After the Conflict

Ex-GAM Combatants Still Struggling to Restart Life 12 Years After Aceh Peace Accord

When Aceh's separatist forces agreed to end their decades-long insurgency, the future of more than 2,000 combatants hung in the balance.

by Hendri Abik
28 March 2018, 4:46am

Kamaruddin (blue shirt), an ex-fighter with GAM, works on a bicycle at his shop in Aceh Besar. All photos by author

Kamaruddin’s tools used to be far deadlier. As a combatant with the separatist militants, the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), Udin, as he is called by his friends, used to use assault rifles to kill. Today, he leads a life that’s far less violent, instead using screwdrivers and pliers to fix old bicycles in Aceh Besar’s Lampeuneurut district.

The 54-year-old former militant now runs a modest bicycle repair shop where a few oil cans and spare bolts lay on the floor next to an aging air compressor. Some days he earns about Rp 50,000 ($3.50 USD), but those are the good days. On leaner days, he earns so little that it could barely be called a living.

“There are days where I don’t make any money at all,” Udin told me as he worked on a customer’s bicycle.

It’s part of Aceh’s post-conflict story that rarely gets told. The province, the northernmost in Indonesia, was home to a decades-long battle for independence that left more than 15,000 dead as GAM militants fought a waged a protracted guerrilla war against the Indonesian military.

But when militants like Udin laid down their arms as part of a peace agreement signed in Helsinki, Finland, much of the promised financial aid and distribution of resources to be given to the Acehnese people as part of the province’s “special autonomy” agreement didn’t arrive.

Former GAM combatants were told that Jakarta had earmarked Rp 650 billion ($45.5 million USD) in funds to help the ex-militants restart their lives as civilians. A lot of this money never arrived. One former combatant told VICE that the only money he received amounted to about enough to cover the cost of his cigarettes, far from what you would need to start a business.

Udin struggled to transition into his new post-conflict life. He had plenty of life skills, but most of them were only useful in a time of war. And there was no way he was going to join the Indonesian military—they were the same soldiers he had been fighting for years. But what is a former soldier to do when his side loses the war?

He turned his attention to bicycles. Udin told me he chose bicycle repair as a career because it wasn’t all that difficult to learn. “Patching a tire is easy,” he said. “You can learn it all in one day.”

Udin works on a bike at his shop.

He then moved from workshop to workshop further honing his skills. “I moved five times before I learned how to run a bicycle repair shop,” he explained.

Eventually, he saved enough to open a bare-bones 16-square-meter workshop in Aceh Besar. But his life, post-conflict, has remained a struggle. He watched as former GAM leaders transitioned into politics, switching roles from the province’s independence leaders to its elected ones. Even though Udin spent half his adult life fighting alongside GAM forces in Nisasm, North Aceh, dodging Indonesian security forces by disappearing into the forests, he expected little of these new ex-GAM politicians.

“I don’t expect any help from them,” he told me.

Militants like Udin were drawn into the conflict over a belief that the government in Jakarta was stealing their resources and trapping them in poverty. Aceh is rich in oil and natural gas and resources like timber, but most of this money flowed to the central government or abroad.

The province, an area on the northern edge of Sumatra larger than all of Taiwan, also had a long history of rebellion. Cut Nyak Dien, an Acehnese woman who is currently on the Rp 10,000 note, fought against the Dutch. The province played an important role in Indonesia’s independence war, and then, less than ten years after the nation’s birth, Aceh tried to break off on its own.

By the mid-70s, GAM took up the independence fight. The militant group waged three separate insurgencies against the central government between 1976 and 2002 as its ranks steadily grew.

The 2004 tsunami ended the conflict once and for all. Aceh was devastated as a wall of water, 10 meters tall in some places, tore through the province’s long coast. More than 280,000 people were killed, according to estimates. Another 650,000 were left homeless. The provincial capital Banda Aceh was in ruins. The devastation stretched for kilometers inland. It would cost billions of USD and nearly a decade to rebuild.

So GAM agreed to end the conflict. Under the 2005 peace agreement, former combatants were promised farmland to grow palm oil or coffee. Few received any of this land and today, Aceh is still one of the poorest provinces in Indonesia, with a gross regional product of Rp 28 million per-capita, or less than half the national average.

This is the often forgotten side of Aceh’s peace. When GAM officially disarmed in 2005, there were still more than 2,000 combatants still left in its ranks. Most of them gave up their weapons. A few of them, men like the former commander Muzakir Manaf, became politicians. But the majority struggled to adapt to a new life in a new Aceh.

Some of them, angry over the broken promise of economic recovery, picked up their AK-47s and joined a group of former GAM fighters led by a man known as Din Minimi, vanishing into the mountains for years.

Fajri, a day laborer, talks at a neighborhood coffee shop.

Others, men like Fajri, retreated to the coffee shop. The skinny 32-year-old ex-combatant joined the conflict when he was only 17, where he helped GAM by spying on the movements of the National Police and Indonesian Military troops stationed in the region.

Once the conflict was over, his observational skills fell out of demand. Today, he picks up shift work as a laborer, working construction sites, rice paddies, and plantations—basically whatever paying job he can find.

“I just help civilians in the field or work at the construction site,” he explained. “That’s all.”

He’s given up hope on receiving any more of the aid promised by the government as part of the Helsinki peace agreement. He once received some money from the government, but it wasn’t enough to stay afloat let alone start a business.

Abdul Hadi, another former combatant, now works as a freelance photographer.

I only met one former combatant who was doing well after the disarmament. Abdul Hadi, a 37-year-old freelance photographer from Passe, North Aceh, joined GAM as a teenager, where he was taught how to fire an AK-47 at a young age. But his commanders quickly found a new job for the boy, handing him a video camera to document their victories.

Then one day he met William Nessen, a US freelance reporter who had embedded with GAM forces during the tail-end of the Jakarta’s military offensive meant to crush the separatist fighters. Nessen was willing to teach Abdul a bit about photography and journalism. He would then absorb as much as he could from other foreign reporters visiting GAM forces, eventually learning enough to turn it into a career.

He worked for a while as the private photographer for Muzakir Manaf, a former GAM commander and Aceh’s current vice governor, but eventually a life in politics became too much. Sure, Muzakir and much of the Aceh Party are ex-GAM, but so is the majority of the rival Aceh Nanggroe Party.

“The camaraderie is now gone,” Abdul told me. “Everyone just competes in politics.”

Since he left politics, Abdul has been offered other similar jobs, but he prefers to remain a freelancer. He's taught himself to fly a drone and makes ends meet picking up freelance photo assignments. It's less stable than working for a politician, but far more rewarding, he told me.

“I’d rather do this,” he said. “I’m comfortable with it.”

GAM Free Aceh Movement
Hendri Abik