Samantha Brown – Southeast Asian-based journalist and editor

Terrorist’s last hideout a tourism boon to sleepy Indonesian town

28.12.2005 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Travel ::

BATU, Indonesia – A huge banner points the way to Indonesia’s latest tourist attraction: the shattered remains of the house where Azahari Husin, one of Asia’s most-wanted terrorists, spent his last hours.

"From the first day until today, it’s been non-stop. And it’s been 42 days," 35-year-old Danny says as he does a brisk trade hawking three-dollar T-shirts with slogans like ‘The End of Dr. Azahari’.

Several hundred people a day, mostly Indonesians, he says, have been travelling to this sleepy resort town nestled among East Java’s towering volcanoes and usually popular for weekend getaways thanks to its cool climate.

Malaysian Azahari, a former lecturer, was cornered here by police after a years-long manhunt. As they descended on the house on the evening of November 9, an accomplice blew himself up, but police killed the master bombmaker in a volley of gunfire.

Azahari was a key member of Islamic extremist group Jemaah Islamiyah and stood accused of involvment in a litany of attacks in Indonesia, including the horrific Bali bombing three years ago, which left 202 people dead.

Danny’s colleague, student Samuel Raj, makes cash snapping polaroids of tourists who do not have their own cameras. He whips out a plastic lid marked with black tape and pierced with what appear to be bullet holes.

It belonged, he tells AFP, to one of the "suicide belts" stashed in the house in this well-heeled neighbourhood.

"It was found like this. Fourteen belts were found ready to be blown up and three were already blown," the 21-year-old explains. In pencil, 5/10 — presumably the date of manufacture — is written on white tape.

Widya, a 20-year-old Indonesian student, is here with her family from Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo, for an overnight trip taking in the debris-filled site still crisscrossed with yellow police-line tape.

A caged teddy bear dangles from the intact front fence and a pair of underpants found inside hang unceremoniously nearby. A splatter of brown across one of the few remaining walls is "flesh and blood", the vendors say.

Widya’s family have snapped up the VCD of November 9 footage for 20,000 rupiah (about two dollars) and a package of photographs for 10,000 rupiah.

"I think it’s really exciting because I’ve never been to a place where something like this happened," Widya gushes.

Asked whether the family would have been lured here otherwise by Batu’s weather and lush green apple orchards, Widya’s mother considers for a moment: "No, I think it’s just Azahari."

A more circumspect retired policeman, Max Najowan, has made the trip from Sulawesi’s Manado, more than 1,500 kilometres away (930 miles) away.

"I just came to see this place. When it happened I saw it on television," he says. "This was big news for all."

He browses the T-shirt selection and reads the slogan of one: "The journey of a terrorist leader has come to an end. Dr Azahari (The Demolition Man) who was wanted by police. 9 November 2005, in Batu. He got what he deserved."

At the sprawling Kusum Agrowisata apple orchard nearby, supervisor Paulus Hari Susilo says Azahari’s demise here has also proved a boon for his business.

He reckons that for the first three weeks in December, about 200 Malaysians have toured his orchard after coming here to see Azahari’s house.

"Usually Malaysians are only here in small numbers… It’s good business for our company. They just visit my gardens and then Azahari’s house.

"It’s been a blessing in disguise," he says of the fact that Azahari was living among them. The Malaysians spend about 200,000 rupiah each on his array of apple products and "say it’s good Azahari was cut down here".

Tourism officials are clearly pleased at Batu’s newfound place on the map.

"Azahari being here was not good, but now that he is dead, everyone is coming to see the location. Batu has become popular," Batu tourism official Suwignyo grins.

But amid widespread fears over more extremist attacks in Indonesia — Azahari’s accomplice Noordin Mohammad Top is still on the run — they are reluctant to directly promote what happened.

"We promote the beauty of Batu, not the ‘accident’," says Kadiso, a marketing official from the East Java Government Tourism Service. "It’s an additional event."

He hastens to insist that security in the region — the launching point for the tourism jewel of Bali and also home to several of the Bali bombers — is tight and bristles at foreign government warnings against travel to Indonesia.

"We have good security here. That’s why Azahari could be arrested here in East Java," he says. "Our security is very, very good."

Plan are afoot to turn the house into a monument intended to highlight police success in the fight against terrorism, Batu’s mayor Imam Kabul reportedly said last month.

Back at the site, Raj points out bullet holes in the drainpipe of the house opposite and shows where a policeman ran after he was shot in the leg by a bullet from the hideout.

The neighbourhood doesn’t mind the bustle and outsiders poking their noses around, he claims: "People can sell a lot of things."

Acehnese community’s ties help it start over one year after tsunami

24.12.2005 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Current Affairs ::

KEUDE PANGA, Indonesia – Baby banana palms and papaya trees nudge through the sandy earth at this coastal village in Aceh flattened by last year’s tsunami. Nature springs back to life quickly in the Indonesian tropics, but people here are only gradually clawing back their decimated lives.

"It will take a generation, maybe longer," says Murdani, a 33-year-old who lost his wife, child, parents — and his rice processing plant — in the fury of the walls of water that smashed into Keude Panga on December 26, 2004.

"There are only a few of us left, and only some of us have remarried. It takes time to have children. And from the economic perspective, it’s going to take time to recover."

Nobody is really sure, but local officials say that just 489 people out of 1,233 residents managed to scramble to safety when the tsunami struck this village of mostly fishermen and farmers.

It took a month to collect the bodies and entomb them in three mass graves, but most were never found.

All 401 houses, six schools and the village mosque were obliterated, with the mosque’s cleansing pool alone managing to withstand the waves’ onslaught, residents say.

"From every aspect, we are starting from zero again," Murdani, who uses only one name, says as he perches on one of the shabby car seats placed outside the shack serving as the office for the temporary mosque nearby.

Nearby the wave-battered hulk of a van, their likely source, lies upturned.

Keude Panga is located some 200 kilometres (125 miles) along Aceh’s west coast from the provincial capital Banda Aceh, a bleak stretch of murky abandoned rice paddies, still strewn by the sun-bleached trunks of coconut palms.

Like many here, Murdani, who was swept from his home to the hills three kilometres away, has yet to recover his livelihood.

"I want to reopen my business, but I don’t have the cash," he says.

The village’s imam, Teungku Ismail Hussein, 54, was elsewhere when the tsunami hit, and returned a month afterwards to survey the devastation.

"I encouraged people to start praying because some were not. They said there was no azan," he says, referring to the Muslim call-to-prayer that typically echoes through Acehnese — and most Indonesian — communities five times a day.

"They were so traumatised then they didn’t want to think about the mosque."

Now, chimes in 33-year-old Nassir Amin, more people are praying at the mosque than before — a refrain heard often in the staunchly Muslim province, where more than 168,000 people were killed or remain missing after the disaster.

"Maybe it’s because it was a warning from god," he says soberly.

Dozens of outsiders who had moved away from the village have come back to help, Amin adds.

One returnee is teacher Marzalinta, 39, who has replaced one of the six out of eight teachers killed at her school. Of the 130 students, 37 were killed, with most survivors hailing from other villages.

Sitting on the floor of her recently-finished home, which her family built themselves, she says the children have trouble concentrating in their makeshift schools.

"Before we could control the students to study seriously but now because we are under tents, they get distracted," she says, adding that they still get nervous when it rains or another quake hits.

Budin Muhi, 45, and Nurdin Sharif, 35, are two of the village’s 70 surviving fishermen, who now rely on catching shrimp for most of their income.

In one of the rebuilt houses here, a stark concrete affair furnished with plastic chairs and little else, they explain that donors have given the village five two-man boats.

In a show of the community’s strong ties, Sharif says that the profits from this season, which begins this month and runs until May, will be ploughed straight back into buying more boats.

"We will fish and if we catch fish, we will sell them. And with the money we make, we plan to buy new boats. If we can buy a new boat, that’s two more fishermen who will have work," he explains.

Outside, the village’s winding paths still scattered with tsunami debris are buzzing with activity, as workers scurry to and from construction sites and the thudding of hand-held hammers rings out.

About 300 houses are planned for the village but only about two dozen are finished so far, completed by one of the many non-government organisations working in Aceh.

Villagers are grateful, but complain that rebuilding has been slow and house quality substandard.

"All of the tents are almost broken now so we need to move quickly," the imam says.

And life does move on. Of about 100 widowed men, 20 have remarried, including the village chief, 65-year-old Ibrahim Haji, who lost his wife, child and grandchild to the waves.

"A month after I came back, the older people in the village told me that I had to marry this woman, as she would be best for me," the spiky-haired chief says at his rebuilt coffee-shop, where men sip steaming glasses of Aceh’s famed coffee.

They prepared a feast for the day he wed, to another tsunami widow.

Back near the mosque, Murdani says that the spirit of the village has returned: "If one is sick, we are all sick. If one eats, we all eat."

And it’s stronger than before.

"It’s better, in every way, because we are all the same now — there are no rich people and poor people. For sure, we are all poor now."

Indonesian women key to new Aceh: reconstruction boss

05.12.2005 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Current Affairs ::

JAKARTA, Dec 5 – Women will be the key to a new Aceh that is open and progressive, the head of the agency tasked with overseeing the rebuilding in the tsunami-hit Indonesian province said Monday as he defended the speed of reconstruction there.

Some 16,500 houses out of a 120,000 targetted for Aceh’s 570,000 displaced people have been completed to date, with a further 15,500 slated to be finished this year, said Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, head of the Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Agency for Aceh (BRR).

More than a total of 30,000 houses is "a big achievement", he told a press briefing in Jakarta, "because the national capacity of Indonesia to build public houses is not more than 60,000 houses. So if you compare with the capacity, it’s up to or close to capacity.

"But if you compare to the demand or the need, then it’s only one quarter of it. So we need some time to finish it… We have to try, we have to try hard."

Some 67,000 people remain in tents and 30,000 live in barracks in the staunchly Muslim province, with the rest staying with relatives, but the BRR aims to have everyone in permanent houses by mid-2007.

Next year 78,000 houses are targeted to be built, said Mangkusubroto, who has been praised for his no-nonsense approach and tough anti-corruption stance in graft-prone Indonesia.

"The challenges are huge. How do you distribute materials to the western part of Aceh? Roads destroyed, harbours destroyed and the monsoon is coming. Well, let’s work hard," he said.

The tsunami last December destroyed more than 800 kilometres (500 miles) of coastline, killing or leaving missing more than 168,000 people in Aceh, destroying livelihoods and flattening crucial infrastructure and houses.

Responding to complaints by many survivors that NGOs had promised them homes they have failed to deliver, Mangkusubroto said that he had surveyed who was doing what, and planned to name and shame those not pulling their weight.

"I just got the list of NGOs. I’m still finalising it," he said.

"I can say that in general the smaller NGOs that pledged houses, less than 500 — on the average 100 or 200 — they actually are the performers… Those who pledge more than 1,000, they don’t deliver."

Some 480 NGOs are operating in the province, "locals and internationals, the big ones and small ones, the serious ones and not-so serious ones," he said.

But rebuilding, Mangkusubroto said, was not just about infrastructure.

"We want to transform Aceh to become an open, aggressive, progressive society — not isolated and not only looking to the past," he said.

"So our concept in transforming the society is through women and children… Every village should have a women’s centre, a physical thing."

The BRR chief said that the content of the centres would be "anything that will open women’s vision towards the future of Aceh", adding that when it comes to change, "women are much more strategic than men."

One way to help them tap into their own power would be for microfinance projects to favour them when they approach with ideas for cottage industries they can run themselves, but he said no formal quota was planned.

Aceh is entering a new era of peace, after separatist rebels signed a deal with the government in August after nearly three decades of conflict that left some 15,000 people dead, mostly civilians. The tsunami was a key catalyst in getting both sides to the negotiating table.

The BRR has a 7.1 billion-dollar budget to spend throughout its five-year mandate.