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Change of Strategy, General?

After a clash at Sudan Hill, the TNI has adopted a new strategy. Why is it so hard to crush GAM?

DUSK swept over Sudan Hill, Matang Kumbang, Bireuen. The sea breeze cut to the bone, while the cloud over the hills continued to thicken. From behind an areca pinang palm, indistinct moaning was just audible. Second Lt. Karno immediately headed towards the sound. He was extremely shocked to see one of his men lying covered in blood. Hurriedly, he helped the heavy-set soldier.

Unknown to him, though, a fighter from the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), was hiding close by, and suddenly let loose a burst of shots. Karno died on the spot. Apparently, the GAM fighter had been caught in the clash and had failed to escape. He had then hidden in a small foxhole, close to the fallen Indonesian soldier. The man was then himself also killed in a hail of bullets from the comrades of the fallen Indonesian soldier.

On the south side of the hill, located in the northern part of Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam province, the fighting was more savage. Dozens of Indonesian troops had launched an attack at the heart of their enemy's position. It was a determined move. Because, in the blur of twilight, the opponents were only meters apart. And as expected, a series of shots barked out from the top of the hill. Three Indonesian soldiers fell after being hit. Death claimed them all. The exchange continued until far into the night.

Early the following day, two Tuesdays ago, TNI (Indonesian Military) troops swept through the hills. As widely reported, the bodies of five GAM members were found, including that of a woman fighter, termed an Inong Balee in GAM's military parlance. The TNI itself acknowledged the deaths of seven personnel with another seven badly wounded (see Inong Balee: Lust for Revenge).

This has been the bloodiest exchange to date. "The most heroic and the most valuable of the war so far," Maj. Gen. Bambang Dharmono, TNI's Military Operations Commander told reporters shortly after the evacuation of the bodies of his troops from the hell hill. An honest statement that at the same time proved that GAM's military will not easily fold. Since the military emergency came into effect on May 19, the fight at Sudan Hills has certainly been the largest. The seven soldiers killed were the most ever suffered on the Indonesian side in the war.

For GAM, this was their first success, after earlier continually getting a drumming from TNI. When contacted by TEMPO last Friday, GAM spokesperson, Sofyan Daud, did not mince his words. "The clash at Sudan Hill is proof that in the hills and mountains we are superior," he said by satellite telephone. He even threatened that the coming clashes will be even more awesome. "Make a note of that," he snarled savagely.

Since this war broke out, the leaders of the movement have boasted that the elite units in the body of GAM would dictate where and when the fights would happen. Sofyan Daud said that the GAM top echelons have ordered its special military units to intercept the TNI in mountainous, hilly and other difficult areas.

GAM's special units? The force that fought all out against the TNI at Sudan Hills was the Singa Mate troop, the elite unit of GAM's army, led by Darwis Jeneib. Sofyan claims that Darwis is a regional commander--as in the TNI--for the Bireuen area. "Darwis escaped the fight unscathed, and is now ready to carry on the battle," asserted Sofyan.

In its structure, GAM does have a number of special units. Its elite Singa Mate unit, for instance, is also often termed the green berets, because its men wear these to identify themselves as being from that unit. In their navy they have a special unit called Singa Metareng, which is also called the red berets.

These top special force troops received a special education. They were toughened up at Tanjura, Libya. In the land of Muammar Qaddafi hundreds of young Acehnese have had their military training. Hasan Tiro--GAM's leader whom TEMPO met in Stockholm, Sweden, some time ago--proudly played a recording of his speech to GAM troops in Tripoli, Libya, in 1985.

Hasan spoke in Arabic, French, English, and Acehnese. What he said was laden with exhortations to heroism and was full of thunder. From that it could clearly be heard that Tiro placed more hope in his troops to liberate Aceh, rather than reaping this from following a diplomatic route. Although split into various factions, it is Hasan Tiro's camp which has been most influential on the troops and members of GAM.

All its soldiers, especially its elite troops, are almost all fully armed. Apart from carrying AK-47s, they have grenade launchers, and walkie-talkies as their means of communication. The fight at Sudan Hills began with a thundering attack from grenade launchers atop a hill in the direction of the TNI's trucks passing on patrol. As soon as the TNI soldiers were lured to the top of the hill, the bark of Kalashnikovs from above greeted them.

In the midst of the fierce exchanges of fire, the TNI's communication system managed to tap into the communication of the GAM heads. They could be heard asking for assistance from their troops in the several nearest areas. At the end of the fight, their soldiers were urged to hightail it into the dense jungle behind the hill. Safe.

As they entered the fourth week of the war, it would be fair to say TNI's troops were riding high. The data released by TNI states that, as of last week, 172 GAM personnel had been shot dead, 111 more captured and 144 had surrendered. Although GAM's heads claim the casualties are generally civilians, the facts in the field show that their forces are being pushed in almost all areas. GAM's elite units have now moved out to the hills, mountains, and swamps.

Apart from the Sudan Hill area, GAM's forces have also retreated to the areas of Mount Leuser and Mampree jungle, Mount Patisah, and Pidie Regency. The Mampree jungle holds the story of the heroism in the history of this movement's struggle. It was there at end of the 1970s, that Hasan Tiro, who now resides in and has become a citizen of Sweden, was a guerilla before finally fleeing to a neighboring country.

Apart from retreating to the mountains, GAM's forces will also slip back into a number of swampy areas if they are being squeezed by their enemies. GAM spokesperson, Sofyan Daud, for instance, is thought to be in Jambo Aye, Panton Labu, North Aceh. That area is often said to be a favorite of Sofyan's troops. Because, if they are under pressure from their enemy, they can slip back into the wide swamps there (see Running the GAM Gauntlet).

It is not surprising then that the TNI's concentration is on this problematic area. Two weeks ago, TNI's Cakra troops and Mobile One Task Force had it completely surrounded for three days. Volleys of shots were exchanged. Commander of the military operations command, Brig. Gen. Bambang Dharmono, who supervised the encirclement, said: "We have intensified this operation to get to the points where they are concentrated. We come, and then we wipe them out."

But then at the end of the siege, Sofyan seemed to just vanish. Did the GAM propaganda expert, who is also its commander for the Pase area, escape? He admits that GAM's network intelligence had already sniffed out that preparations were under way for a large-scale entrapment in the area. That was why, "I had already slipped out into the swamps," he said, laughing.

The swamps have unquestionably become the safest areas for GAM's military to flee to. In East Aceh, for instance, the Matang Ibong swamp, Peurlak, is a haven for GAM members in which to save themselves. It is there that their forces like to practice their hit and run tactic. They head off outside to attack their opponents, slipping back into the swamps if their enemy counterattacks, then attack again if the enemy gets careless, and so on indefinitely.

That was the tactic they adopted when TNI soldiers from Baladika Strike Detachment, led by Capt. Riyanto, transited through Peurlak, two weeks ago. They were suddenly strafed by dozens of GAM. The whiz of bullets going both ways broke the still of the
quiet little village. Three GAM troops were killed there. Feeling they were being penned in left and right, dozens of the armed separatists fled into the swamps. The rest scattered by river using speedboats. "They weren't pursued, and escaped," said Riyanto.

Another escape route has also been readied. Some have vanished into other towns and cities in Sumatra in the last three weeks. Police in Aceh had already detected there was such an escape plan. That is why they have posted a number of personnel at a number of ports and routes out of Aceh. The police have to check everyone leaving the port. If anyone appears suspicious, they are then arrested.

Apart from guarding the ports, police are also making ID card raids along roads. Certainly, police in Aceh have not yet caught anyone at all throughout these checks on roads. "But at least we have already closed off the exit routes," said Adj. Chief Comr. Sayed Husaini, spokesperson for Aceh regional police command. "If we don't comb them out now, after six months of this military emergency, they could exist again," commented Bambang Dharmono.

With such a close watch being kept, GAM should be kept penned up in Aceh, so they can then be crushed by Indonesia's armed forces. But a number of GAM members have also slipped out of Aceh. Last Thursday, for instance, Riau police caught seven who had fled there. The seven, say police, are active GAM fighters from the Pidie area. They were picked up in Pekanbaru. In Medan, two weeks ago, police succeeded in pinning down Mustafa Ibrahim, Sagoe Commander--of the same standing as a Military District Commander in the TNI--of GAM's Panggoi area, North Aceh.

How could they escape from under the TNI's noses in Aceh? According to National Police chief Gen. Da'i Bachtiar, the GAM fighters who have fled did not travel on public routes, but used so-called "rat routes". That is how they managed to slip out of Aceh and live in a number of small cities in Sumatra, after changing their identities.

The tactic of changing identity has also been used in a number of regencies in Aceh. If they get into an increasingly tight position, the guerillas, who also use military camouflage similar to the TNI will quickly take off their uniforms and get into civilian clothes. They then lead normal lives and skillfully blend in with the general public. They bury their weapons, ready to be used again at some time.

This GAM tactic poses many difficulties for the TNI. Because, if these disguised youths are shot, GAM can lightly claim that Indonesian troops have mistargeted again, and that civilians have been shot dead. "In fact," said a high-ranking TNI source, "these disguised guys are very dangerous, because they have their own weapons."

This is why recently the TNI in Aceh has been actively combing a number of areas which are suspected to hold buried weapons. These locations are thought to be in swamps and hilly areas. The small depression where 2nd Lt. Karno was shot on Sudan Hill, is suspected of being a burial place for a number of GAM's weapons. There are many such spots on the slopes of this hill.

After that fight, the men in charge are busily changing their battle tactics. "If the enemy keeps changing his strategy, we, too, have to match that with all sorts of strategies of our own," Army Chief of Staff, Gen. Ryamizard Ryacudu, told reporters in Lhokseumawe, Aceh last Wednesday. But Sofyan Daud did not want to be outdone. "We will serve up lots of surprises in this war."

Mutual snapping, threats, all while victims continue to fall throughout the land, as well as on Sudan Hills. This bitterness will be lifelong.

Wenselaus Manggut, Abdul Manan, Yuswardi (Banda Aceh) Zainal Bakri (Lhokseumawe)

TEMPO, JUNE 23, 2003-041/P. 14 Heading Cover Story


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