The Indonesian "province" of Aceh on the island of Sumatra is only 155 km from the epicentre of the earthquake.
After several days the Indonesian government has finally given in to massive pressure to open up the closed war zone for international journalists and aid workers. Now the full and horrifying scale of the Tsunami catastrophe can be seen. At the time of writing, the official death toll stands at above 45,200. This is more than half of the total confirmed deaths of 77,000 - and it will probably rise further with maybe tens of thousands more.
Offensiv, the Swedish paper of the CWI, talked to Bakhtiar Abdullah who is spokesman for the exiled Free Aceh Movement (GAM) leadership based in Sweden. He tells the story of a brutal state of emergency and a war that has seriously undermined Aceh’s health service and infrastructure.
Now there is a grave threat of epidemics such as malaria, cholera and typhoid that can claim several tens of thousands more lives. According to the health ministry, those most vulnerable are the more than 500,000 injured. Just as is the case with those killed, most are children and old people.
The worst affected areas are the north-eastern coast from the capital Banda Aceh (on the northern edge of Sumatra) and the western coast down to the Meulabou district. Most of the houses have just disappeared, Bakhtiar Abdullah told Offensiv.
Since Aceh has a very difficult landscape with high mountains and tropical jungles, most of its people live along the coasts, where many are fishermen. On top of that, inland there is still a war going on against GAM, he explains.
A CNN reporter described the centre of the capital Banda Aceh as "totally destroyed". Bulldozers stood ready to bury thousands of the dead bodies that littered the streets into mass graves. According to a SOS message from Meulabou´s police chief, only about 20% of the town’s buildings remain in place, with looting and a rapidly growing risk of starvation among the ruins.
A journalist from a state news agency flew over the 200km-long coastline between Banda Aceh and Meulabou. He said that most of the area was under water and that there were very few signs of life.
10,000 had been counted dead in Melabou, of the town’s total population of 40,000.
It is unfortunately very difficult to get the aid work going in the area. There is no electricity, no fuel, no food, no water, no trucks. It is simply impossible to get there with what are now the most important things: Food, body bags and sanitary equipment, in order to stop epidemics, says the chief of UN OCHA Michael Enquist, according to AFP.
A spokesperson for nearly 100 doctors that had begun to gather in Banda Aceh also declared their inability to reach out with food and medicine to Aceh´s 4.3 million inhabitants.
"We can only reach a quarter of the western coast. The military has tried to get through with their heavy machines but they have failed",said an aid worker, Dr. Doti Indrasanto.
In the meantime, the 100,000-man strong military occupation force is accused of achieving few results and giving priority to their own families. However, a whole army brigade is reported to have been swallowed by the waves.
Soon after the catastrophe, the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) declared a unilateral ceasefire in order to assure a safe aid work. GAM will only defend itself under direct attack.
The Indonesian military have also declared that they now were "too busy" to be able to hunt the rebels. This is a lie, according to Bakhtiar Abdullah, speaking for the exiled leadership of GAM.
"We have received reports that military operations still go on during this disaster, in order to trample on GAM in the mountains. At the same time international rescue workers have been stopped and seriously delayed on their way to Aceh. 28 Australian journalists have been stuck at the airport in Medan, outside Aceh. It doesn´t look very promising", comments Bakhtiar Abdullah.
"International aid organisations should seek to reach out themselves to the people of Aceh with food, clean water, medicine, doctors, tents and blankets. The first priority must be to help the victims and to stop epidemics. But in order to rebuild Aceh in the long term, a political solution with peace, liberty and security is necessary", he says.
The reconstruction of Aceh may take five years, according to Indonesia’s deputy prime minister, Jusuf Kalla. At the same time as the regime in Jakarta proves its inefficiency in relief work there are reports of widespread solidarity with the Acehnese people throughout Indonesia. In a blog from Makassar in Eastern Indonesia, the female labour leader Dita Sari reports that kiosks have been put up to collect clothes and other necessities for the Acehnese every 300 meters on the streets in that town. Similar initiatives are going on in Jakarta and other towns. In Jakarta student activists are planning to organise a demonstration against the government in order to demand that the relief efforts get through to the people in need.
For the long term reconstruction of an independent, prosperous and just Aceh, the CWI believes it is vital to build massive solidarity between the Acehnese and Indonesia’s workers and oppressed peoples in the future struggles for a Socialist Aceh, within a voluntary socialist federation of the whole region.
The failed agreement
There is no solution in sight for the 30-year long armed struggle between the Indonesian government and Aceh’s liberation movement GAM.
A kind of phased peace agreement was reached in December 2002 after negotiations in Tokyo, sponsored by the US, Japan, EU and the World Bank. Since this agreement quickly broke down in the following months another 10,000 or so have been killed by Indonesian terror and armed clashes, according to GAM.
"The new president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (a 55 year-old retired general who took office in October 2004) in his election campaign promised to sort out the conflict in Aceh in the beginning of his mandate. But the result is the same as last time, that they demand our capitulation, that we must be satisfied with autonomy, ‘back to the motherland’. This is something that was neither part of the agreement, nor is it something that our people wish", says Bakhtiar Abdullah.
Aceh has been, according to GAM, for several centuries an independent nation, "one of the worlds oldest", that could never be colonised or put under the control of a foreign government. The old sultanate was known for its stubborn resistance to both the Dutch empire and later the Japanese during the second world war. And the Dutch government’s transfer of its non existent sovereignty over Aceh to Indonesia after the war, without any say for the Acehnese people, is dismissed as totally illegal, according to international law.
The Tokyo agreement of 2002 was launched as a step-by-step process that was meant to begin with an armistice, a dialogue with sections of the Acehnese people, security zones and a demilitarisation. An Indonesian law of autonomy for Aceh would be the starting point of an "all inclusive" dialogue, with the aim of organising elections of a democratic government in Aceh. According to GAM´s interpretation of the agreement,this would leave the door open to future independence.
In reality both Jakarta and its imperialist allies see an independent Aceh as a dangerous example, that could open up a Pandora´s box of national demands that they would go very far to assure will never be allowed.