The Jakarta Post, Jakarta || Sat, May 29 2009
Nani Afrida, The Jakarta Post‘s correspondent in Aceh, spent two nights two weeks ago at the Free Aceh Movement’s (GAM) hideout in East Aceh regency, after she and five other journalists offered themselves as collateral for the release of about 100 GAM hostages, including RCTI television cameraman Fery Santoro. Recovering from the trauma that she endured during the rare experience, she recounted her story during her stay with GAM.
A starry night illuminated pitch-black Lhok Jok, Peudawa Rayeuk district, East Aceh regency. Electricity to the village had been cut by Free Aceh Movement (GAM) separatists to make them harder to detect by Indonesian Military (TNI) troops.
Lhok Jok is an isolated village inhabited by 100 or so people. It is hilly terrain, situated 64 kilometers from Langsa town and a GAM stronghold in the regency.
It was the first night (Saturday) that I was staying with GAM guerrilla fighters, along with five other journalists from print and TV media outlets, including two from RCTI.
We spent the night at a GAM hideout there to “”hand over”” ourselves to GAM so that RCTI cameraman Fery Santoro and about 100 other hostages could be released.
Fery was abducted 11 months ago. His colleague, Ersa Siregar, who was with him when they were taken, was killed in a gunfight with TNI troops at the end of last year. Every effort to free Fery failed, until, in early May, Peurelak GAM commander Teungku Ishak Daud decided to release the hostages, subject to conditions.
One of these required that reporters stay overnight to convince Ishak that he would not be set up and ambushed. The TNI gave GAM 36 hours to free the hostages but declined to let reporters stay overnight, for safety reasons.
After intense negotiations, the TNI eventually agreed to six journalists staying overnight; I was one of them.
The air in Lhok Jok was getting chilly on Saturday. After magrib (prayers at dusk), we were invited to dinner by GAM men toting M-16 rifles. About 100 GAM personnel were there. Despite the TNI’s promise not to attack, they were still vigilant. As guests, we were treated well.
Ishak chatted with us that night, mostly complaining about reporters who, during the period of martial law, he said, had filed biased reports.
To him, reporters were inclined to quote the TNI rather than report directly about the grief of Aceh people. He also explained that hundreds of civilians detained by GAM now were people who had requested protection from the cruelty, he said, of TNI. Only three people were listed as hostages, one of them Fery.
The night was almost over. We stayed in a surau (prayer house) adjacent to the Lhok Jok mosque.
Fery was released that afternoon (Sunday), in addition to about 100 other hostages. He was immediately taken to Langsa for medical treatment. He looked thin, weary and traumatized by the ordeal. We were saddened at seeing him.
As he left, we remained at Lhok Jok because the release of the 100 other hostages was put back until the next day. Ishak asked us to stay and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) promised to return the next day for a customary hostage-freeing ceremony.
The cessation of hostilities was over but the separatists requested, through the ICRC and their mediator, Alamsyah, more time because the hostages were held at different places and they needed time to collect them.
At 12 midnight on Sunday, the rebels received information that the TNI had objected to their request. The TNI had blockaded Lhok Jok with tanks and would strike at 6 a.m.
We tried to contact everyone, using GAM’s satellite telephone to communicate, but to no avail. Head of the Alliance of Independent Journalists Edy Suprapto, when contacted by us, confirmed the deadlock.
“”Never mind. The TNI are not concerned about your safety. It would be better if we took you all to the woods. After all, you have been captives since yesterday,”” said Ishak, smiling.
We were shocked and scared. We had seen the state that Fery was in. Who knows? We might have ended up like him.
To make it easier, Ishak divided us into three groups. We had no choice but to follow his instructions. Initially, I was put into the same group as Ishak, but he eventually decided to release me as I was the only woman in the group of reporters.
We hugged each other before departing.
As it was already 3 p.m. on Monday and still there was no good news from Langsa, all rebels, including the five journalists, set off. They faded from sight as they passed behind the bushes.
I was alone and, to be frank, scared. Residents who gathered at the Lhok Jok mosque also looked anxious. According to them, if subsequently a gunfight were to ensue and rebels were not found, civilians would become the target.
I couldn’t recall how long I’d been daydreaming when suddenly a GAM rebel approached. I recognized him as Ishak Daud’s aide-de-camp. “”Kak (sister), it’s OK! The TNI has given us until May 17 — midnight tonight,”” he said.
I couldn’t believe it at first, but when I saw Ishak Daud and my colleagues with smiles on their faces, I realized that I wasn’t dreaming.
Some 155 other hostages were freed by GAM. We could now go home after every hostage had been freed and was in a safe place. Only when we reached Langsa did we find out that it was our journalist colleagues in Langsa who had saved us, asking the TNI to extend the deadline for GAM to release the hostages.