Minerva Soedjatmiko‘s love of reading started when her mother read her stories about the lives of artists like Leonardo da Vinci. While she attended elementary school, Minerva, who prefers to use her first name only, could often be found in the library enjoying novels of different genres. Following her parents’ advice to pursue a lucrative career, she went on to study economics and law at the university. However, Minerva never lost her love for books and her joy of sharing their content with others. She eventually decided to become a language teacher and now works as an interpreter and translator in a media and communications company. Minerva can be reached at email@example.com
Man of the Fields
Hasan hurriedly harvested the chili peppers growing on a patch of land near the stream that was starting to run dry. The farmers of Buket Kuta placed their hopes on the harvest of this small area of the valley when the dry season hit. Their village was tucked away in the deep silence of coconut groves that, neglected, had turned into overgrown woods, some nine miles off the main road between Medan and Banda, along Eastern Aceh. Idi, the closest small city, was about thirteen miles farther. Without any available public transportation, the villagers never ventured out. They had no idea what the world beyond Buket Kuta looked like.
Hasan gazed across the valley at what remained of Kampung Kulam. The village where he had grown up was now abandoned. In 1999, a year after Indonesia’s President Soeharto was forced to step down and the government in Jakarta fell into chaos, rebels in Aceh began attacking army posts in retaliation against the government. The rebels claimed that the government had exploited the natural resources that belonged to the most northern province of Sumatra, and the Acehnese had not received their fair share of proceeds. Their discontent erupted in a series of protests.
Hasan was the breadwinner of one of fifteen families from Kampung Kulam who now lived in Buket Kuta. The soldiers had found no evidence of him being involved in revolts against the government.
Hasan still remembered the beginning of the rebellion against the government. At that time, there had been no coercion in collecting what the rebels called pajak nanggroe—contributions to support the uprising. Resentment against the government was widespread, and the rich city folks who supported the rebels’ cause gladly made donations. The war was merely a spark of discontent; something similar to an ember held in a damp chaff to keep from flaring. Rebels moved around freely to meet with businessmen and wealthy people in the city without fear of drawing the millitary’s suspicion.
The few government soldiers there were back then only recognized one or two of the rebel organizers. The army affixed posters with photographs of the rebels to the walls of shops and meunasah, the prayer house, encouraging the community to report any sightings of the people shown on these flyers to the authorities.
The war dragged on, however, and the rebels became cornered and financially pressured. They began to exhort money from everyone. When the wealthy residents fled, the rebels turned a blind eye to the peasants’ hardships and poverty and made the nanggroe dues compulsory for villagers as well.
Hasan sighed and pulled his harvesting sack across the path between the chili beds. Kampung Kulam was but a memory; it had become a dense forest that snakes and boars called home. Numerous villagers had been killed and buried there. Hasan thought of his father, mother, and younger sister. Tears fell onto the rubber boots he always wore when leaving home.
As he harvested, Hasan chewed a reed and recalled the army’s wrath after a rebel blocked their truck and killed a battalion of soldiers with a bazooka. Hundreds of soldiers arrived the next day to punish Kampung Kulam, burning homes and shooting everyone in sight. The village that Hasan had called home became a slaughterhouse. Blood flooded the ground as women and children were killed along with the men. Luckily, at the time, Hasan and his wife were out in the fields.
Even though the field was more than half a mile away from home, they could hear the soldiers’ shouting as gunshots reverberated through the air. Each time there was an eruption of gunfire, Hasan’s breath caught in his throat and his heart pounded. When he noticed the artillery fire being returned, Hasan and his pregnant wife ran to hide in the forest.
Once the soldiers returned to their posts, Hasan found that his village had been razed; there was not a single home left standing. Everything had been burned to the ground. Bodies littered the yards of what used to be homes; more were scattered in the fields among the coconut trees and crops. Only those who happened to be far away from the village had survived. The sight of it all shook Hasan, and he suffered from a kind of amnesia for days.
When his senses returned to him, Hasan broke into tears and cursed the war. Only over time did he learn to forget. Living here required the ability to forget pain. Life demanded him to work. Thus, he and his wife built a new hut in Buket Kuta, where they now lived.
The soldiers at the post on the outskirts of Buket Kuta searched the village hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of times. They searched Hasan’s home almost every day, but never found any weapons. Nevertheless, each time the troops patrolled the village, Hasan and other males were always a target of their anger.
The military abused the farmers to make them hate the rebels for causing the military persecution. Helpless to fight back against the heavily armed soldiers, the villagers could only run away and seek sanctuary in the forest.
Each time the military departed after their raids, Mando Gapi and his men appeared. The square-jawed commander of the rebels demanded the villagers pay the nanggroe dues without considering how they suffered. He was having trouble finding new members willing to join the fight against the military. So many lives had been lost; those still standing shuddered at the sight of a weapon.
“Your growing debt would be paid off if you joined us,” Mando Gapi barked.
“I have a child, sir,” Hasan pleaded.
“You always use that excuse!”
“I don’t know what to do.”
“You’re lucky to even have a family. We have no one, just weapons. It doesn’t matter what you’re dealing with, you still have to pay up. That’s the price of not participating in the war!”
“But…I have no money, sir.”
“Aren’t your chili peppers about ready for harvesting?”
“But, I haven’t picked them. Besides, I owe Dullah, the village grocer, a lot of money.”
“You always complain. You won’t even join the war. What do you contribute to the greater good, to defend the honor of the Acehnese as the government tramples us? They’re seizing our oil and gas, destroying our forests to manufacture paper. And when we demand independence, they send their troops to kill our men and rape our women. Is it right that you remain silent in the face of all this?”
“If I didn’t have a wife and child, I would join the war, sir,” Hasan answered nervously.
“Come on, you aren’t fooling anyone. You can’t prove to have contributed anything. You even avoid paying the nanggroe dues. Look at us. We’ve sacrificed all of our possessions to buy weapons and lead a miserable existence in the forest under constant watch of those damned soldiers!”
“I don’t know, sir,” Hasan mumbled, confused.
Mando Gapi slapped his forehead, shook his head, and put his hands on his hips. “Look, I’m trying to be nice. Go, pick those peppers, sell them, and give us some of the money. I’ll come back for it tomorrow or the day after!”
Hasan, standing frozen on his porch, stared at Mando Gapi as the man turned around and walked away.
As soon as Mando Gapi left, Hasan slumped. He suddenly felt incredibly frail, powerless to the point that standing was a challenge in itself. Crouching, he leaned against a wall. Mando Gapi’s threats, on top of his debt at Dullah’s shop, made Hasan’s head spin and his ears ring.
Reza, his three-year-old son, walked toward him from inside the house.
Hasan pulled his son onto his lap. Stroking the boy’s head, he gazed into the distance, thoughts tumbling through his head. He was stuck between the army and Mando Gapi. He needed to harvest his peppers immediately.
The army had tracked Mando Gapi to Buket Kuta. Their search forced all adult males in the village to flee to the forest again. After hiding there for five days and five nights, Hasan had returned home that morning. He was exhausted. Sleep deprivation and an undefined restlessness had caused his entire body to be sore. His wife, Saudah, greeted him, weeping. Reza bawled for food.
“We don’t have anything anymore, dear. We finished the rice,” Saudah told him.
Hasan responded with a pained look. His stomach ached as well. Not only was his face ragged, his mind too was worn out. Hasan furiously condemned this cursed war.
If only he did not have so much debt accrued at Dullah’s shop, he would surely have rushed over there. But Hasan was overcome with shame at the thought of asking the middle-aged man for a bit of salted fish and rice on credit. Considering Hasan’s prior debts, Dullah might not be willing to provide him with these staples. The shopkeeper always complained of his losses to anyone who borrowed from him.
Hasan knew that each time troops entered the village, Dullah was forced to surrender his inventory to them, along with however many rupiah were in the drawer. The army picked everything clean and acted as if they owned it all.
Each time, Dullah watched them loot his shop without any attempt to resist. This conduct saved him from the abuse served up by the soldiers, who instead busied themselves with kicking villagers who happened to be wandering by the shop. As the kicks hit their marks, the soldiers threw accusations at the farmers’ dirty faces, alleging they were rebels.
Hasan took off his stained and tattered shirt and slapped his head with a burly hand. The stench of urine where his son had wet the dirt floor made his headache worse. Pacing the tight space, he barely missed stepping on Reza’s foot, causing the child to scream.
Saudah split the cucumber Hasan had found in an abandoned field as he was leaving his hiding place in the forest. She handed a piece to Reza, which immediately quieted him. As the toddler bit into the cucumber, its juices squirted and dripped from his mouth.
Hasan sat down on the floor; his dark skin was covered with little welts similar to bug bites. Saudah came to him with a bottle of kerosene and rubbed the kerosene all over her husband’s body to soothe the welts.
Hasan knew how much his wife loved him; Saudah knew how much he loved her. And yet they had lost the ability to respond to or receive such emotions. Amidst the peril and misery that smothered each day, every emotion other than fear felt strange; war left no room for love.
“How far did you go this time?”
“To the Damar Forest.”
“The soldiers kept coming after us. Our men opened fire and shot one of them. The soldiers were furious. Whoever wanted to stay alive was forced to join the rebels, who ran into the forest.” Hasan rubbed his calves and continued, “The soldiers made no effort to distinguish farmers from rebels—to them, we all look the same. Our filthy bodies even smell the same. But it’s no wonder the soldiers were furious; we did shoot one of them.”
Hasan paused and sent Saudah a scrutinizing look. “What did they do here?”
“They gathered people, including children, in the meunasah. Several boys were beaten. Their fathers were accused of causing the death of a soldier.” Saudah sighed.
“What did they do to you?”
“They just scolded me.”
“They didn’t take anything from our house?”
“No. There isn’t anything left for them to take. They were really mad. They shot whatever livestock they saw.”
“Our goat?” Concern was written all over Hasan’s face.
“Did you cook it?”
“They took the carcass.”
Hasan pulled away and darted out the door. He ran to the back garden, past the coconut trees that had refused to bear fruit for the past year. The drought had turned the leaves yellow and caused the ribs to drop to the ground. Hasan stopped running. He beat his head with both hands.
“Damn it all!” he screamed, stumbling through the bushes. Close to the narrow walk bordering the rice paddies, a few cassava plants had sprouted. Stalks of rice still rose from the soil like tiny bundles of thin sticks; the leaves were parched. He had plowed the land and tended to the seedlings on this plot. Yet, the ground of the rice paddies was hard and cracked. The plants had perished, the seed wasted.
At the cassava patch, Hasan clenched his fists when he saw the uprooted plants. Boar tracks explained the damage. Hasan cursed. His stomach hurt; he thought of his wife’s and child’s stomachs.
He eventually decided to take home the boars’ leftovers. Hasan dug for the remaining roots with his hands like a scavenger. The immature tubers were hard, like tree roots.
At home, Hasan handed Saudah the meager harvest.
She silently boiled the thin, tough roots.
Though it was only noon, Hasan yearned for sleep. During the five days he was trapped in the woods, he could only catnap along with the other farmers and the rebels. A ceaseless anxiety kept everyone awake.
After a while of tossing and turning on his cot, Hasan still could not fall asleep. Neither was his passion aroused when he looked at his wife. Although he had been away from home for five days, and normally his desire for her could be sparked at any time of the day or night, he remained unmoved, even after she lay down next to him.
“I’m going to pick the chili peppers,” he told her, jumping out of bed and grabbing an empty sack next to the door.
Now Hasan moved between the chili beds with an urgency to fill his harvest bag. His calloused hands trembled slightly as he picked the peppers, regardless of the fruit being red or green. His fingers, skilled and swift, plucked each pepper from every hanging stem. Sometimes, in his haste, he seized the rotten ones that had not fallen off the stem. He tried to stay focused on the task at hand, but failed miserably. A shadow followed him relentlessly, circling nearby.
Hasan was alone as twilight draped the field. While gathering the peppers, he could not keep himself from looking around as if there was another presence, someone standing behind him like a ghost. He worried about suddenly being surrounded by a military squad. Soldiers on surveillance often concealed themselves in the bushes for hours before unexpectedly appearing without a sound.
They would never believe that he was merely a man working the fields. No one would still be wandering in the fields when it was almost dark. Unless, of course, they were starving rebels stealing the farmers’ crops.
Hasan wanted to get the job done quickly. He knew the price of chili peppers was at a high. If he could harvest them all, he would be able to buy a sack of rice, enough for his family to live on for a month. His wife would have no need to complain, and his son would not beg to be fed.
The row of peppers he had picked looked like wild animals had foraged there. Some branches were broken, some fruit scattered on the dirt. Hasan realized the damage. He knew the broken branches would wither and drop their leaves.
He seemed to make such little progress while time passed so quickly. Now, all chili peppers—ripe, green, or still in bud, and even the rotten ones—were bagged. The sack was full. He could sort the good from the bad later that evening at home.
Hasan straightened himself. His heart pounded when he realized how late it was. Delight and fear filled him. He imagined his wife and son, anxiously waiting for him to come home with rice.
Hasan hurriedly tied the top of the sack with a used plastic strap. He looked in all directions, then dragged the bag down a path between thick weeds. He deliberately did not carry the sack on his back, to avoid being noticed from afar. Hasan crept forward, lugging the bag behind him.
When he reached a portion of the path that was blocked from view by high shrubs, Hasan was able to walk upright and felt relieved. Even if there were soldiers out there, they would not be able to spot him. The surrounding grove gave him cover.
Hasan thought of his wife and child. Come what may, he must always return to the fields to plant rice, cassava, and chili peppers. The rice and cassava could be eaten. The peppers could be sold to Dullah. If the price was right, his wife would be able to buy groceries, clothes, and other things at the Idi Market. Hasan had no wish to join the war. He merely wanted to live a happy life with his wife and child.
Suddenly, like the silhouette of a ghost passing by, several figures dressed in camouflage jumped out of the nearby bushes. Soldiers.
Hasan gasped and let go of the sack of peppers. Something hard slammed into the nape of his neck. Before he could utter a sound, Hasan collapsed.