Madness at Simpang Kraft: How Indonesian Journalists Witnessed the Murder of Acehnese Civilians

Chik Rini

Chik Rini, a journalist based in Banda Aceh, originally reported this story in May 2002, drawing on five months’ research in Banda Aceh, Medan, Jakarta, and Lhokseumawe, including a one-month stay near Krueng Geukeuh. It appeared in PANTAU, a website promoting journalistic excellence and freedom of the press in Indonesia. PANTAU was published by the Institut Studi Arus Informasi (ISAI) from May 1999 to January 2003. The original article can be found under the title “Sebuah Kegilaan di Simpang Kraft”, this version was translated and abridged by Lyndal Meehan.

A bus enters the Lhokseumawe terminal as dawn breaks on 3 May 1999. The terminal is crowded. Stall owners serve coffee and breakfast. Ticket agents sell passages to Banda Aceh to the north and Medan to the south. The drivers of three-wheeled pedicabs laze around expectantly as each arriving bus brings potential new fares and loved ones trickle home with each departure.

A breeze carries the putrid smell of garbage piled up at the side of the terminal. Over the horizon the sky burns with the faint embers of the arriving sun. A natural gas liquification plant – PT Arun LNG – can be seen silhouetted in the distance.

Lhokseumawe is the industrial hub of Aceh, Indonesia’s northern-most province on the tip of Sumatra island. Only the provincial capital Banda Aceh is larger in size, but Lhokseumawe dwarfs it in natural resources. Ever since Exxon Mobil struck gas in the early 1970s, the area has undergone rapid, but disparate transformation. The east of the city boasts Exxon’s massive gas enterprise, and the west is home to PT Arun LNG, the paper pulp producer PT Pupuk Iskandar Muda, the paper factory PT Kertas Kraft Aceh, and PT Asean Aceh Fertilizer.

But Lhokseumawe is by no means a prosperous city. The vast majority of Acehnese live in poverty – many on the fringes of the giant industrial plants. The central government allows only a fraction of the revenue generated by Aceh’s natural resources to return to the province. It was here that the Free Aceh Movement, better known as GAM (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka), found its feet in 1976 and began to struggle against the myriad injustices perpetrated by the Indonesian government. But the military did not let Aceh slip from its grasp. From 1989 through 1998, the entire province was a designated militarized zone, and Lhokseumawe, East Aceh, and Pidie were the hottest spots. Conservative estimates put the number of civilians killed over that period at over 1,300, the number of missing persons at almost 2,000, and the number of torture victims at over 3,400.

As the sun rises steadily in a red sky that morning, the disembarking passengers include three men sporting an array of black bags containing cameras, cables, microphones, and editing paraphernalia. They are journalists from RCTI, the Jakarta-based television station majority-owned by Bambang Trihatmodjo, the oldest son of former president Suharto.

Umar H. Nurdin has been an RCTI correspondent in Lhokseumawe since 1995. You could call him a senior journalist. His career began in the early 1970s and included a 14-year stint at Waspada, a newspaper based in the North Sumatra provincial capital of Medan. His film footage and photos have also been carried by international media such as Reuters and Associated Press. He’s stocky, 40 years old, and a heavy smoker – the picture of an Acehnese man with strong jaw line, dark skin, bushy hair, and moustache.

“Where to now?” he asked his companions. “Let’s find a safe hotel,” answered Imam Wahyudi.

Imam Wahyudi is RCTI’s regional coordinator and works with the station’s reporters across the country. He’s 35 years old and has been with RCTI since 1990. He was quick to rise in the ranks and specializes in conflict regions. He’s small but agile. He’s known as an amiable fellow but is a stickler for excellence. He has spent time in both Irian Jaya (West Papua) and East Timor, where separatist movements have flared against the central government. He’s long wanted to come to Aceh. This is his first visit, a spur-of-the-moment decision taken in Medan, where he met Umar three days earlier.

Vivien Kurniawan, the third man in the group, silently checks the equipment. His 20-kilogram Betacam weighs heavily on his bent shoulder.

Suharto’s thirty-two-year grip on power ended in May 1998, but the struggle merely moved into a new phase in Aceh. As the three journalists made their way through Lhokseumawe, local resistance to the upcoming national elections in July 1999 was mounting across Aceh. Emboldened by the apparent end of autocratic rule, many groups and media organizations openly called for a boycott. But more than that, a groundswell of support was growing for a referendum to allow the Acehnese to determine their own fate. Suharto’s hand-picked successor B.J. Habibie had already bent to international pressure in the case of East Timor, and that referendum was set for the following August. Sensing an unprecedented opportunity, GAM took its guerrilla war, first declared on 4 December 1976, into the villages and cities.

Military violence has caused deep wounds in Aceh, and the despair and hurt surfaced after Suharto’s fall. Although Habibie withdrew the militarized zone order from Aceh in August 1998, the situation did not improve. The military’s elite special forces, Kopassus, were blamed for much of the violence that occurred under martial law, and in retaliation people attacked trucks bearing departing Kopassus soldiers. Hundreds of armed men took to the streets of Geudong, a small town near Lhokseumawe, in November 1998. In January 1999, three police stations and eight government offices were attacked and burned after the military raided the base of local GAM leader Ahmad Kandang in Kandang district three kilometers east of Lhokseumawe. Nine Acehnese were shot dead in the chaos, twenty-three seriously injured, and 132 arrested. In the days that followed, forty of Ahmad Kandang’s companions were arrested and later moved from police cells to a building belonging to a youth organization. Around fifty Indonesian soldiers set upon and tortured the detainees – five perished and twenty-two were seriously wounded.

Umar was familiar with these cases. He had reported on many local incidents for RCTI. But Imam Wahyudi wanted something different this time. He wanted RCTI viewers to see the human and peaceful side of Aceh. Imam had prepared for the trip and requested the Jakarta office to send a skilled cameraman. Vivien Kurniawan was known as a quiet and industrious worker. Tall and thin with a prominent nose and pale complexion, he was often mistaken for a foreign journalist. Vivien had been at RCTI for nine years and had worked in Aceh before at a local production house.

Lhokseumawe was quiet as they passed through but the message was clear. “referendum” appeared again and again on graffiti-spattered walls.

Seventeen kilometers from Imam and Vivien’s hotel, at about the time the journalists were checking in, about 300 villagers gathered around the local civilian security post in the small town of Krueng Geukeuh in Dewantara district. Krueng Geukeuh is the industrial hub of Lhokseumawe and home to many of its factories. The center of the district hosts a large market, the Sub District Military HQ, the police station, a health clinic, and a well-loved soccer field.

The security post, bale-bale in Acehnese, was located in Bangka Jaya kampung. It was originally constructed when Aceh was a designated militarized zone and men from the local community manned the post at night. The bale-bale was separated by just 10 meters and a low wall from the gates of the PT Asean Aceh Fertilizer factory.

On the previous evening, Sunday, 2 May, the men had gathered and spoke tensely in Acehnese of their plan to hold a demonstration at the headquarters of the military sub district command, right next to the market in Krueng Geukeuh. They needed a truck to transport people from outlying areas.

“Enough is enough, just take the truck. If it’s not handed over just burn it,” one man yelled.

The locals were in a state of heightened tension. After prayers at sunset, men spread news of the night’s meeting and women were mobilized to guard the kampung. They gathered near the town’s mosque with whatever crude weapons were on hand.

“Soldiers are going to attack the kampung,” the men said.

At a nearby kampung, the message had a heightened urgency. An unknown man ascended the steps of the local mosque and announced: “The mosque in Simpang Kraft [Kraft Junction] has been burned to the ground. Our leader and Imam, Imeum Cik, has been murdered.”

Although no one was sure who delivered the message, it spread like wildfire. The Dewantara district kampungs were buzzing with apprehension and fear and the civilian guards were on high alert all night. In Cot Murong, four kilometers to the west of Krueng Geukeuh, word spread that a villager had been beaten and seized by soldiers. After evening prayers, tens of young men combed the area for Indonesian soldiers.

This was the latest flashpoint in relations between locals and soldiers of the Air Defense Artillery Guided Missile Unit 001/Pulo Rungkom. The unit, better known by its acronym, Arhanud Rudal, is based in North Aceh and responsible for national air defense in northern Sumatra. Its headquarters was established in Aceh in 1987 and its “territory” is highly strategic. Not only does it border the busy shipping routes through the Malacca Strait, but is home to multi-billion dollar oil and gas and other projects. The companies reportedly pay the military directly for “protection.”

Tensions had been running high since the 30 April celebrations marking the birth of the Prophet Muhammad. On that sacred day, locals converged on the soccer field, as did Second Class Sergeant Aditia of the Arhanud Rudal corps. He was known to have many contacts in the area – a sure indication of intelligence links. He carried a walkie-talkie and a pistol and had been ordered to keep an eye on the proceedings.

There was much to report. The speeches were highly passionate and political, the kind the military calls “dakwah GAM,” public religious addresses steeped in the separatist aspirations of the Free Aceh Movement.

After group prayers and worship, the “dakwah GAM” generally proceeded with speeches on Acehnese politics and history. The people’s brave resistance to Dutch colonization from 1884 to 1915 was always a prominent theme. The central government was usually called the “Javanese government of Indonesia,” referring to the centralization of political and economic power in the hands of the largest ethnic group. The people knew what they were fighting for – and against – in the name of Allah.

After the crowd dispersed on 30 April at Cot Murong, Second Class Sergeant Aditia did not return to headquarters.

On Friday, 31 April, the morning stillness was broken by the rumbling sounds of three military minibuses and five regular vehicles loaded with tens of soldiers moving into Cot Murong. Soldiers of the Arhanud Rudal corps had come in search of Aditia. Villagers shook with fear at the sight of the military patrol, as the trauma of decades of military oppression resurfaced. When the soldiers began grilling people about Aditia’s whereabouts, no one admitted seeing him at the previous night’s ceremony, let alone knowledge of his alleged disappearance.

But they were also defiant. Many local women attempted to block the convoy’s passage and people assembled along the road. They took their protest to the Dewantara district chief, Marzuki Muhammad Amin. The military, they said, had no right to enter their kampung as no one knew anything about Aditia. Later that afternoon, the Arhanud Rudal commander contacted the district chief to request permission to enter the kampung and continue the search. Marzuki asked the commander to hold off until the situation settled down.

The next day, Saturday, 1 May, a large meeting was held of district, military, police, and religious leaders at the Dewantara police station. The parties signed an agreement under which the military vowed to refrain from entering the kampung. They agreed that the local religious leader, or ulama, Teungku Hanafiah would carry out the search for Aditia.

The following day, when Teungku Hanafiah had failed to uncover any new information, soldiers stealthily entered the kampung. Only a handful arrived but their persistent questioning again deeply disturbed the locals. Youths quietly drinking coffee by the side of the road were yelled at and one was slapped by an officer.

The villagers were enraged that the soldiers had broken the agreement of the previous day. Then the unconfirmed news of the beating and seizure of a villager spread. Locals began planning a large demonstration for Monday to demand the return of the seized man.

Monday morning around 9:00 am. At this time of day, Azhari, the assistant correspondent in Aceh for the state-run Antara news agency, could usually be found at his local warung (roadside stall) near the Lhokseumawe police station sipping strong black coffee and enjoying his morning meal. Azhari was a 32-year old bachelor who had worked as a journalist for only seven months. New recruits are normally sent to hotspots to test their mettle, but Azhari was known to be overly cautious, even cowardly.

In Aceh, the coffee warung is a favorite hang out for men young and old. The conversation swings between the lighthearted and the deadly serious. Azhari couldn’t help but overhear men at a nearby table discussing the situation in Krueng Geukeuh.

“They say the pa’i have nabbed a man,” one said, using the derogatory Acehnese term for military and police. “The locals are all going to demo at the sub district HQ.”

This drew Azhari’s undivided attention. He had heard of the second class sergeant reported missing from Cot Murong and anticipated a confrontation. He resolved to follow it up and headed back to the Antara office, which also served as his home. He called several journalists to confirm the news and left for Krueng Geukeuh with his camera and a supply of film.

Not far from Azhari’s warung, Imam Wahyudi and Vivien were preparing for the day’s shooting in Lhokseumawe. Vivien wanted to capture the mood of the city. Aside from calling for a referendum, banners and graffiti condemned the plan mooted by the central government for a special military command covering Aceh province alone.

The men set off in Umar’s Isuzu Panther, traveling past the market and toward Kandang on the outskirts of Lhokseumawe to photograph the massive GAM flag which flew from the broadcasting tower of state-run Radio Republik Indonesia. “It’s still traumatic coming to this part of town,” Umar said. He had been caught in crossfire when supporters of Ahmad Kandang and soldiers clashed just months before.

Back at the Lhokseumawe market, the men met up with another journalist. Ali Raban was a freelance cameraman who had worked often with Umar since RCTI set up its Lhokseumawe office in 1995. He was known as a fearless and sometimes reckless cameraman in the field who risked his personal safety for the opportunity to take in the action. Ali was 25 years old and had just become a father.

Umar’s pager suddenly flashed. Umar and Ali had a vast network of contacts throughout Aceh whom they often paid for information to give them an edge over their competitors. “There’s a roadblock at Krueng Geukeuh,” Umar said.

Imam and Ali were eager to get there on the double, but Umar was reluctant to depart immediately. In any case, they were forced to return to Umar’s house to retrieve his camera. On the way they met a public transport driver plying the Krueng Geukeuh route who confirmed news of the roadblock and heightened tension in the area.

The clock ticked round to 10:00 a.m. At the entrance to the PT Pupuk Iskandar Muda workers’ housing complex, Azhari, the Antara correspondent, left the friend who had given him a lift and wandered alone into the mouth of the roadblock. Acehnese were patrolling the road for five kilometers beyond the nearby factory.

The occupants of a minibus bound for Bireuen, 45 kilometers west of Lhokseumawe, were being told to make other plans. “If you want to keep going, you can get another bus at Simpang Kraft,” said one of the youths manning the roadblock.

Many who were stopped turned back to Lhokseumawe. Azhari tagged along with those who resolved to walk to Simpang Kraft, two kilometers away. He kept his camera and journalist identification card out of sight, believing that media people might not be welcome.

A Toyota Kijang then appeared at the blockade carrying about eight members of the police bomb disposal unit. The officers looked bewildered by the confused scene and the fact that people were utterly unfazed by their armed presence. The people were in control of the road.

This normally busy stretch of the Banda Aceh-Medan road was deserted of vehicles and all the shops were closed as Azhari approached Krueng Geukeuh on foot. Along the way, people were drawn out of their homes to join the masses converging on the central Krueng Geukeuh intersection, just 500 meters from the roadblock. Some were carrying clubs or knives.

Azhari positioned himself under the awning of a warung to survey the scene. It was about 11:00 a.m. by then and two 4-wheel drive vehicles and a small oil tank truck could be seen approaching from the direction of Lhokseumawe. The crowd wouldn’t allow the vehicles to pass, especially after it became known that the passengers were military. Azhari recognized one of them as Let. Col. Sugiono, commander of the North Aceh military district. The others were clearly officers of his escort although they wore no military insignia.

Heated words were exchanged and the crowd became increasingly angry. People began converging on the vehicles, some wielding their crude weapons. Realizing the situation could turn violent, the drivers beat a hasty retreat. The gas tanker almost rolled over but all three vehicles eventually sped back to Lhokseumawe.

Umar and his company of journalists had lost time in Lhokseumawe – a fact that riled Ali. They were forced to leave their vehicle behind at the blockade where Azhari had been dropped off. Unlike Azhari, they were conspicuous, touting cameras and video recording equipment with the RCTI logo. Suspicion and hostility seemed to grow on men’s faces as the journalists passed through the crowd of over 1,000 people. But children began playing up to Ali and Vivien’s rolling cameras, jumping and fooling around.

“Independence! Freedom!” “Long Live the Referendum!” “RCTI is OK!”

The children’s antics drew a bemused reaction from some of the adults and some raised their clubs, batons, and knives into the air. Umar was well aware that the lightheartedness could evaporate in an instant and his heart pounded in his chest. He knew that journalists were often lumped together with the hated military and police, and he warned Imam and Vivien against opening their mouths. Their thick Javanese accents would be difficult to conceal.

As if on cue, one man asked Imam, “Who are you?”

“I’m a journalist.”
“Where you from then?”
“Where you from originally?”
“I’m Melayu.”
“Melayu where?”
“Melayu Riau,” Imam answered, referring to the northwestern Sumatran province.

Ali asked a group of youths why they had brought weapons such as reapers, short knives, and clubs. “We’re protecting our kampung. The military are going to attack,” one answered.

The ID cards hanging around their necks were inspected while Umar pleaded their case in Acehnese. Thankfully, help arrived in the form of a local leader who recognized Umar. The man, apparently an organizer of the blockade, confirmed the journalists’ identities, assured the people there was nothing to worry about, and instructed them to let the journalists pass.

The mood quickly changed for the better and the journalists were assured a more newsworthy sight at Simpang Kraft, where a larger crowd was gathered. They were even offered a ride which they gratefully accepted. Roadblocks hastily constructed from old tires, empty drums, and ruined wood dotted the road all the way to Simpang Kraft but the road was deserted.

Simpang Kraft is a three-way intersection on the Banda Aceh-Medan road approximately 19 kilometers from Lhokseumawe. The intersection’s traffic light flashes an intermittent amber warning. One of the roads leads to the PT Kertas Kraft Aceh paper factory 10.5 kilometers away. On the same road only 2.5 kilometers from the intersection is the Arhanud Rudal corps headquarters and its store of heavy weaponry.

An array of simple warungs, shops, and storage buildings line this road offering everything from animal feed and motorcycle spare parts to cigarettes and strong, black hot coffee. The obligatory bale-bale guard post is among the structures that taper off and five hundred meters beyond, the land is consumed by open rice fields on all sides. Ordinary houses are more common along the Banda Aceh-Medan road, whose residents are used to seeing soldiers pass by.

Very early that morning at Simpang Kraft, youths took to the streets “sweeping” for military personnel. At 8:00 a.m., four trucks heavily loaded with armed soldiers in camouflage gear were seen entering Dewantara district. The soldiers were from the 113 Lilawangsa district military command based at Bireuen. These troops were usually positioned at strategic industrial sites, but on this day they were brought in as back-up for the single company of Arhanud Rudal soldiers. They arrived just as the mosques issued their call to prayer.

One hour later, waves of civilians began arriving. The first batch of several hundred men came on ten trucks. They gathered on the soccer field not far from the office of the district head Marzuki Muhammad Amin. Marzuki was busy in his office preparing for the general elections, but his work was cut short. A mass of people arrived to take him to calm the situation at Simpang Kraft, where Cot Murong locals were facing off against the soldiers.

By 11:00 a.m., the crowds were assembled in two different areas. The first group was concentrated at the Dewantara military headquarters. Hundreds of civilians, mostly women and children, had been brought there by truck. Their shouts were met with cool indifference by the soldiers at the complex which had been comprehensively sealed off. Their commander had left for Simpang Kraft. Around midday, some of the protesters began hurling rocks at the windows of the building and a military-owned motorbike was set alight. Troops fired warning shots into the air and the people fled in all directions.

Those gathered at Simpang Kraft were largely unaware of what was happening at the headquarters. The intersection was a virtual sea of people and the numbers increased as the morning progressed, reaching an estimated 10,000. Most of those descending on Simpang Kraft had been disturbed by news of military infringements on the kampungs and came to express solidarity. Despite the apparent spontaneity, the truckloads of demonstrators ferried in throughout the morning clearly indicated that the mobilization was coordinated.

Many of these people, especially children and young students, had come to see the spectacle of a large demonstration – a rare sight after decades of oppression. Others were simply stranded after the buses promised at the roadblocks failed to materialize. All those gathered were charged with a sense of expectation.

The group of four RCTI journalists split up when they arrived on the scene. The two cameramen, Ali and Vivien, filmed from different vantage points to achieve the best results.

Four military trucks were parked in a row to the right of the road and the soldiers stood around watching the crowd. Many women and children had positioned themselves in the open plot of land near the soldiers of the 113 Lilawangsa battalion. Beneath a tamarind tree near a rice field around 500 meters from the intersection stood twenty soldiers of the Arhanud Rudal corps. The soldiers were encircled on all sides but the people kept their distance. The journalists noted that neither paid the other much attention.

The expectant but generally calm mood changed when the demonstrators noticed the television cameras. A ripple went through the crowd and the chant of “Allah Akbar” (God is Great) began to spread. Cries of “Independence! Freedom!” and “Long Live the Referendum!” were heard as the chorus grew.

Imam and Vivien clambered onto a military truck loaded with civilians chanting “Allah Akbar!”

Midday. The hot sun in a cloudless sky scorched the surface of the earth. Sweat dripped from pulsating bodies. Some cried out for water but no one cared to leave. Some of the officers were amused by the sight of demonstrators performing for the cameras. Most remained aloof even when demonstrators derided them with “pa’i” and other derogatory terms. It was no trouble to offer a cigarette light when a demonstrator found himself without one. One soldier was talking into a walkie-talkie.

A group of women had taken refuge from the heat beneath the awning of a warung and a shady tree. Vivien got a good shot of five of women and young girls laughing and joining in the chants of the assembled masses.

Through his lens, Imam Wahyudi spied a young, dark-skinned man in a white shirt with a white cloth wrapped around his head. The people cheered and welcomed him into the throng and he seemed embarrassed by the attention he received from the journalist.

At last Azhari’s journey by foot to Simpang Kraft came to a weary end. He saw Umar but did not approach him. Umar had a highly competitive streak. Besides, Azhari was not keen to approach the soldiers.

Ali Raban, meanwhile, was perched on a drum in the center of the road filming the Arhanud Rudal soldiers surrounded by the multitudes of demonstrators. He spotted and filmed the exhausted district head resting on the veranda of a closed warung. Marzuki was attracting a lot of attention. He had been stripped of his insignia of office and sat in just an undershirt and work shorts.

Faisal, the dark-skinned youth, appeared to be the coordinator in the field that day. Marzuki and Faisal’s intense negotiations ended with the demand that the district chief bring representatives of the military, government, and the ulama religious community to Simpang Kraft.

Ali passed towards another warung. Thirst was searing his throat. A small child caught his attention waving and shouting at the camera. Ali noticed the plastic bottle in his hand.

“Can I have some of your water?” he asked. The child handed it over, but Ali was careful to leave some for the long day ahead when he returned it.

Umar was by then in the very middle of the crowd. Many demonstrators approached him volunteering for interviews. He did not refuse, thinking it best to humor rather than risk provoking them. He knew that temperatures were rising under the hot sun. He called Ali, who was not far from him, and Imam and Vivien also left their vantage point on the truck to record an interview with Faisal.

Faisal was still young but his calls through a megaphone for silence were soon heeded. He refused to use Bahasa Indonesia for the interview, claiming that he could not speak it at all. Imam conducted the interview while Umar acted as translator.

 “The people of the nation of Aceh assembled here have come into the streets because we see the multitudes of Javanese soldiers, the pa’i, have intruded into the kampungs and abused the people and we have witnesses,” Faisal intoned. He said that “provocateurs” had entered the kampung the previous night.

Pa’i, pa’i,” yelled one of the youths at his side.

Faisal said four trucks full of soldiers entered the kampung of Lancang Barat in the early morning with the aim of provoking the locals, adding, “We all know that they have promised not to send soldiers in.”

Faisal said they were awaiting the arrival of the regent, the military sub district and district commanders, the Rudal corps commander, the International Red Cross leader, and the head of the local parliament to face the people and hear their many complaints.

Faisal said the people were now at their limit. He opened a tattered notebook stained with sweat and dust and showed the journalists a written agreement signed by the district head. The statement said Marzuki had resigned his post before the people at Simpang Kraft.

“We’ve been accused of being pro-independence. We’ve been accused of kidnapping a Rudal soldier, but we don’t know anything about it,” he cried as the megaphone carried his voice to the edge of the crowd.

The response was loud and clear. Umar sensed the situation could get out of control and the interview was quickly brought to an end. It seemed like a good time to head back to Lhokseumawe and send reports off to Jakarta. Imam and Vivien spied a motorbike 100 meters away and the owner offered Vivien a prime position for his final shots standing on the seat. Imam held the bike and a new cassette – just in case. Vivien trembled as he mounted the bike. The weight of the camera seemed to increase as exhaustion and extreme thirst overcame him.

Antara’s Azhari, meanwhile, stood near a low wall to the left of the road. He had not attempted to interview any of the demonstrators and his camera remained in its carryall. His journalistic instincts had disappeared despite the spectacle and mood of defiance. Nevertheless, he sensed and then saw the tide change.

Although no one was sure what triggered it, the demonstration became increasingly charged and chaotic. People began pushing and shoving. The demonstrators began to edge closer to the soldiers of the 113 Battalion. Just twenty meters from that “front line,” the faces of the twenty-odd soldiers of the Arhanud Rudal corps under the tamarind tree were growing more intense by the second.

Rocks were thrown in the direction of the soldiers, and children grabbed those that fell short and launched them again at the Arhanud Rudal soldiers. The tension was palpable and spreading to the far reaches of the crowd.

Atop the motorcycle, Vivien spied a truck full of soldiers approaching from the direction of the Arhanud Rudal barracks. Heads turned as the word spread: “A truck is coming, a truck is coming.” The soldiers began to move into a two-line formation, as if they were preparing for something. The first shiftings of guarded panic set in.

Suddenly, the sound of gunfire… trat … trat … trat … loud and clear, followed by more shots… trat … trat … trat…. One gun after another ringing out its appalling cry. Some standing hit the ground, their bodies splayed in the dirt. Others ran helter skelter, pushing and shoving to get away from the live bullets issuing from the weapons’ long snouts.

The Arhanud Rudal soldiers standing further back from the crowd fired the first shots. “Disperse! Everybody disperse!” yelled several soldiers, firing into the air.

But not all the soldiers were firing merely to frighten or warn the demonstrators. Many started firing at will – at whatever caught their eye.

The soldiers of Battalion 113, who had been stationed toward the center of the crowd, quickly spread out and made for cover in the ditches. They too fired to disperse the crowd. A coconut tree was butchered with bullets.

Panic set in. Men, women, and children, the young and the old ran for their lives. Some cried out for mercy, for help. Women and children screamed. “Amin ya Allah, Allah Akbar,” one man cried loudly, and others too cried to the Greatness of God.

But most had lost the power to utter a sound. The weapons ringing in their ears rendered them voiceless. Many who threw themselves down with the first shattering gunfire burst were too terrified to move. Others ran for the shelter of nearby a warung or ditch.

The victims began to fall, one, two, three, eight people collapsed in the road.

Vivien fell backwards off the motorbike when the owner took off in panic. He lay on his back next to Imam hugging the ground. Vivien found his muscles frozen as he watched blood seep out of a body lying near them. Somehow he managed to point his camera in the direction of the soldiers still firing at the coconut tree. Beyond them, others were firing at random into the backs of fleeing people. He could not think. He could only point his camera and pray.

Slightly behind Vivien, Imam saw the spare videocassette trampled into the dirt. His repeated attempts to reach out and grab it were utterly futile but he could think of nothing else while the gunshots rang out and the victims fell in the road all around him. Almost ten minutes passed by the time Imam managed to connect the sound cable to Vivien’s camera. He found then that they had failed to capture even one moment on film.

 “The camera’s dead,” he yelled at Vivien. They both stared in panic at the little red bulb that should have been flashing. The camera had somehow stopped recording when he fell from the bike. Vivien snapped back to earth and quickly pushed the record button.

The soldiers were still firing and one group was now only five meters from where Imam and Vivien lay. Their hearts churned in their chests as they watched the bullets spew from the soldiers’ guns. Imam’s thoughts refused to comprehend what he saw. It had all degenerated so quickly into utter chaos. He had never experienced anything like this before.

Turning his head, he saw a pile of human forms on the ground. “Ah, they’re just play acting,” he thought, as he turned and saw several soldiers attempting to help women and children find cover behind a fence.

A break in the shooting presented a chance to head for cover. Imam saw the dark-skinned youth who had been so well received by the people crawling in the dirt ahead of him. His white pants were covered in blood. When they reached the warung, Imam saw a wound on Faisal’s foot gushing blood. He tried to help but was fascinated. He raised his blood-covered fingers to his nose. “But it doesn’t smell bad. Shouldn’t blood smell bad? … Ah, he’s just being dramatic,” he thought.

Imam and Vivien then headed toward a pile of bodies in the road. From a distance, there seemed to be child’s stuffed toy among the human forms, but as they drew closer the body of a young child became clear. Imam felt that his heart had been struck by lightening. A bullet had blown the left side of the child’s head away. He saw the brains seeping out.

Anger, hatred, and disbelief swirled through him. “It’s not right. Oh Allah, this is crazy. This shouldn’t have happened. It doesn’t make sense,” he cried in his heart as the tears rolled down his face.

Vivien could not bear to look. He shut his eyes behind the camera as he leant in to record the shattered head and the pile of human refuse. He remained with Imam and his lens captured a youth caught in the throes of death, just as the spirit left the body.

Umar had run for cover to a nearby animal feed shop when the soldiers opened fire. Like the others wedged in behind the containers that dominated the front of the closed shop, Umar was petrified. Though the trat… trat … trat … shook him to the core, he managed to photograph the massacre. Many of his shots were frenzied and unclear, but he captured the fall of a child in the road just as the bullet shattered the child’s skull and the brains burst into the dust-filled air. The camera fell from his hands when he realized what he had done.

Ali Raban was positioned on the corner of the Simpang Kraft intersection when the shooting began. He saw the soldiers not far ahead of him begin to spread out. Most others got up and ran for cover when they had the chance. Not Ali. He resolutely stood up to film but was struck from behind and fell face down in the road, saving his camera by the narrowest of margins. Propped up on his elbows in the dirt, he saw men, women, and children topple as they ran. Shot in the back.

He was determined to get pictures of the soldiers, but the trucks parked by the side of the road obstructed his view. Crouching, he made it to the middle of the intersection as the bullets bit into flesh and earth all around him.

Azhari could barely believe his ears when he heard the sound of gunfire. A wave of bodies heaved back as people turned and ran. He saw the soldiers only tens of meters away firing indiscriminately. The scene was crazy but he hadn’t thought of running until a man fell at his feet with blood oozing through the back of his shirt.

He fled with the others towards Krueng Geukeuh, stricken by the thought that the soldiers were after him. A narrow street off to one side came into view and he ducked down it. It led out towards the fields and he sprinted for about a kilometer. He broke through a barbed wire fence without thinking or feeling a thing. Hundreds of people were running for cover all around him. He came across a dry-bedded sewerage drain and hid in it with three other petrified men. Catching his breath, he then ran even further into the fields.

It was only after half an hour that the shooting stopped.

The four journalists found each other amid the destruction but had little to say. Soldiers were milling around and the tension was oppressive. Imam and Umar could not hold back their tears and cried openly.

The place was virtually deserted. Victims sat or lay scattered among shoes, small machetes, and pieces of wood discarded on the road, their owners either dead, wounded, or taken shelter. Cries of pain hardly registered with the four men as they watched the soldiers combing the area on foot and in trucks. Many still wore the savage expression of killers and the journalists didn’t know where to look, let alone what to do.

Suddenly two soldiers in full jungle camouflage gear came running towards them. Pointing their guns at the silent journalists, the enraged soldiers began yelling abuse. Umar, Ali, and Imam were standing, but Vivien was squatting by his camera protecting it as if it were his own child.

One of the soldiers yelled angrily, “Is this what you wanted?” The other roared, “What’s all this? Are we cover boys now?”

Imam whispered to Vivien under his breath to record, but Ali had already motioned to turn the camera off. Vivien reasoned that the soldiers would see the red light flashing, so the camera sat dead in the dirt.

The soldiers were still venting their anger when their commander – a Lieutenant General – approached and told them to settle down. He warned the journalists before turning back with his men: “Be careful, kids. There’s still shots being fired out there.” Imam was struck by his own stupidity as the soldiers strode away. He’d forgotten to take the cassette from the camera and he gave thanks that the soldiers hadn’t thought to confiscate it.

There were other concerns to attend to. A woman shot in the side and a little boy in school uniform sprawled on the ground next to her at the bale-bale were crying in pain. Umar was on the phone to his wife in Lhokseumawe telling her to call the ambulance. She had already heard that all hell had broken loose at Krueng Geukeuh. News of the catastrophe spread fast in Lhokseumawe.

The evacuation of victims began just after 1:00 p.m. when a tiny motorcar from Krueng Geukeuh came skidding to a halt near the journalists. Umar led the evacuation as more vehicles arrived. First the wounded and then the dead were taken from the road, the ditches, the fields, and the alleyways. The cries of women and children seeped into everything.

When the body of the little child who was shot in the head was taken away, the lament for the dead, “Laillahaillah,” was sung in tones of great sadness. Ali recorded the evacuation and captured a little boy hobbling through the town with a clearly visible bullet wound to the foot. But he could not stand by for long and watch the boy suffer. Laying down his camera, he picked the child up and carried him to an evacuation vehicle.

The ambulance arrived. Imam placed a body into the back and Umar took the photo that later appeared on the front page of newspapers across Indonesia. The whirring sirens pierced the hearts of those left behind at Simpang Kraft. In the distance, soldiers were seen heading back to the Arhanud Rudal base.

Some of the young men evacuating the dead and injured displayed – seemingly with pride – the blood of the victims on their clothes. Others were busy collecting bullet shells and prising bullets from walls. They showed their haul to Imam and Vivien, but Imam was too numb to care and tried to gather his strength for what he knew lay ahead. As the sound of sirens faded into the distance, he faced the camera.

“Dear viewers, the fall of the victims here at Simpang Kraft could have been avoided if peace had been achieved in Aceh. This is Imam Wahyudi, Vivien Kurniawan, and Umar HN reporting from Lhokseumawe…”

That afternoon, the chaos and trauma continued at hospitals and clinics in Krueng Geukeuh, Batuphat, and Lhokseumawe. Ambulances screamed through the streets as if a full-scale war had erupted.  Intensive care wards overflowed with the critically injured. Staff were overwhelmed. Hospitals and clinics were lined with people squatting or lying on every available space waiting for medical attention.

The four journalists went to the hospital at PT Arun LNG, and Imam continued to record even after being told by a doctor to stop. A line of bodies occupied one of the rooms. Their blood covered the floor and the bitter smell of death hung in the air mingled with the sweat and dirt that clung to their corpses. While these dead men, women, and children lay still at the end of the tragedy, their loved ones’ agonies were only beginning, and other victims lay dying in the midst of the chaos.

The journalists felt they were getting to know each and every victim personally. And then Ali stopped cold. He saw among the dead the little child with half his skull blown away. He realized it was the child who had given him a sip of water before the shooting began. Imam saw the mother who had watched them now at the hospital with a bullet wound to the kidney. Imam cried remembering that only hours ago they had been playing up to the cameras and laughing at each other.

The journalists left the hospital and stopped at the Batuphat mosque to rest and eat. Imam called RCTI Jakarta. There was only one story to report. “Aceh has seen its own Santa Cruz and you must all follow this up immediately. I’ll send the material straight away but the situation remains extremely dangerous.”

The Santa Cruz massacre on 12 November 1991 in Dili, East Timor, was a major turning point in the independence movement of the former Portuguese colony that Indonesia invaded in 1975. International scrutiny of the human rights situation in East Timor intensified after activists managed to smuggle a video recording of Indonesian troops slaughtering demonstrators in a funeral procession-turned-peaceful independence march. An estimated 271 people were murdered, scores more injured, and many more disappeared in ensuing months.

Imam felt the very real danger of their current position and told the others that they had been advised to leave Lhokseumawe immediately. Of even more immediate concern was ensuring the safety of their footage and photographs. They knew that they held the only recording of the slaughter and that the military would soon take an interest.

Umar contrived to give all their material to a close relative for safekeeping. Imam continued to compile data on the dead and injured and made his way to the Cut Mutia hospital in Lhokseumawe where the corridors were packed with wounded. The scene was very different next door at the military hospital. That place was deserted and several marines were stationed outside guarding the locked gates.

Azhari, meanwhile, was tense and nervous when he returned to Lhokseumawe at 3:00 p.m.. He had caught a ride on an old truck heading back to town and made for the Cut Mutia hospital. His first news for Antara had already been posted and was entitled “Soldiers Disperse Simpang Kraft Demonstrators with Bullets.” He had estimated the carnage at “more than 10 people dead” with many more injured.

He worked alone well into the night. The numbers of dead kept increasing until at least twenty-four were confirmed dead and tens more critically injured. The work marathon and repeated trips to the hospitals left Azhari weak and dazed. When his boss in Banda Aceh inquired after photographs of the incident he was struck dumb. His camera was still in its bag hanging from his waist. He had even forgotten to take pictures at the hospital.

That night Lhokseumawe was like a ghost town echoing with the eerie sound of sirens. Military bases were on high alert but nobody stirred. Only the hospitals buzzed with activity, and doctors operated on the critically wounded well into the night. Blood supplies were soon exhausted and civilians came to supply the victims with a lifeline.

Elsewhere people were glued to their televisions and radios. The first news was headlined on the RCTI program “Seputar Indonesia” (Around Indonesia) at 6:30 p.m. Imam Wahyudi was interviewed from Lhokseumawe via telephone, as was Commander of the Lilawangsa military district Colonel Jhonny Wahab.

While many watched the 6:30 RCTI broadcast, the 9:00 news drew the strongest reaction from viewers. Under the repressive regime of former president Suharto, all stations had been obliged to air reports from state-run TVRI. That night RCTI aired the TVRI report, which followed the military’s version of events. And the top military brass, it seemed, was unaware that RCTI journalists had witnessed the entire incident. TNI spokesman Major General Syamsul Muarif maintained that the troops at Simpang Kraft had been forced to fire on demonstrators because they intended to attack the Arhanud Rudal base.

Viewers who watched this report on RCTI were enraged. They felt the station had deceived viewers across Indonesia and betrayed the people of Lhokseumawe and Aceh. They knew that no one had attacked the base. Most did not stop to think that the news had been prepared by the state-run TVRI.

Imam, Umar, and Vivien were completely unaware of the furor erupting around them. They had retreated to the secluded beach at Ujung Blang to enjoy a well-deserved meal of fish and rice. Their precious recordings had been sent by bus to Medan, North Sumatra, at 10:00 p.m. and forwarded to Jakarta. Imam entrusted Vivien’s cassette to the courier and Umar sent three copies of Ali’s footage to RCTI, the Associated Press, and Reuters.

On Tuesday, 4 May 1999, at 6:00 a.m., the RCTI breakfast show included a live report from Imam in Lhokseumawe and another telephone interview with Colonel Jhonny Wahab. Wahab maintained that the soldiers had stuck to proper procedure at Simpang Kraft.

Umar and Ali rushed over to the hotel where Vivien and Imam were staying with the disturbing news that the people of Lhokseumawe were outraged at RCTI over the broadcast of the previous night. This became clear later at the Cut Mutia hospital. Imam felt that the director, Dr. Mulya Hasjmy, was overly guarded in their interview. They were also being followed by a young man in a turban.

A young woman in a long jilbab who was part of the relief center set up by local university students cornered Imam in the hospital yard. “RCTI are liars,” she said accusingly. Umar, Ali, and Vivien watched as the young woman, the youth that had been following them, and others began crowding around Imam.

“RCTI are liars,” added an older man.
“That was not us. That was TVRI,” Imam tried to explain.
“If that’s so, I want to be interviewed,” the man replied.
“What do you want to be interviewed about?”
“About what really happened at Simpang Kraft.”
“Where were you yesterday, sir? I was there too. We don’t need to interview you, sir. I know what happened.”
“But the RCTI news lied.”
“That was not our report. Our report mentioned the numbers of victims. I got the information from the hospitals.”
“Well, I want to be interviewed about the whole problem of Aceh,” replied the older man.
“If I interview you, sir, about the problem of Aceh, I have an obligation also to interview the other side. That’s probably the military.”
“Yes, but RCTI…”

Imam quickly cut him off. “Sir, it’s like this. I have faced this kind of situation before. It’s not the first time and I’ve even reported from East Timor. Do you know East Timor, sir? Most of the people are Christians. But I reported the real situation. The military then took a dislike to me, but I was prepared to take the risk. That was with Christians. This is Aceh, Muslims. I am a Muslim, too, sir.” 

“Yes, but that news report was full of lies. You don’t need to be afraid.”

“Sir, please listen. Journalists must report the truth, what actually happened. This morning I did that during my interview for the news. I believe that speaking the truth is not only a moral but also a religious obligation,” Imam said. The people standing around had grown quiet.

The journalists faced accusing and hostile looks throughout the day. Everyone felt that the reports had underestimated the number of the dead. Indeed, many were not brought to hospitals or clinics at all for fear of military or police reprisals.

There were many conflicting reports of the number who perished. Students from the humanitarian relief group maintained that the number was over one hundred. The official fact- finding team later put the numbers at forty-six dead, 156 injured, and tens more classified as missing.

Azhari also met with hostility, as did journalists who descended on Aceh following the massacre to report on the situation. One afternoon at a hospital he was approached by two men whose militant demeanor immediately put him on his guard. One asked accusingly where he was from.

“I’m a journalist with Antara,” he replied.

“Write it down.”

“Who are you, asking about my identity like this?” said Azhari, convinced the man was from police intelligence.

“I’m from the Free Aceh Army (Angkatan Aceh Merdeka),” the man said, opening his jacket to reveal an AK 47 hanging from his side.

Azhari had never met any Free Aceh fighters before and he was greatly shocked, especially when he realized that more were heading toward him.

The man with the gun angrily accused Azhari of underreporting the number of dead at only twenty. Azhari explained that he had obtained the data from the hospitals at the time.

“You were wrong. There were more than forty dead,” the man spat back.

“OK. I promise from now on that we will report in full. The reason is that, if we claim there were more deaths than actually occurred, we can get taken to court. Our wage is so small, we don’t have anything. We are working for the good of society,” Azhari frantically countered.

Umar’s wife had more disturbing news to report. She rang in tears saying that unknown persons had called threatening to burn the house down because the RCTI report had been full of lies. Umar considered distributing a pamphlet explaining that the report in question had come from TVRI.

Officers of the Lilawangsa district military command also called Umar repeatedly, wanting to meet Imam and asking for a copy of their recordings. “Imam has already returned to Jakarta and is on holiday in Singapore,” he lied.

The RCTI people urged their journalists to return immediately to Jakarta. Imam and Vivien left by bus for Banda Aceh that afternoon and attempted to disguise their recording equipment to avoid detection.

Unidentified callers were also threatening Azhari. Holing himself up in his office-cum-house, he was only able to sleep at night after a relative moved in.

On Wednesday, 5 May 1999, the recordings finally appeared on national television. Ali Raban’s photographs appeared through Reuters on news reports around the world, including Indonesia. Anteve showed the Reuters’ pictures and Vivien’s footage was featured on RCTI’s “Around Indonesia.” Vivien and Imam were in Jakarta, exhausted, as viewers saw with their own eyes how the bloody conflict in Aceh had erupted at Simpang Kraft. The Simpang Kraft massacre was finally reported, a matter of public record.



Imam Wahyudi could not forget what he saw that day. Whenever he went to Lhokseumawe, he made a point of going back to Simpang Kraft. There he would sit and gather his thoughts or stand quietly and survey the scene as the images replayed in his mind. Imam could not disguise his emotions when speaking of the massacre when I twice interviewed him, together with Vivien Kurniawan, in Jakarta in November 2001. Imam was beside me as I watched the full recording of the tragedy. But when the shooting began, Imam slipped out of the room without my knowing.

Vivien was honored with best cameraman award from the Indonesian Television Journalists Association (IJTI), but Ali Raban was to be disappointed. He received no prizes for his work, although he was more successful in recording footage of the shooting that so shocked and saddened viewers. Ali Raban and Umar have ended their professional partnership. Ali became Metro TV’s cameraman in Lhokseumawe, while Umar became a correspondent in Lativi. I interviewed them separately in Lhokseumawe in December 2001.

The so-called security forces constantly intimidate Umar and Ali when they report from the field. It’s not easy being a journalist in Aceh. In fact, it’s extremely dangerous. Umar asked me repeatedly to be careful when writing this article. He does not want his family terrorized again.

Simpang Kraft itself is much as it was four years ago. The bale-bale post is still there. The stores and warungs beside the intersection are open for business. The vacant land is still lying idle. There was once a simple little house, but it has been torn down by the owner after his daughter died in the shooting. She had just returned from school and was changing clothes in her room when a bullet pierced the thin wall and struck her down.

Almost all the commanders and soldiers incriminated in the massacre at Simpang Kraft were transferred out of Aceh in ensuing months. The soldiers of the Arhanud Rudal air defense corps and Battalion 113 are all new faces. Those responsible for the killings are… well… who knows where they are now. They were never held accountable under the law. And the soldier who went missing and sparked the incursions into local communities? Sergeant Aditia’s fate remains unknown. He has been declared missing in action.

The Indonesian military is sticking to its story about the Simpang Kraft slayings. They maintain that GAM separatists were behind it all. The top brass say their soldiers fired on civilians because they were fired on from a small hill to the left of the intersection. The GAM provocateurs fired, the people ran towards the soldiers, and the scene turned chaotic. In the midst of it all, the soldiers saw a man with a Russian-made AK 47 – the separatists’ weapon of choice. This man fired on the soldiers, they say, and the soldiers retaliated. That’s why defenseless civilians were slaughtered. The military maintains that GAM aimed to provoke an attack on the Arhanud Rudal base and its weapons storehouse. If the place had gone up in flames, the military says, the resulting explosion would have killed anyone within a 5-kilometer radius.

Head of the Dewantara district, Marzuki Muhammad Amin, was good enough to see me one week before making his pilgrimage to Mecca. “The first shot came from the Arhanud Rudal troops who were standing near the tamarind tree. Maybe they panicked because someone in the crowd threw stones,” he said. Marzuki told me he only survived that day because he ducked behind a nearby tree. It was riddled with nine bullet holes after the shooting stopped.

Marzuki met Faisal, the coordinator in the field, in the emergency ward of the PT Arun LNG hospital. They were both undergoing treatment for minor wounds. Faisal admitted that he was with GAM and later disappeared from the hospital before anyone could question him. About a month later, Marzuki said, Faisal approached him at his office and asked for forgiveness. Since that brief encounter, Marzuki has not seen Faisal again.

The real tragedy of Simpang Kraft is ongoing because it has been subsumed by other cases of violence and suffering in Aceh in the intervening years. Not long after the dust settled at Simpang Kraft, Muslim scholar Teungku Bantaqiah and fifty-one of his students were shot dead at his boarding house in Beutong Ateuh, West Aceh, in July 1999. Although many were disappointed with the outcome, twenty-four soldiers who took part in that killing were eventually sentenced.

The victims of Simpang Kraft and their families are still seeking justice. The Aceh Human Rights NGO Coalition in Banda Aceh, together with the Jakarta People’s Advocacy Study Group, filed a civil law case in September 1999 demanding Rp83 billion from the President, the Minister of Defense, and the TNI Commander in Chief, as well as the commanders of the Bukit Barisan regional command, the Lilawangsa district command, and the North Aceh district command. The case has never been considered by the courts in Aceh, a fact the state says is due to paralysis in the legal system there.

The Central Jakarta District court has also failed to produce a finding, although it heard the Simpang Kraft case in January 2002. “This is not a matter of money, but an effort to provide some justice for the victims. Unfortunately, the government does not appear to be serious in upholding justice when it comes to the people of Aceh,” said Maimul Fidar, leader of the NGO Coalition. “All the victims are very pessimistic about ever getting any justice. In addition, they are also scared because, if they become witnesses, there will be pressure from parties involved in the case.”

It was this feeling of mistrust that stayed with me after an encounter at Simpang Kraft. One cool January day, I sat beneath a rindang tree with Muhajir, a young student I took on as a guide. On that bloody May day, he had joined the thousands gathered at Simpang Kraft after returning from a school examination. He was lucky, but several good friends had been killed or wounded. We met one such boy at a small cigarette kiosk not far from the site of the massacre. Muhajir told me he had escaped death with several bullets lodged in his back. But the boy wouldn’t speak to me about it. “We’ve already talked too much to people, from NGOs to journalists. And there’s no point. The pa’i are never touched by the law. Everyone knows they shot us Acehnese.”  

I was stunned and didn’t say much. I didn’t even have a chance to ask his name because he quietly indicated that I should leave.

By Chik Rini
Chik Rini, a journalist based in Banda Aceh