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Aceh Seeks Truth, Reconciliation After Decades of Conflict

The Indonesian province of Aceh this month held its first direct elections for key officials, a landmark vote intended to cement a peace deal between the government and former separatist rebels. The people of Aceh, which bore the brunt of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, can now hope to rebuild their shattered province in peace. But as Jocelyn Ford reports from Banda Aceh, questions remain over how to bring reconciliation after nearly three decades of brutal struggle - and whether justice is to be found in Western style courts, or in Aceh's own traditions.

Nursinah is up to her knees in mud, planting rice in her neighbor's rice paddy. The 55-year-old will get paid just under $2.00 for the day's work, the main income for her family of five.

She took on the role of breadwinner seven years ago, when her husband vanished.

Nursinah says one day her husband drove to a nearby town for business, and never came back. Two years later, her 28-year-old son was murdered. His killers have never been found.

She believes her husband was killed because he was suspected of supporting the Free Aceh Movement, or GAM, which was fighting for the province's independence.

Nursinah says he was not a GAM supporter, and he was wrongly suspected. But even if she could find out who killed her husband and son, she says, she does not want to punish them. Her religion, Islam, helps her find comfort.

"I'll give their lives to God, give Allah what he wants," she said.

Saifuddin Bantasyam is a law professor at Aceh's Syiah Kuala University. He says some people who lost loved ones during the conflict like Nursinah, are willing to forgive - but others want justice.

"In Islam, you are very much appreciated if you forgive those who commit crime to you," he said. "But we will also find a number of family that is very hard to forgive those accountable for human rights violation."

In August 2005, the government and GAM signed a deal to end the conflict, which stretched over three decades and saw human rights abuses by both sides. Fifteen thousand people died. As part of the deal, the two sides agreed to set up a truth and reconciliation commission, to pursue justice for those who suffered abuse.

Such commissions are designed to ascertain the truth in a conflict, and to encourage communities to reconcile after long periods of strife. But not everyone is sure that revisiting past traumas is the best way to help the victims find peace. And there are practical reasons why a commission for Aceh is unlikely to be formed any time soon.

Fuad Murdatillah teaches Islamic studies at the Institute of Islamic Religion in Banda Aceh, the provincial capital. He says some are afraid to tell their stories, and are particularly hesitant to point a finger at the Indonesian military.

"It can create a new problem in the future. It can also create the angry spirit from the military for example," he said. "They can create a new conflict if we try to dig again their bad experience in the past. "

Human rights activists also say the Indonesian government might not have the political will to hold members of its powerful army accountable for their actions during the Aceh conflict.

The decision, at any rate, might have been taken out of people's hands. A top Indonesian court recently ruled that such commissions have no legal basis. So the law establishing the commission needs to be rewritten. That could take several years.

One solution being suggested is to revive Aceh's traditional methods of justice.

Budi Arianto is part of the Aceh Traditional Culture Organization, which promotes methods that fell into disuse during the long civil war. Budi explains that before Western-style law courts, Aceh had its own system of settling disputes, based on Islamic and local traditions.

A religious leader and the village elders would hold a public hearing. The perpetrator of a crime would confess, and the two parties would agree on compensation and conduct a ceremony of forgiveness.

"Our system is much faster than law courts. And Acehnese have more trust in their local leaders than they do in the Indonesian courts," he said. "Local leaders aren't corrupt."

Law professor Saifuddin says the old system has its advantages. For example, it is cheaper than going to court. And it can help heal the community, and pre-empt revenge attacks.

"When we have no loser and winner from this process, we can avoid someone to take revenge, and also can then re-establish again the relationship that already broken," he said.

Saifuddin says it is unlikely, however, that many people who committed serious human rights violations would participate.

And determining who some of them were could be extremely difficult. Most of the military was withdrawn from Aceh as part of the peace deal, and military records were taken away. And other records of abuses were washed away with the tsunami.