Surviving Antartica:' Javanese IDPs in North Sumatra, Indonesia

By Cynthia Buiza
For a long time, Hamzad and his fellow Javanese IDPs (internally displaced persons) believed that the whole world had completely forgotten them. In this part of Sei Lepan, in a small piece of land that borders a national park in North Sumatra, a group of 400 families have created a home, a village if one might allow it that name. For it has the full trappings of what the residents here might consider their lost villages in Aceh: rows of wooden houses, tin roofs, roofs made of leaves, a small health clinic and a school providing much needed education to their children. During the dry season, the land seethes and burns like a desert, in the rainy season, the sticky mud makes transport and movement unbearable. Water and sanitation is a huge problem because they have been discouraged by the National Park Management Unit not to build wells and sanitation facilities since they are technically encroaching on government land. In turn, the IDPs fetch water from a nearby spring which they have to boil because the water is murky (the village is close to a palm plantation). They have also dug provisional one-meter deep pit latrines, while others resort to what they call 'flying latrines,' the kind one wouldn't wish to find in one's backyard.

Two years ago, Hamzad, acting as leader of this group of IDPs, fled the fighting in East Aceh between the Free Aceh Movement and the Indonesian military. The details of their flight are however, more complicated, as one 'witness' after another noted that it was specifically the members of the Free Aceh Movement that ordered them to leave their homes. The orders came in the form of a letter imploring the villagers to leave their homes or suffer the consequences. The perpetrators came in broad daylight, six armed men watched, while four young men, roughly of the ages of 14 to 15, burned at least seven homes.

To the person closely following the peace process in Aceh as it unfolds, arguing the Javanese IDP question might almost seem rhetorical. But anyone who has ever followed the patterns of internal displacement in Indonesia will agree that the resolution of historical and social enmities between these two groups whose very ethnicity and position in Indonesian society have been exploited by the key players in the conflict, is critical to the resolution of the underlying problems that plague the province of Aceh.

When Hamzad and his fellow villagers arrived in Sei Lepan in 1999 after fleeing their homes, they were determined to remain, after all, it was not the first time that they were displaced. Together, they survived on the meager resources they managed to take with them from their village. These provisions, however, soon ran out. Dispossessed and devoid of any other resources, they looked to the government for assistance. A consortium of non-government organisations (NGOs) initially provided basic services and at one time, OXFAM (an international humanitarian NGO) helped with the building of the school. All these dissipated eventually as a number of international NGOs pulled out of Aceh during the bloodiest periods of the conflict and the ones remaining could only provide limited services to the IDPs inside Aceh due to security constraints.

This situation left the Javanese IDPs in North Sumatra in a state of utter neglect. For the IDPs in Sei Lepan, the assistance from the government came only in 2002 in the form of 'side dish' money which was distributed irregularly and sometimes only once. For other Javanese IDPs scattered all over North Sumatra, it was a case of 'fend or fester.' The NGOs based in Aceh could only provide anecdotal concerns about the 'other' IDPs due to the ethnopolitical backdrop and the constraints mentioned earlier. Many of the Javanese IDPs eventually mixed into the informal job sector, working as irregular plantation hands, or in the more cut-throat environment of modern Medan, the capital city.

Although difficult to substantiate because of the taboo that goes with the practice, some IDP women have been lured into prostitution, but only one case was documented by a women's NGO in Medan. A colleague also noted that a mother and child we saw banging at the car window, begging for a few rupiahs, might be an IDP. Such is the fate and fluid reality that followed the Javanese IDPs (mostly transmigrants) in North Sumatra so that it was hard for the NGOs to document their exact number and provide an accurate and comprehensive analysis of their situation, much less organise some form of coordinated humanitarian assistance. While statistics about the Javanese IDPs range from 40,000 to 12,000, the higher version being the government's version, the question boiled down to one: who protected them and whose responsibility is their protection?

In the middle of July 2002, the Indonesian government issued a policy providing a 'termination fund' to the IDPs. The idea was to disburse a certain amount of cash assistance (ranging from 8 million to ten million rupiah) to the IDPs so in turn they would be able to rebuild their lives and 'stop calling themselves IDPs.' Without regard for the socio-economic and political factors underlying the IDP problem in Aceh and the ethnic politics exploited to the hilt by the parties to the conflict, the Indonesian government embarked on a de-facto denial of the IDP problem. A policy flawed from the start, the implementation of the termination fund was marred by corruption and incompetence so that it had to be 'terminated' and is at present being evaluated. Once more, the IDPs were caught in the middle. Desperate and frustrated at the helpless situation that surrounded them, a group of IDPs protested in front of the government office in North Sumatra last year, calling for a fairer implementation of the termination fund. The protest action however, did not help in improving public perception of IDPs as burdens to society. Their limited chance to express their views to the concerned entities was in vain. They are, as it was two years ago, made to wait again.

Hamzad and his fellow villagers vow that they will never leave Sei Lepan and that they will never be displaced again. They also do not want to return to Aceh, having been disillusioned by too many peace talks ending in civilian casualties. They laugh at the news about the peace process, announced on TV and radio or in the local papers. It is hard for them to believe that the people involved in the conflict can 'change overnight.' One cannot blame them, especially when they learn that some of their fellow IDPs who attempted to return to their villages were warned that the Javanese are not allowed to return to Aceh . Isolated incidents that saturate a wider, more sensitive and scarred public.

What happens to the Javanese IDPs? Indeed what happens to the Acehnese IDPs? For a people that used to live together in relative harmony with each other, the absence of a sizeable population in their village who will decide to go away permanently will be a stark reminder of things gone totally wrong. In the end, the losers are the people who never wanted to be a part of the 'game' in the first place, who lived according to the life of the land and its infinite charity to both Acehnese and Javanese.

At present, Hamzad and his friends compare their life to the Eskimos. They said that 'if the Eskimos can survive on pure snow, on the cruel coldness of Antartica, why could they not survive on this dry patch of land on the edge of a forest?' In the meantime, they will wait again for the termination fund to be re-implemented and build what life they could build out of it. They are also anxious about their so-called illegal use of government property. This waiting accompanies their clear and present solitude.