Category Archives: Banda Aceh

Day Hike with the Rebellion

by Angie

We wanted our last day in Aceh to be an adventurous one, so on Sunday we booked a ride into the Indonesian jungle an hour from Banda Aceh. Our guides were a Dutch expat named Mendel and his posse of five former fighters from the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), which until 2004 had waged a bitter war against the Indonesian government. I especially was eager to speak with the ex-combatants and visit former battle sites as I am researching their reintegration into Indonesian society for my article. With such company, our group knew that the day would be anything but typical.

We were dropped off at what looked like the end of civilization. Ahead of us laid a bridge, beyond which the road simply ended, replaced by a narrow trail weaving through the dark ravines and steep mountains of the Indonesian jungle. After only fifteen minutes of walking through the canopy, I happened to kick a square metal container lying on the ground. “It used to hold ammunition” said Mendel nonchalantly when he saw the puzzled look on my face. That’s when the history of the place hit me. Six years ago, in this very spot, our tour guides had been crouching behind these very bushes, launching attacks and dodging bullets.

Later in the day, as the trail became steeper and more treacherous, the ex-combatants took the lead, grabbing our hands as we struggled to find footing. When we reached a clearing in the forest where our guide informed us we would break for lunch, our ex-combatants suddenly procured, seemingly out of nowhere, a large watermelon, over fifteen bottles of water, and individual bulges of chicken and rice wrapped in palm leaves.  One of them sliced the watermelon like butter with a giant knife that he had just used to bushwhack our trail. These men who had, in these very woods, stared death in the face, were now opening their world to strangers – and even feeding them lunch.

Mendel, the tour guides, and me

My thoughts we interrupted by a loud clanking which broke the silence around us, and I looked up in time to see four long wooden planks tumble to my side.  “Illegal logging,” announced Jeff, our editor-in-chief, with confidence. I laughed. I didn’t realize he was being serious until our guides begun telling us how frequently they see these men hauling large pieces of wood out of the forest. It took a couple of minutes for me to register exactly what was happening: the very small, rather cute old man throwing planks down a waterfall was trying to make a living for himself by destroying the forest, one tree at a time. Was it bad that I felt sorry for him?

Brushing the question aside, we climbed the steepest slope yet and arrived at our final destination: a secluded waterfall. We became little children, splashing into the water, climbing rocks covered in moss to reach a higher, more secluded overlook, and handing our cameras to our ex-GAM friends who laughed and kept us from falling more than a few times.  We lost track of time and were eventually told to head down by our still-amused guides.

On the car ride back, I reflected on a conversation I’d had earlier that day with Mendel. I had explained to him what I was writing my article about and he had translated a few questions for the guides, who spoke only broken English. After helping for a while, he turned to me and said, “look, Angie. The GAM is the anchor for men like them. Now, their anchor is gone.” By being in the jungle, he explained, “they’ve missed out on society for all these years.”

After handing each of our guides 50,000 Rp in appreciation and leaving the forest in our hired cars, we collapsed in the seats, staring idly at the passing jungle and falling asleep with minds filled with unanswered questions.


Bearing Witness

by Catherine

Like Bali, Banda Aceh has a distinct personality that you can grasp far quicker than you can Jakarta’s.  The similarities end there, however.  A professor from the Islamic University, where we visited Thursday, said it best: “here in Aceh we are always in conflict.” Before the 2004 tsunami, the region was torn by the GAM rebels (which we have been cautioned to refer to as “combatants”), and now as the last NGOs pull out of the region, the new implementation of sharia law has begun a national debate about religion and human rights.

Globalist reporters cover their heads and uncover their feet for entrance into Banda Aceh's Grand Mosque.

Sightseeing of the city is sightseeing of these conflicts. When we arrived last Wednesday, we women donned hijabs and long sleeves for our first entrance into an official “Muslim Dress Area” and later visited two ships that the tsunami waters had carried onto land. Beside the second, a massive tanker was a small photo memorial to those killed in the disaster.  It was a whitewashed wall with maps and diagrams that flanked a central niche in which around a hundred more-unsettling photos were compiled.  These photos had been taken in the days immediately after the water receded. They contained bodies and body bags. They were unedited for graphic content.

After sitting and saying nothing as a group for the first real time on this trip, we got into a discussion about the purpose and ethics of photography in situations like these. There was disgust that someone even took a photograph when that many seconds of some kind of helping was the alternative.  There was appreciation that someone took a photo in that situation because of that much more it might encourage aid organizations.  But did they even see these photos? We had not seen them before. Who saw them at the time, and what were the motivations of photographers?

The photographs were neither captioned nor given acknowledgements, so we did not know if they were taken by the Acehnese or by visiting aid workers or the media.

Is it acceptable to enter a post-disaster situation only to photograph? Social critic Susan Sontag says that “all images that display the violation of an attractive body are, to a certain degree, pornographic.”  This comment is from Regarding the Pain of Others, which deals largely with war photography; it is important to note the differences between that, post-disaster photography, and the general aestheticizing of poverty that sometimes occurs when the wealthier enter a less wealthy area (see: slum tourism). Still, photographs of carnage after a storm carry the same weight as those on a battlefield in a sense that the photographer is choosing to make an event of this tragedy as opposed to everyday tragedy.

Then comes the question of whether to publish the photographs, and if so, where.  Should coverage of the tsunami on the front page of the New York Times begin with one of these photos? Should they be available by a simple keyword search on the Internet? I think it’s important for them to be available to the part of the public who wants to seek them out, and perhaps that means going to this ship site or the nearby tsunami museum in Banda Aceh itself. As helpful as Internet archiving would be, I think the images should be somehow protected for disturbing content.

I hope that the photos were snapped by a frantic worker at the end of the day, a last decision before he or she went home.  Of course there are many reasons for taking a photograph, but we need to be careful when the beautiful and the horrible or the horrible and the purposeful overlap.

Banda Aceh Update

by Jeff

Apologies for the delay in posting, internet at our hotel has been down for the last day and a half. We’ve had an incredible few days packed with meetings and adventures. One thing that has really characterized our experience here is the friendliness of the people. Half of the things that have happened to us over the last two days would never have happened if not for people constantly offering to take us places and introduce us to new people.

A quick example: A member of our group had been in contact with a university professor named Suraiya in Banda Aceh, and we had planned a group meeting with her and some of her students. On Thursday afternoon we arrived at Asrama Haji (a school of religious studies and religious philosophy) and met Suraiya. After the meeting (which was an experience in itself. The 10 of us were seated as a panel in the front of a large classroom and bombarded with questions about Islam and perceptions of Islam in America) Suriaya offered to set up a meeting for us with the biggest local newspaper the next morning. So yesterday morning we arrived at Serambi Indonesia, Aceh’s largest paper, where Suraiya met us and helped with translation. After this meeting she offered to set up dinner for us at her sister’s restaurant. So again Suraiya met us last night for dinner. Her sister’s restaurant was incredible – most in the group said it was their favorite meal yet. We were seated on the floor (no shoes, of course) in an open-air private room built on the water. We had been cautious about eating seafood up to this point, but here everything had been freshly caught and was delicious.

Halfway through dinner Suraiya mentioned that she had called some of her friends to join us – and this is where the experience became surreal. First two men showed up. The first, an older man, spoke perfect English (which made sense when he mentioned that he worked for the World Bank in DC for 18 years). He was incredibly knowledgeable about Aceh, and especially the progress of economic development here. The second man introduced himself as Jamaica, but then said that this was his fake name – he  had been the spokesman for the GAM (the Free Aceh Movement) and used a fake name now for safety. His story was truly remarkable. He had joined the GAM while he was in university when he saw the lack of technology being employed by the GAM. He knew that they had no chance of success if they relied on typewriters to get their message out. When his computer skills were discovered he was quickly promoted and eventually became the spokesman for an entire region. His tales of hiding in the jungle and running from Indonesian military where hard to fathom. Soon another man arrived with his family – we were told he was the nephew of the man who was the top commander of the GAM. He had fled Indonesia in 1989 because of the danger he faced because of his uncle’s position. Since then, he told us, many in his family have been shot or poisoned. As we sat and listened to these stories we were all shocked by the openness about conflict. But all of these men stressed again and again that peace was always the ultimate goal. Fighting is done now – they try not to think about the past because there is such hope for what the future will bring.

This has happened to us over and over again – one contact has led to a stream of new people, one more willing than the next to talk to us. Aceh is a beautiful place with people so much more friendly than I have met elsewhere around the world. People in Jakarta are quick to criticize this region, but people here have experienced conflict and disaster like no where else. Only 6 years after the tsunami and the end of violence it is remarkable how friendly this place is.


Photo Update: May 19

This gallery contains 6 photos.

by Jeff

The Globalist Takes On Indonesia!!

Dear Reader,

Welcome to our travel blog. From May 11th through May 25th, 22 members of the Globalist staff and Editorial Board will be traveling to the country of Indonesia in Southeast Asia (for more information about the Globalist click on “The Globalist” at the top of this page).

Rich in political, cultural, and religious complexities, Indonesia is the perfect destination for our annual research and reporting trip. Our journey will begin in Jakarta where we will be meeting with representatives from the Jakarta Post, UNICEF, the University of Jakarta, and more. Most of these meetings have been scheduled by trip participants who are working on articles in the specific field of that contact. We will also be traveling as a group to some larger meetings that are for informational and networking purposes.

From Jakarta the group will split in two, half traveling to Bali and half to Banda Aceh. These secondary destinations are as fascinating as they are different from one another. Bali, Indonesia’s primary tourist destination and the only non-Muslim majority region of the country, is located near the geographic center of Indonesia, on the westernmost of the Lesser Sunda Islands, between Java and Lombok. The island presents rich religious diversity, a highly-developed arts and dance scene, and an array of important social issues that often take a back seat to wondrous temples and welcoming beaches. On our trip to Bali we hope to dig beneath the surface and uncover some of the issues that matter most to the Balinese people.

5000 people gather for prayer at Pura Tanah in Bali

Banda Aceh, at the northwestern tip of Indonesia on the island of Sumatra, became world-famous for the devastation that occurred there on December 26, 2004. A massive tsunami triggered by an earthquake of magnitude 9.3 killed approximately 283,000 people, 167,000 of whom were in Aceh alone. Reconstruction efforts took years, and only recently have NGOs begun to pull out. From the 1970s until 2005 Aceh was plagued by violence. A separatist movement called the Free Aceh Movement became exceedingly popular, and government efforts to quell disruptions led to quasi-war in 2003. Oddly enough it was the tsunami in 2004 that caused the two sides to come to terms; peace was an absolute necessity in the process of rebuilding the city and the region. On our trip to Aceh we will research and report on a number of these issues, including the post-war political status, the presence and strictness of Islam in the province, and more.

A ship beached by the tsunami rests on one of Aceh's beautiful beaches

Check back on May 13th for our first post from Indonesia! And to receive our updates by email, click the “Sign me up” button in the upper right corner of this page. Thanks for reading!


Jeff Kaiser

Editor-in-Chief, The Yale Globalist