Until recently, the mountains of Aceh were known for rebel activity and were basically off-limits. Even without gunfire, I didn’t have much interest in having anything to do with mountains other than look at them. But that’s before I moved into a group house near the edge of the city. Little did I know, but it came with a personal trainer: Alastair, a water and sanitation consultant working for UNDP.
The conflict in Aceh, which lasted nearly three decades, has more to do with Aceh's current economic condition than the tsunami. This is often forgotten, and understandably so. The 2004 tsunami killed more than 10 times the number of people than the conflict did. And it happened in 30 minutes, rather than 30 years. But the conflict put the brakes on Aceh's development. Farms and plantations were abandoned. People were cut off from markets. Investors largely stayed away. And entrepreneurial Acehnese left for safer places.
One Sunday morning, I found myself at the base of Mount Seulawah with Alastair, three chain-smoking guides from a local adventure tour company, and two fit and trim friends, Liese and Forrest. Mt. Seulawah is 1800 meters high and is a classic cone-shaped volcanic mountain, clearly visible from Banda Aceh. For the next eight hours, we slowly climbed the mountain, crossing crystal-clear streams, grabbing trees, and sucking down liters of water.
Our guides smoked feverishly during every break. Soon sweat was streaming from every pore, and jungle leeches feasted on my blood – my own small contribution to the local ecology. When we got to the top, I was a withered husk. Our guides set up camp, pulled pots and ceramic dishes out of their packs, and made a meal. I gratefully ate it, still in a daze, and amazed that they would carry so much just to eat rice.
The 2004 tsunami effectively ended the conflict. The Indonesian government, which was finally free from its authoritarian past, was open to the idea of autonomy. And Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, better known as GAM, accepted the idea of remaining within Indonesia. The Law on the Governance of Aceh (LOGA) was passed in 2006, and though not perfect, accommodates both sides reasonably well. This in turn makes development possible. But there is much to do. New laws are needed, infrastructure needs to be rebuilt and expanded, and ties to the outside world need to be restored. It is a huge task, especially for the new leadership. It is much harder to govern effectively than to fight.
It took only about two hours to get back down. It was nearly dark and we had taken a few wrong turns along the way. I have never been so utterly exhausted in my life. Alastair remained cheerful. But the next day, I noticed that I had lost two kilos, and my trousers were looser. Not a bad thing. My belly, like the conflict, is best left to history.