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Digging for the Truth

Mass graves have been found in several places in Aceh. The murderers remain unknown.

SHOVELS were lifted carefully. Lump by lump the men removed the earth from a location in the brush near the village of Guci, in Permata District, Central Aceh. But the excavation suddenly stopped when the end of the shovel struck a hard object. Both workers and witnesses looked at one another. When the excavation was continued more cautiously, from under the clumps of earth a human skull, and leg, thigh, hand, rib, and hip bones emerged. Subsequently, in this 3x2 meter hole 18 human skeletons were found, suspected to be those of victims of a mass killing.

In Permata, by the time the excavation was completed, no fewer than 26 human skeletons had been found. Apart from the ones in Guci, eight more skeletons had been found in the hamlet of Seni Antara, part of the village of Wehnipasee. According to Permata's District Head, Rasyid, there may well still be other mass graves in the area. Around 315 local residents are still unaccounted for. "They were mostly kidnapped from their homes or disappeared in their travels," he said.

This one mass grave was found by accident. In May, Jarnidan, 44, a Burnipasee resident, noticed mounded over earth when he was passing a particular spot. He was shocked to observe a bone protruding from the mound and immediately reported his find to police. It was dug up Friday two weeks ago, witnessed by police, health service officers, and Indonesian Military (TNI) soldiers from Kostrad battalion 43.

When the earth was removed, several remnants of clothing were found still stuck to or wrapped around the bones. They also found kopiah hats, underpants, and sarongs, together with several lengths of plastic raffia.

Jarnidan has been keuchik (village head) in Burnipasee for the past five years. He remains convinced the murderers were the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), when they still held sway in his village in 2001. "Most of the victims had had their throats cut while their hands were tied behind them," he revealed.

He got his information on this murder at first hand from GAM members. He recounted that he was often called to give them massages. During the light chitchat during the massages, the GAM members unwittingly told him about the slaughter of some locals around Burnipasee, whose corpses were then buried in a hole in Guci.

At the time, there was not a lot that Jarnidan could do. He only tried to remember the approximate location of the mass grave. Only after a state of military emergency was declared in Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam Province and the security forces arrived, did he feel safe enough to track down the exact location.

Guci is located around 25 kilometers from Buntul, the major town in Permata, and 75 kilometers from the capital of Central Aceh Regency, Takengon. The mass grave is on the left hand side of the KKA (Kertas Kraft Aceh) deviation road. Built in the mid-1980s, the road connects Central and North Aceh.

Jarnidan claims that he once met Muzakkir Manaf in the area--before the latter replaced the late Teungku Abdullah Sjafi'i as GAM's commander in chief. Muzakkir, who once stayed there for around three months, had several times enjoyed the benefit of Jarnidan's massages.

Guci, covering 12 hectares, is now a ghost village. No houses remain there. "This was admittedly a GAM supporters' village," Jarnidan recalled. After the peace agreement collapsed, several houses there were burnt by mobs. The inhabitants, generally GAM members, fled into the forest.

One witness, Syaifudin, 39, a resident of Buntul Kemumu Village, in Permata, suspects that the remains of his close friend Rahmadi, 33, lie among the bones. The transmigrant from Java disappeared at the end of 2002 on a journey to Takengon market on the KKA deviation road. On his return from the market, Rahmadi took his wife to her parents' house--and then disappeared. He was reportedly captured by GAM and taken to Guci.

Around 20 kilometers to the north there is a second mass grave. To be precise, in Seni Antara Village, Wehnipasee, Permata. It is hard to reach the location because you have to travel along a narrow path which descends steeply and is obstructed by lots of thick thorn bushes. But, after descending a hill, you come to a 3x5 meter platform hut with wooden walls and a palm leaf roof. "That is where they often interrogated the locals they detained," said Jarnidan.

The grave is around 50 meters from the hut. The path there is bordered by coarse reeds as tall as a house. You must also wade through knee-deep water before arriving at a small open area surrounded by the swamp. Jarnidan found the hut earlier when, with others, they had steeled themselves to go to the interrogation location three months ago. Arriving there, they were greeted by a very strong bad smell.

Forcing themselves to proceed, the locals, health service officers, and soldiers dug up the grave. In the space of just three minutes, a human skull emerged. In fact, pieces of rotting flesh were still sticking to the bones in several places, especially around the hips. Five complete human skulls were found amongst the other scattered bones. Several pieces of ripped clothing were also found, together with plastic raffia binding. In the 1x2 meter hole they found eight human skeletons.

Locals are convinced there are still several other mass graves nearby. Sumardi, a transmigrant from Java who has become a coffee farmer, claims he saw several others whose hands were tied being taken to Kemp Village Hill. This is around 25 kilometers away from the grave in Seni Antara.

Captain Zulfanus Karo Karo, a company commander in Kostrad battalion 431, backed up these suspicions. At the end of 2002, 100 villagers from Istiqamah-Kemp, Permata, were taken by GAM. During the peace agreement, in a meeting between GAM, TNI, and government officials, GAM had demanded that the local government build them a headquarters in Istiqamah-Kemp Village. As recompense, all those who were being detained were to be released.

The local government agreed. The building materials were taken to Kemp, together with foodstuffs for the workforce. This deal went awry after the peace agreement failed. The GAM members fled into the forest and 100 village locals vanished without trace. "So the possibility does remain there are still many more mass graves in Central Aceh, especially in Permata," said Zulfanus.

TNI Information Center Head, Maj. Gen. Sjafrie Sjamsoeddin announced that TNI had first received reports of mass graves in Aceh three years ago. Based on these, it investigated a number of suspicious locations in West and Central Aceh. "The victims were civilians and GAM perpetrated this," declared Sjafrie. Most of the victims were transmigrants.

But GAM military spokesperson, Sofjan Daud denies the accusations. "TNI did the killing and they are now the ones digging them up," he said, flatly. He suspects that TNI's uncovering of the graves, as is now being done in Central Aceh, is to get rid of physical evidence. "This digging up should be done by independent groups, such as the National Commission on Human Rights (KomnasHAM) and NGOs," he said.

The digging up of these two graves is certainly deplored by the Commission for Missing Persons & Victims of Violence (Kontras). In a statement last Friday, Kontras said it considered the excavations could be viewed as actions that damaged and destroyed physical evidence of a crime. "In fact, taking this further, this action is headed in the direction of obstruction of justice," said Kontras Coordinator Usman Hamid.

Coordinating Minister for Politics & Security, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, discounts these extreme accusations. The TNI and police, he said, acted in response to reports from the public because their complaints to human rights organizations had drawn little action.

He claimed that the public finally had to report the matter to local officials. To prove the truth of the reports, the military emergency authority for Aceh had investigated and uncovered the mass graves, witnessed by reporters. So, he said, "There was then actually no attempt at all to do away with physical evidence, prevent openness or objectivity, because the reporters were invited along," said Yudhoyono. During the excavation on Friday two weeks ago, reporters did indeed get invited to see for themselves.

The controversy over the mass graves will undoubtedly continue. This is because KomnasHAM, too, has now stepped in and been given information there are three more such graves in North Aceh and Bireuen. "In checking in the field, we received very definite information that some corpses there were buried in abnormal ways. I am not using the term mass grave," stressed Head of the Ad Hoc team on Aceh from KomnasHAM, M.M. Billah, after several days in Aceh.

The locations of the graves have been identified; in a pond which has now been filled in, in a well, and in the forest. The information originates from a witness who found the grave when looking for missing people, together with 90 other locals. It turned out that the missing people were found and showed them a pond which had become the burial place for several corpses. The group then dug down around 20-25 centimeters and saw the back of a corpse which was already in a decayed state. The excavation was then discontinued because the men were afraid.

Billah revealed that his team had not had the chance to check the location of the grave in Bireuen because of the difficulty in reaching it. The graves are located 3-25 kilometers from the Banda Aceh-Medan highway. His team is to immediately verify the information. The perpetrators? Still unknown, stressed Billah.

Abdul Manan, Cahyo Junaedy, Bernarda Rurit (TEMPO News Room)

TEMPO, JULY 14, 2003-044/P. 26 Heading National


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