Lost heroine

An activist who drowned in her prison cell during last month's tsunami represented Aceh's struggle for independence.

Published January 31, 2005 10:11PM (EST)

Cut Nur Asyikin was in her jail cell when the earthquake shook Indonesia's Sumatra island. She had just hung up the cellphone, reassuring her daughter that she was safe. Less than 10 minutes later, the dark, churning waves rolled in, flattening the prison and burying it in mud. Her body hasn't been found.

One of about 228,000 people who perished when the tsunami devastated Aceh, the northernmost province on Sumatra, last December, Cut Nur (pronounced "Choot Noor") was a heroine for the many Acehnese who hope for peace in the war-torn province. Known as the "Lion of Aceh," Cut Nur was a charismatic and fearless pro-independence leader. Now, amid a staggering death toll and humanitarian chaos, survivors are only just realizing that Cut Nur is among the lost.

Aceh has a history of strong women, but as a contemporary example, Cut Nur was a woman of great contradictions. She was born into privilege but in a province consumed by a brutal conflict. She was well connected among Indonesia's political elite, yet she delighted in bringing foreign journalists to meet with rebel commanders in the jungle. As both a political figure and a pop culture icon, her photo graced the glossy spreads of Indonesian women's magazines as well as the front pages of newspapers.

By siding with Aceh's bid for independence, Cut Nur took a gamble; her social stature, family, marriage, friends and ultimately her freedom were at stake. Eventually, she was arrested for treason and sentenced to 11 years in prison for her pro-independence activities. Despite her sentence, she remained relatively unfazed. Going to jail was the fate of a fighter, she told a friend. But Cut Nur wasn't your typical political prisoner, either. In one recent photo from jail, taken by friends, she wears a striking and expensive-looking green dress, her neck heavily draped with gold chains; she looks as if she is hosting a high tea rather than serving time in jail.

Cut Nur's death is a harrowing reminder of the tragedy that defined Aceh before the tsunami. Conflict has ravaged the province since the Free Aceh Movement, known by the Indonesian acronym GAM, launched its bid for independence in 1976. Citing Jakarta's mismanagement of Aceh, such as siphoning off its considerable natural-resource revenues while reinvesting little in return, rebel leaders have sought to establish an independent state. In 1989, the military sent thousands of troops into Aceh, mounting an intensive counterinsurgency campaign. Over the course of a decade, high civilian casualties and widespread atrocities such as torture, rape and massacres by state security authorities only fueled Acehnese resentment against the central government.

Since the civil war began nearly three decades ago, an estimated 12,000 have died. Although the troubled province was hardest hit by the tsunami, a new hope has sprung from the crisis: Negotiations between government officials and exiled rebel leaders have been revived for the first time since 2003. It's a development Cut Nur would have been heartened to see. The last snapshot of Cut Nur I received by e-mail shows her posed by the metal bars of her prison door. She holds up two fingers for "peace" and wears the smile of a woman laughing at her own joke.

I first met Cut Nur far from the "Porch of Mecca," as Aceh is known. It was at a trendy Dupont Circle cafe in Washington in the fall of 2000. I was on a journalism fellowship and preparing to embark for Indonesia. She was lobbying on Capitol Hill, meeting with State Department officials and human rights organizations. Surrounded by Washington's powerful intellectual institutions, we sat amid the urban student set and staffers from various think tanks. Even in the cultural diversity of Washington, the woman draped in the traditional and conservative busana muslimah and wearing a prim scarf tied at her chin stood out. She didn't speak a word of English, and she'd never been to a Western country, yet she'd come with an astute translator and was ready to take on the nation's capital.

Cut Nur had traveled halfway across the globe to prod the memories and consciences of U.S. foreign-policy makers. She didn't want them to forget what Indonesia's ex-dictator, Suharto, and his generals had done in Aceh. Human rights groups found that Indonesia's military, infamous for widespread human rights abuses, was using the same tactics in Aceh as it had in East Timor: arson, collective punishment against civilians, forced disappearances and extrajudicial executions of suspected rebels. The only difference, Cut Nur said, was that the world had forgotten Aceh.

I traveled to Banda Aceh a few weeks later, where I joined up again with Cut Nur. She invited me into her home. As a photojournalist, I planned to document the women of this devoutly Muslim province and their role in the tumultuous democratic reform movement that began with the ouster of Suharto in 1998. As mothers, daughters, wives and widows, women suffered the brunt of the Indonesian civil war. With their new freedoms, many empowered figures emerged -- rebel fighters, student leaders, humanitarian aid workers and feminists. Even with Indonesia's new feminists and Aceh's historical lineup of strong women, Cut Nur was an unlikely heroine in such a traditional culture.

A middle-aged woman with five children, Cut Nur was the second of her husband's four wives. And before discovering her passion for politics, she was a hardworking and successful businesswoman, running a catering service and a hotel. When she turned to activism, she was propelled by the sweeping pace of political reforms and was quickly transformed into a high-profile activist.

In 1999, Cut Nur took the stage at a massive rally for a referendum on independence, where she delivered a fiery appeal for justice. Aceh had suffered enough at the hands of Indonesian soldiers; Jakarta had taken Aceh's riches, leaving the people poor. She demanded a complete military withdrawal. Pictures of the event ran in the paper the next day, and a music video soon followed. A local singer commemorated the rally with the hit song "Referendum," and the video was peppered with footage of Cut Nur at the rally -- fist raised, sporting a white headband around her jilbab (veil) and bellowing into the microphone: "Freedom!"

"That was when they started calling her the Lion of Aceh," says her friend and fellow activist Munawar Zainal, now an asylee in the United States. "She was so brave; every young Acehnese, especially women, was motivated by her." The GAM leadership, exiled in Sweden, certainly saw an opportunity in this firebrand of a woman. Not only was she wildly popular and on GAM's side of a brokered cease-fire, but her presence would also go a long way to dispel the government's attempt to paint the rebels as Islamic fundamentalists. Once the rebels and government declared a "humanitarian pause," Cut Nur was asked to join the GAM representatives on the humanitarian monitoring team. She accepted the position with relish.

Around this time, I joined her on several trips to the countryside, a patchwork of lush rice paddies and verdant mountains. She figured accurately that a quick tour of the Pidie district, the "ground zero" of the conflict, would help me understand why the Acehnese longed for deliverance from Jakarta and the Indonesian military. This was not only GAM's stronghold but also Cut Nur's home turf.

Tucked away off the highway and down winding side roads, the violence raged on despite an agreement signed by both sides vowing to stop armed clashes. Villages suspected of harboring rebels were reduced to ashy ruins. Elementary schools were transformed into miserable refugee camps, bulging with villagers fleeing the military's sweeping operations. Fresh graves multiplied on the outskirts of town. "Aceh is rich, but the people are poor," Cut Nur told me. This sentiment was at the heart of the conflict for the Acehnese. Jakarta drained Aceh's vast quantities of oil and natural gas and sent soldiers in return.

For her part, Cut Nur often dug into her purse to hand out crumpled bills. Parked in front of a mosque that doubled as a refugee shelter, she'd pop the trunk of her minivan, letting cases of noodles and crackers pour out from the back. However, where some saw generosity, others saw ulterior motives: to build popular support for herself or the separatist movement. Both are possible. Cut Nur never made a secret of her longing for independence and her refusal to settle for less. Those aspirations came at a cost, though. Her business suffered, her husband lost lucrative government contracts and, as for many Acehnese, friends and family perished.

One afternoon, Cut Nur called me on my cellphone. "A friend of mine has died; we are going to see his widow." Inside a home near the university, we entered a room filled with sobbing women, grieving over the loss of a young father. He'd disappeared a month earlier; neighbors had seen him running away from soldiers. His body was later found with a gunshot wound. Outside, after bidding our goodbyes, Cut Nur turned to me, crying. "He was GAM, but he was such a good man." She pulled at the ends of her jilbab to wipe away tears. At the time, I didn't quite understand why she said it that way. Later, I would discover that between the black and white of this conflict, the gray areas were gaining ground.

Though Cut Nur sat on GAM's side as a field monitor, her business connections with high-level provincial and government officials allowed her to tread the perilous currents between the separatist rebels and Jakarta. And it worked, at least for a while. But some rebel leaders grew suspicious of Cut Nur and found her ties to a government she claimed to be fighting dangerous. She was edged out of GAM's circle in the cease-fire negotiations by early 2001.

A couple of months later, on a return visit in March 2001, I stood on a beautiful beach in north Aceh watching as Cut Nur addressed a crowd of some 500 agitated refugees. They had just fled their village, which was still smoldering after a showdown between rebels and the paramilitary police. Pointing to me, she shouted into a microphone plugged in to a karaoke boombox. "This woman is from the White House and she has come to help Aceh." The mob exploded into cheers. Not only had she stretched my credentials to the point of being ludicrous, she was using me to shore up political capital. I wasn't pleased, but she brushed off my reproach with her disarming Lucille Ball cackle. It was important to keep spirits up, she said. The refugees needed to feel the international community was coming to help Aceh.

When I recounted the story to other Acehnese, they laughed too. "That is how she kept the spirit in the struggle," said Zainal. But that day, I wondered how much longer the "Lion of Aceh" would be lionized. The political waters swirling around the Porch of Mecca were growing murkier. Cut Nur was caught in a riptide of GAM's internal power struggles and the Indonesian military's growing impatience to reassert its control in the province. There was an increasing flutter of despair in her attempts to stay afloat.

Indonesia's democratic transition was a fickle one, especially in Aceh. Even at the height of reforms, activists disappeared and students were threatened, abducted and beaten. In March 2001, Indonesia dipped back into its authoritarian past when it declared student leader Muhammad Nazar guilty of "spreading hatred" and sentenced him to jail. Pro-referendum groups were forced to shut down. Humanitarian relief workers, intimidated and accused of assisting the rebels, struggled to deliver aid. Then, Cut Nur's eldest son was abducted by paramilitary police, beaten and left for dead on the side of the road. It was a warning: The military wasn't going to forgive and forget those who were demanding independence.

Having nearly lost her son, Cut Nur scrambled to find safe havens for all of her children. Her expansive home, normally lively and full of guests, was an empty shell and in sorry shape when I saw her last in January 2003. And she was spending more time tending to her hotel. It was hard to ignore the toll politics had taken on her personal life. Her marriage was over, her two sons had left for the United States to seek political asylum, and she didn't know when she would see them again. Yet despite her personal losses, she was ecstatic. The Indonesian government had signed a historic peace accord with GAM, and Aceh was crowded with international peace monitors and United Nations staffers. Prospects for safety, security and a normal life were in the crosshairs for a change. The entire province was in a palpable state of euphoria. Cut Nur was reassured. Now that the world was watching, Aceh could not be forgotten.

But hopes for lasting peace drained when the peace accord faltered and hard-line generals pushed for a military solution, and prevailed. In May 2003, President Megawati Sukarnoputri declared martial law and sent more than 40,000 troops to Aceh.

Initial media reports chronicled a brutal crackdown, with civilians, including children, among the casualties. To counter press and international criticism, the military leveled a virtual media blackout and banned foreign aid groups from the province. Police rounded up activists, suspected rebels and GAM negotiators. Cut Nur could have slipped out of the province and fled for the States, but she didn't. "I want to stay and face them," she told a friend. Arrested, tried and found guilty of treason, Cut Nur remained defiant and unapologetic. When the judge sentenced her to 11 years of imprisonment, she turned to the crowd and waiting journalists and said, "Thank God, long live Aceh, dissolve Indonesia." Even a jail cell couldn't silence Cut Nur. She took advantage of a lax prison system to obtain a cellphone and sent out text messages chronicling clashes and casualties to exiled activists. "It was really funny," Zainal recalls. "She was encouraging us, even from the jail." Recently, she even began planning her own birthday party. Her daughter, with her own two toddlers plus Cut Nur's sisters, nieces and nephews, were to bring a rich Acehnese goat curry, enough to feed her fellow inmates. The feast, planned for Dec. 27, never took place -- Cut Nur died a day before her 50th birthday.

In the aftermath of the tsunami disaster, I called her eldest daughter, Rita, whose elaborate wedding I had attended several years back. She recounted the horror of the massive wave, how it pushed through the streets like a giant broom and swept everything out to sea. Miraculously, she and her two small children survived, but her voice was still pinched with trauma.

After everything that had already happened, Rita wondered out loud, "What will happen to Aceh?" It was an impossible question to answer. Many voice hopes the disaster will bring about peace. Now there are talks of renewed dialogue between the Indonesian government and GAM leaders in Finland. But before we hung up, Rita had one request. "Even if our mother is gone, Jacqueline," she said, "please, don't forget about us."

By Jacqueline M. Koch

Jacqueline M. Koch is a photojournalist and a former Pew fellow who has focused on Indonesia since 2000. She is based near Seattle.

MORE FROM Jacqueline M. Koch

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Aftershock Earthquakes Natural Disasters