The Women of Aceh
Photos and essay by Kira Kay, MPP '03
At the northernmost tip of Sumatra, the largest island in the Republic of Indonesia’s vast archipelago, a civil war has simmered for over a quarter of a century. The conflict pits an army of local rebels against the Indonesian military, over the future of a small but resource-rich piece of land: the province of Aceh.
Aceh is the most devoutly Islamic province in a county that is itself the Muslim world’s most populous nation. While most of the world’s press depicts this conflict as one of militant Islam against a largely secular government, the war is as much about political self-determination and control over the province’s vast natural gas reserves as it is about religious ideology.
Over the past 25 years, Aceh’s war of independence has killed an estimated 10,000 people. Human rights groups point out that the majority of those killed are not combatants but civilians who are either suspected of supporting the combatants, or are innocent bystanders to the violent clashes, which usually occur at night.
I traveled to Aceh in February of 2002, as a documentary news producer on assignment for the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). My goal was to explore the human side of the war, to better understand why thousands of civilians are dying in a part of the world that Americans have heard so little about, and how the ongoing violence has taken its toll on the residents of this truly beautiful region.
While a majority of the civilians killed in Aceh are male (because they are suspected of being rebel combatants) the women of Aceh have suffered as much, although often in different ways. They have become victims of rape and torture; have been widowed at young ages; and have sometimes themselves been executed as a result of suspected sympathies.
During my visit to Aceh, I met three such women through RATA (Rehabilitation Action for Torture Victims of Aceh), an organization that provides counseling and medical assistance to brutalized civilians.
The women were brave to meet with me – all three said they had been brutally violated by the military and feared reprisal for speaking out. Two say they had their husbands taken from them. I interviewed the women in the home of one of the RATA volunteers; the women were too afraid to allow me to visit their village, for fear I might be followed by the military. I will identify them only by the first initial of their names.
First I met R., who was only in her early 20’s. She spoke in a flat, unemotional voice, as if she was afraid to put life back into the experiences she described. She told me she was taken by Indonesian soldiers and held in a makeshift prison for over four months, and raped twice a week – on Thursdays and Saturdays. When she dared to protest, she says the officers cut off her nipples in retaliation.
At 45, U. appeared to me to be an old woman; she spoke in a whisper, a syndrome I later came to learn was common in torture victims. U. told me she had been held in the same prison as R. At different points during her torture, she says, she was electrified in her ears, in her nose, on her nipples and in her vagina. As U. spoke to me, gesturing strongly to convey her anger when her voice could not, a single tear rolled down R’s face, the most emotion she could muster.
When N. was only 16 and pregnant with her first child, her husband was killed for supposedly aiding the rebels. N. says she was then taken away and repeatedly raped. When her baby was finally born, several of the soldiers holding her captive witnessed the birth; they told her that if her child was born a boy, they would take him away because he would otherwise also become a rebel. Fortunately, N. had a girl.
Prior to speaking with the women, I had interviewed Brigadier General Djali Yusof, the commander of the Indonesian Government’s army troops in Aceh. He admitted there had been isolated human rights abuses perpetrated by some of his former soldiers, and assured me that the violators had been dealt with appropriately and that new measures were in place to prevent future acts of torture.
When I told the women what the general had said, N. replied that she believes the general’s promise would be impossible to enforce, and that no one in the government would listen to their plight, or care enough to put a stop to the violence.
On my last day in Aceh, I witnessed another way in which the burden of this war is carried by its women. I was spending the day with the local branch of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which has dedicated itself to retrieving the bodies of the victims that are found each morning throughout Aceh’s villages and jungles. A man’s body had been discovered outside a small mosque: he appeared to me to have been beaten and shot once through the forehead.
As the Red Cross came to remove the body, they attempted to identify any of the dead man’s family members amongst the villagers who had crowded around; no one stepped forward, so the body was taken to the city morgue, where it would be disposed of in a few days time if unclaimed.
After the body was bagged and the ambulance drove away, a murmur went through the crowd: a few of the villagers told me the man’s wife had actually been right there, watching her husband’s body being removed. She was too afraid to speak up, for fear of then being targeted herself. While I do not know what happened to the dead man, I believe it is likely his body was never claimed, and was disposed of anonymously, while his wife joins the ranks of Aceh’s silent widows.
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