TANGSE, Indonesia, Nov 29, Reuter – Schoolchildren in Indonesia’s rebel-torn province of Aceh say they don’t want to walk to school for fear of finding a mutilated corpse lying by the roadside.
"We are frightened, frightened even to talk to you," a 13-year-old girl told a foreign journalist visiting the region at the western end of the Indonesian archipelago.
In the past few weeks some 20 corpses have been found strewn around the plantation where she lives, workers say.
Most conversations about the Indonesian army’s bloody battle with armed rebels in the northern Sumatran province are whispered behind locked doors late at night.
"The only way to survive in Aceh is with your mouth shut. We sit in the middle and don’t say a word," said a field worker in Tangse, a rural village in the heart of the troubled zone.
If the rebels come to the door for food, locals say, it is a no-win situation. "If you don’t help out, they will kill you. If you do, the army will kill you. Simple as that," said one man.
Over 50 police and soldiers have swarmed into the village, which usually has two policemen. "And that’s not counting the ones in plain clothes," one local muttered.
They are part of a force sent by Jakarta, put by soldiers at 12,000, to crush the rebels. The army says the main core of insurgents numbers little more than 200.
On a quiet Sunday afternoon off-duty soldiers walked around the streets in jeans and T-shirts with semi-automatic weapons slung over their shoulders.
"If we don’t carry them with us, ‘they’ might get them," one said. "They" are the rebels, a shadowy group which does not make its aims known but which residents say fuses separatists and troublemakers with soldiers sacked by the army.
Uniformed soldiers arm their weapons as they set off on patrol around Tangse. "We’re going to get them. Want to come?"
Civilians are less jovial. "It’s one bunch of brutes fighting another," said one girl. "But it’s the little people who suffer, who are squeezed from both sides."
The plaint is echoed by ordinary people throughout the trouble zone, also by politicians, religious leaders and even some soldiers.
Regional armed forces commander Major General Pramono said in an interview the army killed only rebels. Soldiers in the field say some non-rebel civilians are killed and their bodies dumped in public places as a warning.
Pramono gave no official casualty figures but a senior army doctor said more than 1,000 people had died on all sides in the year-long rebellion, most of them since late September.
"One was right here, lying with his face shot off, blood everywhere," the doctor said, indicating a busy market place. "Everyone was just getting on with life all around the corpse."
Everyone has a horror story to tell.
"I hate doing the morning routes," said a bus driver who travels the coast road south from the provincial capital, Banda Aceh. "Last week there were two corpses, but I knew if I stopped I would be implicated."
Hundreds of people have been arrested at night, taken off to secret detention centres. Lawyers say there are no firm charges; one man was held for three months because he drove a car similar to that used in a rebel raid.
If relatives enquire after a family member’s arrest, the army sometimes send the detainee’s clothes back home, implying they have been shot, one religious leader said.
"So of course no one is asking any questions. The army can get away with anything," he said.
Pramono said information about detainees must be kept secret. "This is a military operation. Anyway, if they are dead, it’s rather difficult to ask about their families."
No one goes out after 10 at night. "It’s not exactly an official curfew, but the army says they’ll ‘disappear’ you if they find you out at night," a young man said.
One night in Idi Rajeuk, not far from the industrial centre of Langsa, the silence of curfew was broken by two sharp gun shots, then a sinister thud and a car driving off. The following day, residents pretended they had heard nothing.
One woman spoke of a mass grave near her remote plantation home. "I don’t know how many bodies but it must have been lots. (The military) brought them up through town in trucks at night."
In her house, everything was packed into boxes ready to be shipped out "just in case things get worse".