Villagers seek refuge in school as Indonesian troops target civilians

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Aceh is a place where soldiers shoot the fingers off a 14-year-old boy out of spite and an elderly man can no longer read a newspaper after being beaten up for the fifth time.

The man and the boy live in Bantayan, a village undistinguished apart from its location: between an Indonesian military post and the jungle hideout of separatist guerrillas.

Routinely accused of helping the Free Aceh Movement (Gam) rebels, villagers are accustomed to random acts of violence by the security forces. But after a crackdown on Gam was launched last week, they fled their homes and moved into the school, becoming refugees in their own village.

The events that prompted their flight began with yet another firefight on their doorstep. With tensions high after martial law was declared, guerrillas attacked the military post with grenades and AK-47 assault rifles last Friday. Marines chased them through the village, in Bireuen district, but they escaped to the jungle.

A few hours later, troops killed four men who were walking to a nearby village, carrying sugar, eggs and rice. The military claimed they were taking supplies to the rebels. Locals insist that all four were civilians. They were reportedly shot at point-blank range and their bodies tossed into a river.

But the soldiers who are running this province at the edge of the Indonesian archipelago were not yet done. And so Sulaiman received his fifth visit from the Indonesian military, the TNI.

Sulaiman says he is about 55 but he looks a decade older. He is a tiny, thin-limbed man, no taller than 5ft. Troops burst into his neighbour's house while he and his 15-year-old nephew, Indra, were visiting. They dragged him outside, kicked him in the stomach and punched him in the face, head and chest. Then it was Indra's turn. Indra is even smaller than his uncle. He has dark curly hair and looks about 12. The soldiers demanded to know who he was. His mother, Aynon, told them: "He's just a teenager, he's still at school.'' Indra's tormentors examined his palms and said they were rough ­ a clear sign that he had been carrying weapons. He too was beaten.

Now a teenaged boy with the look of a petrified rabbit, he cannot sleep unless he crawls into his mother's bed. "He won't talk about what happened," she said. "He just cries and cries." Indra has lost the hearing in his right ear. Sulaiman's head is swollen and he feels sick when he breathes. "I can't see properly,'' he said. "I can't read newspapers. I think it's all the beatings over the years." This time he was punished for failing to report some Gam rebels spotted near his house.

Later that day, 300 villagers from Bantayan decamped to the school, seeking solace in numbers. They sleep in the classrooms, cook rice and fish over a fire outside, and hang washing on the fence of the potholed basketball court.

Saifuddin, a teacher, said it was safer in the concrete schoolhouse than in villagers' wooden homes. "The walls are tall and stray bullets are less likely to kill us." Fear is relative. Villagers may feel more secure but the men are afraid to go to the lavatory in the night without their wives. Men walking around in the dark are assumed to be guerrillas.

Fear is real. Zurfikar can vouch for that. The 14-year-old was chatting with friends last November when troops came across them while pursuing Gam rebels. The men had just lost a comrade in a gunfight and were furious. The friends ran away. Zurfikar was made to lie face down. A soldier put a boot in his back and shot off the four fingers of his right hand.

And so life, if you can call it that, goes on in Bantayan. Saifuddin held up a hand and made a fist. "We are like a sparrow caught in a palm," he said.