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Schools Targeted Amid Renewed Violence in Aceh Province - 2003-06-05

It has been more than two weeks since Indonesia began military operations in Aceh, following the breakdown of peace talks in Japan in May. More than 100,000 students and their parents have been affected by the renewed conflict in the restive province.

Dullah, a 30-year-old resident of Bireuen in the north of the province, complains that his son, age 10, cannot continue his education because the school is no longer there. He is angry at the situation, which is beyond his control. "The situation is getting worse," he said. "Villagers are being housed in a mosque. What is going on in this country? Schools are burned down. Children can no longer go to school. We are helpless as parents."

Indeed, the situation has changed dramatically in Aceh following unsuccessful attempts of the government and the Aceh rebels to solve their conflict through dialogue. Indonesian authorities ordered military action, and troops were sent to the region.

Thousands of Indonesian troops landed in Aceh. Armed clashes involving government troops and rebels began to escalate and spread to wider areas. Nurdin, of the daily newspaper Serambi Indonesia reported from the provincial capital, Banda Aceh, more schools have been burned down.

"According to official data issued by the Office of Aceh Provincial Education, almost 400 schools have been destroyed. Many are elementary schools, located in remote areas," he said.

No one seems to know for sure who is responsible for burning down the schools. The Indonesian military and the rebel group, GAM, accused each other of being involved in the campaign. Again reporter Nurdin.

"A number of local residents said the school burnings often occurred at night," Mr. Nurdin said. "Several shots were fired into the air before a building was burned down, possibly to warn people not to go out of the house when the burning took place. "

Syukron, a reporter for the daily newspaper Waspada, in the northern Aceh town Bireuen, says it is difficult find independent sources who can identify whoever was involved in the campaign of school burnings.

"My observations indicated that the persons who burned down the schools were armed and unidentified," he said. "These persons were not wearing any uniform. Local residents refused to talk for fear of becoming the sources of stories. They were afraid of their names being mentioned in the media."

Amiruddin, another resident of Bireuen, could not hide his anger when he talked about school burnings. He and his wife have two children. Her daughter, Rahmawati, is a high school student.

"I am very sad because I cannot go to school anymore," she said. "I am studying at home with friends. I hope they will rebuild the school soon. I cannot go to another school because I do not have the money for the transportation."

Authorities are under pressure to rebuild schools as soon possible in time for the students to take exams before the beginning of a new semester. The government in Jakarta promised to send hundreds of tents to Aceh for use as temporary schools.