Maya Denisa Saputra was born on July 30, 1990 in Denpasar, the capital of Bali, and grew up on Indonesia’s “island of the gods.” She left briefly to finish her education, a bachelor’s degree in Accounting and Finance from the UK-based University of Bradford in Singapore.
While holding a position in the accounting department of a family business, she pursues her interests in writing, literary translation, and photography.
She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
The Presence of Fighters
One evening in July of 1989, Leman’s coffee stall at Tamoun quickly filled with cheering villagers. The crowd suddenly fell quiet when my uncle, Arkam, started speaking. Arkam’s loud voice could be heard outside of Leman’s stall.
Drawn by the unusual activity, men and women, dressed in their dirty work clothes, kept coming to the stall. Meanwhile, the sun moved towards the western horizon. Its shape resembled a circle of light stuck between the buds of the candlenut trees. Half of the light poured onto the Tamoun market, casting long shadows on every object and a few people walking to Leman’s stall.
Arkam showed a piece of red cloth with a star-and-moon motif, which he referred to as a flag. That kind of flag had never been flown in Alue Rambe. I had heard that the Commander of the Pereulak Region, Ishak Daud, was the first person who raised that flag in one of the high schools in East Aceh.
Everyone silently paid attention to Arkam’s stern face.
Pacing in front of the crowd, Arkam continued his speech with fervor. His face tensed, and his arm showed bulging veins when he folded his fingers into a fist. He repeatedly touched his red cap — as if he wanted to take it off, but never did.
“We’ve been living under oppression for too long. We are being repressed and tyrannized. We can’t live like this any longer or we’ll be slaves forever. Where’s our dignity? All of us are dignified people. Our grandfathers were great fighters. We shall not fear. We must be brave and fight against this injustice and tyranny. Are you brave enough to fight against this cruel regime?” he shouted and shook his fist in the air.
“We are,” the crowd answered passionately.
The thundering voices were deafening.
Arkam kept talking. He reiterated the original reason for the uprising Hasan Tiro initiated thirteen years ago at the foot of the Pidie mountain. However, the army had destroyed these initial small attempts to rise against the unjust government. A lot of Hasan Tiro’s followers were shot, while the rest were detected by government agents and finally captured, kidnapped, and killed. Meanwhile, Hasan Tiro and a few of his followers fled overseas, seeking political asylum and international support.
During that period, the rebels were amassing power overseas. Some went underground for training in Libya. Others smuggled weapons to Aceh and buried them in the jungles or farmland.
They were the youths who believed they could rebel against the central government in Jakarta under the regime of Soeharto, who had already brought much suffering to his people. His oppression and injustice not only targeted the people of Aceh, it was also inflicted on many segments of our society.
How could it be possible for a nation rich in natural resources — including crude oil and natural gas — to be forced to live in poverty?
“Now it’s time for us to rise and fight. Take what is rightfully ours. We can live prosperously and in dignity by taking charge of our own land. Long live the fighters,” shouted Arkam. His face was tense and red.
“Long live the fighters,” the crowd answered, shaking their fists in the air. “Long live Aceh. Allahu Akbar. God is The Greatest.”
Arkam was Ibu‘s brother. At that time, my mother’s brother was in his thirties. After he stayed in Malaysia for six years, he joined a military training camp in Libya for another year. Now he was back, looking taller, his raised cheekbones accentuating his taut expression. His mustache was still thin. Apparently, he had developed a habit of wearing a red cap.
Arkam and his seven friends often wandered around the villages to solicit the villagers’ support and recruit new followers. Aside from Arkam, only two of these men were armed. Two operated a handheld radio, and the other three were empty-handed.
They mostly wandered around the villages that were under Arkam’s command as Panglima Sagoe, a rank of an insurgency fighter in a sub-district. Alue Rambe, my village, was located in a remote mountain area of North Aceh, south of Lhokseumawe. Our village fell under Arkam’s jurisdiction.
The main road in the village was a gravel road. Passing motorcycles and delivery trucks created large dust clouds. However, in the rainy season, some parts of the road were flooded and became very slippery.
I was among those who congregated outside Leman’s stall. Mingling among the men, women, and children, I leaned on an open clapboard so I could see what was going on inside.
Men filled every seat on the benches. Those who did not get a seat leaned against the poles; others squatted on the bare ground. Two long-barreled guns and a revolver lay on the only empty table. It seemed those weapons were purposely put on display to fuel the crowd’s rebellion against the central government in Jakarta that mistreated the people of Aceh.
Arkam picked up an AK-47. Waving the gun at the crowd, he assured them that the weapon was made from metal, not wood or plastic. His friend held up another AK-47 and arrogantly loaded and unloaded it. Someone else held an Italian-made pistol and tried twirling the Beretta by placing his index finger inside the trigger loop. The gun did not rotate properly and almost fell. When Arkam glared at him, the man looked away.
I knew what the different kinds of weapons were because Arkam repeatedly explained each of their functions to the people surrounding him.
All that time, a muscular man stood guard beside the table. The young men among the crowd seemed reluctant to leave. They continued to stare at the weapons as if they were the world’s most magical objects. It was true that such objects had never been seen in this village.
Yasin had been looking silently at the guns. Without paying attention to Arkam’s explanations, he suddenly touched the AK-47 that had just been laid on the table.
Arkam immediately slapped Yasin’s hand, shocking him.
“This is a dangerous weapon. You can’t touch it,” Arkam snapped, alerting his three friends.
One of them pushed Yasin away from the table. Some rowdy youths moved towards the back of the stall.
Arkam continued his scolding. “Do you think this is a toy? Only after you join us and are trained to shoot, then you can hold it.”
Some people laughed and supported Arkam’s firm statement by nodding their heads.
Yasin’s face reddened. He seemed to be ashamed of his carelessness.
Arkam also boasted about his skill in long-range shooting. The rebels’ military training was better than that of the government’s army. Those soldiers were outfitted with used World War II weapons, which often had jammed barrels and an inaccurate sight mechanism.
Leman, the coffee stall owner, was mostly silent while faking a smile. More than half of the villagers had gathered around his coffee stall. Some of them crowded the shop; others loitered around it.
I was certain they did not come to drink coffee, but merely to take a closer look at the deadly firearms that Arkam and his friends had brought. Before this afternoon, the existence of weapons was only mentioned as a boast by people who dreamed about reaping the benefits of Aceh’s rich natural resources. In this country, there was no civilian who dared to touch such a thing, let alone have one at home. The punishment for illegal gun possession was the death penalty, or at least decades behind prison bars.
Some people in the coffee stall, especially the youth, were impassioned and seemed convinced that the resistance movement would be able to fight against the injustices of the central government. I saw a glint of worry on the faces of some older people who were present. They must have been worried about the dangers that currently lurked in the villages.
War never seemed to end in this land. There had been war ever since the arrival of the Portuguese, followed by the Dutch, the Japanese, and then the Communist Party and Darul Islam rebellions, and now the once-weakened Aceh resistance movement was on the rise again.
Meanwhile, Arkam’s friends and the young men in the crowd yelled curses about the government military, as if their enemy stood in front of them. Their frenzy irritated others, causing them to leave the scene and follow the women who had already left Leman’s stall to return home.
“Trust me!” Arkam’s roar silenced the stall.
Leman, who was filtering coffee, was caught holding a coffee can by its handle with one hand, while his other hand held the filter.
“Trust me.” Arkam repeated his words with great confidence. “We’ll be able to chase away those soldiers. Our weapons are far more powerful than theirs. They only use worn-out M16s that belonged to the American soldiers in the Vietnam War. The triggers are often jammed and won’t fire the bullets.” Arkam’s laughter was met by cheers of other passionate youth who didn’t seem to want to leave.
Leman turned pale and his hand holding the coffee can shook when the boisterous laughter broke out. He looked as if he wanted to drive out his rowdy visitors, who displayed guns in his stall without his permission.
Other kids and I were anxiously waiting for Leman to turn on his television. Leaning against the open clapboard, we stood outside the stall while looking inside the room. Every evening, after performing the Asr afternoon prayer, the other kids and I would watch television for a while, before Leman chased us away with shouts ordering us to take a shower and go to the Quran’s recitation class. Watching television in the evening was such a pleasure. It was an unmatched enjoyment for us children, and perhaps even for the adults who were free to watch it until late at night.
Leman’s fourteen-inch television was the only television in my village; hence, his stall was always crowded after the Asr prayer time, when the television broadcast began.
That evening, we were really disappointed. Arkam’s gun show had prevented us from watching television. About twenty young men remained seated around the table where the three firearms and their bullets were laid down. It was as if Arkam were the greatest and most powerful rebel leader in Aceh.
Three of Arkam’s new followers were unarmed. He said they’d be given weapons at a later time.
After Arkam finished talking, a villager asked one of the unarmed men, “Why don’t you carry a gun?”
The slim man answered awkwardly, “It’s on its way from abroad.”
In order to convince the villagers, Arkam, who apparently had overheard the conversation, nodded his head. He seemed tired and looked tense. He sipped the cooled coffee that he hadn’t had a chance to drink earlier. After just one sip, he quickly ordered Leman to take it away and replace it with a fresh, hot cup.
Leman quickly poured the coffee and served it.
Only a few people had left Leman’s stall. Most of them still hung around Arkam, who ordered everyone to go home.