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Aceh Prepares for Landmark Elections

On December 11, voters in Aceh, Indonesia, the epicenter of the Tsunami two years ago, go to the polls. It is the first-ever direct elections for governor and district chiefs in the once rebellious tip of Sumatra. The December 26, 2004 tsunami prompted the rebels and the government to sign a peace agreement that ended three decades of conflict and paved the way for the elections. Jocelyn Ford caught up with two candidates in one of the districts where the conflict was most intense.

Less than two years ago, candidates Fauzan Azima and Misriadi were trying to kill each other.

Fauzan lived in the jungle where he commanded the rebel Free Aceh Movement. He was fighting for independence from Indonesia.

Misriadi sided with the Indonesian military. He was fighting to keep the nation united.

But on the first day of campaigning, the two stood on the steps of a mosque, hugging each other, and shaking hands.

They joined two other candidates in a traditional Acehnese ceremony for peace and forgiveness, called Peusejuk.

The candidates sat cross-legged in the mosque, wrapped in an ornately embroidered red yellow and black blanket. A woman dips a bundle of greens into a blue and white vase, and then presses the leaves to the candidates' foreheads. It symbolizes being cool-headed.

Then, the men pledge to wage a fair and peaceful election, and to accept the outcome.

After the ceremony, former rebel commander Fauzan says the results from the ballot box mean more than body counts.

"It was easy to count how many people we killed in battle. But this time there will be a real winner. We will finally know who has more support from the people, me or him," said Fauzan.

The election is part of the outcome of a 2005 peace agreement between the rebels and the Indonesian government - ending 30 years of bloody conflict.

The Acehnese have their own language and traditions, and are more devoutly Muslim than people in the rest of Indonesia. But at the core of the conflict, were resources like oil, gas, timber.

"Economic grievances were at the heart of this armed conflict," says Melina Nathan, a former researcher with the International Crisis Group in Jakarta. "Aceh felt that it was rich in natural resources, and most of its natural resources were being taken away by Jakarta and it was getting precious little in return."

During the rebellion 15,000 people died. And many villagers lived in fear.

The rebels, also known as GAM, turned to kidnapping and extortion to get food and funds.

So did the Indonesian military. It terrorized and tortured civilians it suspected of supporting the rebels. And it forcibly recruited local anti-separatist militias like the one candidate Misriadi lead.

But while villagers who suffered the brunt of the conflict, are delighted to have peace, many are indifferent to the elections.

In this highlands village perched in the cool green mountains, locals sit on a dirty black tarp, chatting and picking out the deformed coffee beans.

Now that there is peace, the roads are safe to travel again. They are now able to sell their premium Sumatran coffee to Starbucks, which brings them a higher price.

They say that means more to them than being able to vote in the first-ever direct elections.

The villagers can name some of the candidates. But they say no matter who wins, they don't think it will make any difference to their lives.

But Rector Darni Daud of Aceh's Syriah Kuala University is cautiously optimistic the elections will bring a better future to this conflict-ravaged province.

"At least this is the beginning of the new era. We are in transition right now to more democratic. And creating democracy needs time," he said.

On the campaign trail, former rebel Fauzan says he's a patient man.

He says if he loses, he might return to the jungle.

But this time, instead of battling for independence, he'll wage an environmental war against illegal loggers, as head of an international forest conservation group.