- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 13, 2005

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia — Irwandi Yusuf was in jail for treason when the tsunami crashed into Aceh in December, sweeping away everything in its path: people, houses, cars and the walls of his cell. He scrambled to the roof and watched as hundreds of other inmates disappeared in the torrent of water.

The tsunami that took more than 131,000 lives in Aceh sprang him from prison. It also helped usher peace into an Indonesian province whose wars date back 130 years. By an extra twist of fate, it made the 45-year-old former fighter and intelligence officer part of the solution.

Mr. Yusuf fled to the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, then Malaysia and finally to Finland, where he ended up joining exiled leaders of the Free Aceh Movement in negotiating an end to the fighting in mid-August.

Many obstacles lie ahead, but less than two months after the signing of the Helsinki accord, most agree that peace prospects have never been better.

Thousands of Indonesian troops in camouflage battle gear have left in warships — the first of 30,000 soldiers and police set to pull out by year’s end. Young rebels in bluejeans and dark sunglasses have turned in about a quarter of the movement’s declared arsenal of 840 weapons.

“The tsunami changed our minds,” said Mr. Yusuf, noting that tens of thousands of his fighters lost family in the Dec. 26 disaster, which struck 11 countries that border the Indian Ocean.

“With so many people suffering, we want to focus now on how to rebuild.”

The province on the northernmost tip of Sumatra Island is not the only place where the killer waves appear to have been a catalyst for peace.

In Sri Lanka, foes reached across ethnic divides to help shelter and feed survivors. But today things are bloodier than ever in the island republic, in part because of disputes over tsunami aid, but also because the Tamil Tiger rebel movement has too much to lose and the coalition government isn’t strong enough to follow through.

Aceh’s story is different.

Its latest fighting broke out in 1976 when rebels took up arms to carve out an independent homeland in the oil- and gas-rich province. Nearly 15,000 people have died, many of them civilians caught up in army sweeps through remote villages.

A lot still can go wrong. Three earlier accords collapsed and some rebels are afraid to leave their jungle bases.

Others have started climbing down from the mountains to visit family and friends in Banda Aceh, the provincial capital, and other areas previously off-limits to them. Some have motorcycled along coastal roads recently to see the devastation for the first time.

Hundreds of thousands of Acehnese remain homeless, many in tents on trash-strewn lots that were once thriving middle-class neighborhoods. Many of the houses still standing are patched with tarps and scrap wood.

Life is springing back: Young men play soccer on a field that was littered with hundreds of bloated bodies for days after the tsunami. Lovers walk hand in hand along the beach, and thousands turned out recently for a pop concert.

“To have peace after a disaster like the tsunami is really heaven after hell,” said Suadi Sulaiman, 27. He was strolling through rice paddies and alleyways in the village of Simbe, where until a few months ago, he was fighting soldiers or fleeing them, once with a bullet in his side.

Conditions for peace were improving even before the tsunami.

The rebels were reeling from a 2003 military offensive that followed the collapse of the previous accord.

Thousands had been killed, leaving them with only 3,000 fighters pushed deeper and deeper into the jungle, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group reported.

Many were young and uneducated, and lacked their predecessors’ ideological zeal.

“We just like fighting,” said Fachruvrazi, 24, who uses one name. He took up arms in the rebel stronghold of Pidie when he was 19. “We told our parents, ‘If you don’t let us go to battle, we won’t eat our rice.’”

Weapons were so scarce that fighters had to share their guns.

In contrast, Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers are well-armed and organized. After nearly two decades of fighting that has claimed 65,000 lives, they control large swaths of rural Sri Lanka, and post their own border guards and tax collectors.

At the same time, Sri Lanka’s government was riven by interparty disputes and opposition to the peace process.

Those divisions were reflected in the Tigers’ demand for a say in distributing the billions of dollars in aid that poured in after the tsunami killed more than 30,000 Sri Lankans. When President Chandrika Kumaratunga agreed, some coalition supporters abandoned her.

By contrast, the peace process in Aceh had the full support of the government of newly elected President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who had promised to end festering insurgencies in Aceh and Papua provinces.

Vice President Jusuf Kalla was in secret talks with the rebels even before the tsunami struck.

Action kicked into high gear after Dec. 26. As foreign-aid workers poured into the province that was closed off to them during the previous two years of martial law, international pressure mounted on Jakarta to halt the violence. Billions of dollars in foreign aid were at stake.

The rebels said they didn’t want to add to people’s suffering “and we realized, too, that rehabilitation and reconstruction in Aceh would be impossible if there was no peace,” said Mr. Kalla.

When they met in Helsinki, both sides made big concessions. The rebels gave up their long-standing demand for independence, and the government agreed to give Aceh limited self-government and control of more than 70 percent of the revenue from its mineral wealth.

The rebels won amnesty, and more than 1,400 prisoners were freed.

Are the rebels really committed to peace or this is just a tactical pause? “It’s too early to know,” said Ken Conboy, a private security consultant in Jakarta.

He said neither the Indonesian army nor the rebels were hit hard militarily by the tsunami: The rebels operated well away from the shoreline and the government easily could absorb the deaths of several hundred troops.

But tens of thousands of rebel family members killed in the waves had an effect on morale.

Samsul Fuadi lost his mother, father and 18-year-old sister, and still the war continued. His final battle came two weeks after the tsunami. Of the seven dead in that fight, six were civilians.

It made him think about the innocent lives his struggle had cost. They were just “scavengers,” he reflected. “Sifting through the tsunami’s rubble.”

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