Aceh Diary: hazards and risks

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Relatively quiet little provincial town that it may seem at first glance, don’t be fooled, because residing in Banda Aceh may often involve a bit of living on the edge.

I’m not kidding – between earthquakes, the alarming frequency of incidents of foreigners and locals drowning off the beaches during recreational swimming/surfing, the increasing and discriminatory enforcement of sharia (Islamic) law by the ‘sharia police’, the rising but isolated number of violent incidents that are being linked to GAM’s (the former separatist movement) dissatisfaction with delays/content changes by Jakarta with regards to the autonomy law, can indeed give one pause every so often. And then there are the creeping fears related to issues such as terrorist attacks on Westerners and bird flu across Indonesia that are also shared by many living and working here. But let’s focus and talk more concretely on the Aceh-specific concerns, shall we?

Earthquakes – there’ve been several over the last few months since I’ve been in Aceh, sometimes even more than one or two in a single day. The downside is that they can be quite literally a dizzying experience (and I don’t mean that in a good way) and if you’re not used to what feels like the earth just rolled off its axis, you soon will be. But the upside is that most quakes are blessedly brief, so much so that they’re over even before you can make it outside. Which begs the thought: what would happen if the magnitude was far higher and you had no time to get out? Well, if you live here you’d probably have that morbid query cross your mind every so often in the aftermath of a quake. Or maybe like me, you’d nearly jump out of your skin in the middle of night thinking “EARTHQUAKE!!” every time a cat ran across the roof shingles, the high ceilings favored in local architecture magnifying the rattling sound. Or maybe it’s just my luck that all the neighborhood cats seem to like the IFC roof best for midnight mousehunts.

Aceh’s treacherous beaches – the current Banda Aceh average is about one drowning every 2.5 weeks. The last two times I was at the beach coincided with such incidents. Last month a Frenchman working for the Aceh Monitoring Mission (AMM) went missing while snorkeling. The sobering sight which met us at a nearby spot the next day was the several police boats and search parties looking for him with ambulances on standby – they never did find a body. And then two Sundays past the sea swept out a young Acehnese man from roughly the same spot (by a cliff on Lampuuk beach that’s been feared by many Acehnese for a long time, and is now becoming increasingly infamous among expats). But despite the scary statistics keeping away is hard as Aceh has the most stunningly beautiful beaches, coral reefs with a rich diversity of marine life, and water that’s crystal clear, unpolluted, and far more innocuous in appearance than it obviously is in reality. The tradeoff for me is to not venture beyond waist deep waves, especially as a woman since we’re not allowed to wear swimsuits and are consequently quite weighed down in full clothing.

The ‘sharia police’ factor – formed after the national parliament passed legislation in 2003 allowing sharia law in Aceh, the ‘sharia police’ as they are commonly referred to throughout the province, have been enforcing this provincial statute far more vigorously since the tsunami in 2004, according to women’s groups and human rights activists. The number of incidents of sharia police storming into hotels and other public places to make arbitrary arrests have risen. Punishments can range anywhere from harassment and humiliation to public canings. One incident last November included a teenage girl arrested for prostitution because she was standing in her yard with a male friend. Most arrests so far have been Muslim women not wearing the “jilbob” (head scarf), as well as people found drinking or gambling, and couples on dates in public places. But residents are at risk for being targeted for any other types of behavior deemed by the sharia police as ‘immoral’ – a subjective and often exploitative measure given the vagueness/confusion surrounding sharia law in Indonesia, according to human/women’s rights activists who are increasingly concerned and believe that things will only get worse.

GAM/autonomy law-related tensions – the original timeline for the passage of Aceh’s autonomy law was end of March. Not only has that not happened, and while it is clear that it will be delayed significantly, rhetoric has heated up in Jakarta with the opposition parties accusing the government of leaving loopholes in the bill that would enable eventual independence in Aceh. There’s also been a lot of talk within the Aceh community (both locals and expats) that there is growing dissatisfaction among former GAM members and this has translated into some recent incidents where former GAM members set up road blocks on key highways running through the province and robbed motorists at gunpoint. The State Intelligence Agency and other security information sources also indicate that there are many more weapons hidden in jungle caches that remain available to GAM. Adding to this is that provincial elections slated for May look to be inevitably delayed until June or July, which is beyond AMM’s term (100 European monitors from AMM have already left on March 10th and the remaining 85 are to depart on June 15th). This situation, if it worsens, does have the potential to effect the security of those living in Aceh, but for now it isn’t an everyday distraction as there’s much to do with regards to building Aceh ‘back better’ and we’re all going about trying to get it done.

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