal barge left high and dry by the Asian tsunami, the peace deal aimed at ending 30 years of civil war in this Indonesian province barely rates a mention.

The talk is about hardship, scraping together a living to support family members who survived the Dec. 26 quake-triggered waves that left more than 170,000 Acehnese dead or missing.

Two days after government and rebel negotiators meeting half a world away in Helsinki agreed to end hostilities there has been no celebrating.

When Indonesia and separatists last struck a truce in 2002, it lasted for six months before collapsing in mutual acrimony. The new agreement, reached on Sunday, is due to be signed on Aug. 15 in Finland.

"People talk about work, food, and when the talk gets going, they share sad stories," said Zulfikar Tarmizi, 22, who sells hot tea and cold soft drinks from the rear of the huge barge.

"All that peace stuff is no longer important to talk about. We don't need to know about it, because what we need to know now is how to get money," said the college dropout. His mother and two sisters died when the waves swept the seaside district of Lhoknga, a 30-minute drive southwest of the provincial capital, Banda Aceh.

The barge sits on a plot where houses, including Zulfikar's, once stood. It is too big to move, so soldiers rebuilt the road to skirt around it.

White-collar worker Agus Suhendra, who works at the port of a nearby cement factory, now eats breakfast at Zulfikar's before driving to work. He lost his wife to the tsunami.

"I remember the chatter at coffee shops after the last truce. Nobody cares now," said Suhendra, 36, who once lived in a middle-class suburb between Lhoknga and Banda Aceh.

"We care about things like washed-away houses and land certificates."

Jakarta negotiators and representatives from the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) agreed in Helsinki to bury the hatchet, after the rebels dropped independence demands, prompting Jakarta to ease its stance on political participation.

Details of the final deal have yet to be made public.

GAM wants to contest elections as a local party, a move that runs contrary to Indonesian law which says parties should be based in Jakarta, and have branches in more than half of the country's 33 province.

"I don't care whether GAM is a party or not," said Suhendra.

But for the few of Aceh's four million people who seem interested in politics, finding detailed coverage of the peace deal is difficult.

Aceh's leading newspaper, Serambi Indonesia, published a story on the peace deal on Monday, but for the last two days has devoted its editorial to bird flu and education.

"We heard about it from radio, but the whole thing is not in my mind. I have too many things to think about," said Rusli Riting, 50, who is building a wooden hut in the Leupung district further south down the hard-hit west coast.

"Now, it is all about how can I build a roof," he said.


Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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