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.