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Aceh: Part 1 - Banda Aceh, Day 1

sunny 30 °C

Of all the lands in Indonesia (and with over 18,000 islands, there are many), there are two which never fail to make the news, and usually for the wrong reasons: Papua New Guinea and Aceh. I have yet to travel to the former but I travelled to the latter during the end of May. Located in north Sumatra (about 2.30/3.00 hours from Jakarta by plane), the region has a long history of conflict and turmoil. During the colonial years, it was the Acehnese who offered one of the fiercest resistances against Dutch colonial rule. This resistance culminated in the long and brutal Aceh War, which lasted from the years of 1873 until 1913, when after long years of bloodshed, the Dutch were finally victorious.

After Indonesia finally gained independence from Dutch rule in 1945, many Acehnese felt resentment towards the Indonesian state; in large, this was due to ethnic and cultural differences. The Acehnese have a long history of Islam which dates back to the 12th century, when the Sultanate of Aceh was established. The Indonesian government's attempt to incorporate Aceh into the state largely failed, and the Acehnese rebellion gained momentum in 1953, with calls for the imposition of an Islamic state existing outside of the Indonesian state. In 1959, the Indonesian state yielded to some of Aceh's demands and granted it semi-autonomous status, which allowed Aceh greater freedom over internal decisions.

In the 1970s, however, things took a turn for the worse. Under agreement from the central Indonesian government, American oil and gas companies began exploiting Aceh's rich gas and oil resources. In 1976, the Free Aceh Movement declared itself official when Hasan di Toro declared independence from the Indonesian state. No longer would Aceh be subjugated and oppressed by Indonesia or any other outside interference, Aceh would be free. Naturally this resulted in conflict, and during the 1980s there were a number of major security incidents which prompted the Suharto-led Indonesian government to further repress the Acehnese people. Human Rights abuses were rampant during this period. During the 1990s, the Acehnese rebellion strengthened, this time with a huge section of the Acehnese people behind independence. In the year 2003, a further offensive began and a complete state of emergency was proclaimed in the province. We all know what happened next.

The tsunami struck on 26 December 2004. The statistics are there for everybody to see: over 170,000 killed, half a million left homeless, the provinces infrastructure left in complete and utter disarray. Since the tsunami, Aceh has also undergone radical social and political transformations. For one, GAM, left in disarray after the tsunami, signed a peace deal with the Indonesian state. Furthermore, since the tsunami, there has also been an increased implementation of Shariah law, imposed by the the Shariah police. In theory, this means that the consumption of alcohol in the province can lead to a public lashing. No razzling it up here then.

As I said before however, the coverage of Aceh in the Indonesian media, at least the Jakartan media, is rarely positive. If the media is not covering some form of human rights abuses it shows a great deal of interest in various Islamist groups within Aceh. It is probably unsurprising that I was a little concerned about my trip to Aceh, especially considering I was travelling alone. Actually, I made a point of going to Aceh in light of the media's coverage here. The distortion of reality by the mainstream press and mainstream narrative is something which interests me. How true is this narrative about Aceh, I asked myself? I asked many of my students about Aceh. When I told them I was going to travel there, they repeated the same stories I read about in the press. Danger, terrorists, violence, conflict, Shariah law, tsunamis, earthquakes, and so on. Just last week, actually, the press here reported on how a local election turned violent. Before I went regional elections had been held a few days before, plus there had been another earthquake, which hit at around 9.0 on the richter scale. It was these images which enveloped my mind before the journey; and it is these images which were diminished upon my arrival, and completely destroyed by the time I left.

The flight to Aceh took about 2 and a half hours from Jakarta and I arrived in Aceh at some point in the early afternoon. It was hot, very hot, and unlike Jakarta, the sky was filled with neither clouds or pollution. On the plane, the gentleman next to me - an old Acehnese guy, retired, who said he had worked for an NGO during his work years - opened a discourse with me. He was extremely warm and hospitable - a far cry from the usual representations of the Acehnese as conveyed in the newspapers. "I'll take you to a decent place to stay," he said. "My driver is waiting for me at the airport." His benevolence helped diminish any minor worries I'd previously had

We drove from the airport, through rolling hills and small village-like communities. As is usual in Indonesia, people drove motorcycles. The roads were a far cry from those in Jakarta: they are well-developed, yet in terms of traffic, the two are incomparable. We soon arrived in Banda Aceh, which is the capital of the province, and before long I arrived at my abode. I booked a room for one night. This cost me 150 thousand rupiah, which is approximately 10/11 British pounds. After this, I took the gentleman's number and he said he'd be in contact. A friend already made. I then left my belongings in my room and took to the streets of Banda Aceh.

Banda Aceh is a city located on the coast. For this reason, the city excels in seafood. Upon leaving my motel, I came across a waroong and ate udang bakar (grilled king prawns) with nasi (rice) and sambal (homemade chilli paste). I then discovered a new type of transportation hitherto unknown to me.


Smiling faces aside, this is an ojek (motorcycle taxi) with a carriage attached to the side. Thus far, I've only seen them in Aceh. Excited at this new mode of transportation, I decided to take one. "Ke Masjid Raya," ("to Masjid Raya") I told my new acquaintance. This was a quick journey which cost less than 10000 rupiah (about 65 pence).

I arrived at Masjid Raya has night was about to descend. Masjid Raya (or Grand Mosque) is located in the centre of Banda Aceh. It is easily the most beautiful mosque in the city and probably the most famous in the country. Is is also very famous for surviving the 2004 tsunami, which reduced much of Banda Aceh to rubble.




This tower is directly facing the mosque.


These girls are on their way to prayer. As is common throughout Jakarta, the call to prayer is omitted through a loud-speaker, which can be heard over great distances.


I sat and listened to the call to prayer and I attracted the attention of several maids who endeavoured to sit next to me. They asked me where I was from, what I was doing in Aceh, why I was by myself. They were extremely pleasant. In turn, I asked them about their own endeavour. "Are you from Aceh?" I asked. They said they were from a village which was a few hours drive from Banda Aceh. I asked them why they were in Banda Aceh and they said they were attending some fashion/modelling competition. Keep in mind that, at this point, I'd only been in Aceh for a few hours. I still contained foolish thoughs in regards to the Shariah police: what if I am seen from a distance with these maids? I asked them what they did. They were all university students, they said. I had my photo taken with them, we exchanged numbers, and then I left.


I've forgotten this fellows name but the two of us chatted for long enough. You can see the Masjid Raya in the background. He was extremely friendly and courteous and he told me he had four wives. What a hero.


I visited the mosque again on my last day in Banda Aceh. During this second visit I was mobbed by a crowd of young gentlemen who were seemingly amazed by my appearance. They chased me and, me being me, they were easily able to catch me. They then asked me question after question and asked me whether they could have their picture taken with me. I obliged, thinking the encounter would last a mere minute or so. However, I was tricked in their endeavour, for they then proceeded to pull out a huge assortment of cameras and telephones. Everybody, it seemed, wanted their picture taken with me, and so the ordeal lasted for what seemed like hours, until I was eventually able to pull myself away from the group and make haste to a safer destination.


That's all for now. I will return soon enough and report the rest of my experience in Banda Aceh and beyond.


Posted by dabey 20:39 Archived in Indonesia

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You look thin - I hope you're eating properly! The mosque is beautiful. How is your learning of Bahase or Javanese going - or whichever dialect it is that you've adopted as a second language. Love you x

by Kieran

Thank you so much for your effort to share your story of Banda Aceh. I really really enjoyed your report. Actually it was very precise, very pleasant to read and informative.
I just want to appreciate for this.
I eagerly wait to read the rest and see the photos.

by mohsen mohajeri

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