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Sound and Silence in the Land of the Rencong

FROM behind a wooden boat can be heard the ululation of a woman: "Lailaha Ilallah, Lailaha Ilallah" (There is no god other than Allah). The woman is in tears at the sight of her husband's corpse lying before her in a pool of blood. The seawater in the boat is turning red with blood.

Jalil, 50, was the first civilian casualty of the military operation in Aceh, the Land of the Rencong (an Acehnese dagger with a curved handle). On Thursday last week, an Army Special Forces Command (Kopassus) unit was pursuing Free Aceh Movement (GAM) members who had fled by sea near Matangnibong, Peurlak, East Aceh. Jalil's fate was sealed when soldiers became suspicious his vessel was carrying GAM members. Shots were fired and Jalil lost his life.

After the army's error became clear, a soldier asked: "Didn't you hear us ordering you to get to the shore?" "No, we didn't," Jalil's wife replied. Almost complete silence followed. Finally Capt. Iwan Setiawan, the senior Indonesian officer at the scene, asked locals to bury Jalil's body. Once again only silence followed.

In the Land of the Rencong, sound and silence now both carry a terrible weight. At one moment there is the sound of gunfire. Then it is quiet. Some time later comes the sound of weeping. Then it is quiet, again.

In villages in the hinterland of Bireun and Lhokseumawe, the schools were razed by fire. As local people gathered at the scene, the crackling sound of burning wood could still be heard. But after the buildings had burned down, only the warmth of the scorched earth and wind-blown ashes from burnt books were left. All was quiet, as if nothing had happened.

As Indonesian aircraft delivered their payload of paratroopers, a great buzzing sound filled the sky. This, too, lasted only briefly. Night fell and the lights went out as GAM members took out the electricity poles. Silence overtook everything.

Sound and silence advance in tandem in the wake of the Indonesian Military operation. They take turns delivering their message of sorrow.

Arif Zulkifli, Abdul Manan (Lhokseumawe)

TEMPO, JUNE 02, 2003-038/P. 28 Heading Cover Story

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