When 12-year-old Joneval was awoken in bed and carried from his home on the back of an armed soldier, he didn’t think anything too unusual was happening. It was a strange and tumultuous time in Aceh.
Four months earlier on Dec. 26, 2004, the second most powerful earthquake in recorded history had struck in the Indian Ocean, triggering a tsunami that erased entire villages and killed nearly 200,000 Acehnese.
And four years before the devastation, the Indonesian government had declared martial law in Aceh, escalating its 30-year-long war against the guerrilla GAM army (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka – Free Aceh Movement). An independent sultanate for hundreds of years before being conquered by the Dutch, Aceh believed it would have sovereignty after colonialism ended in 1949. Instead, the newly formed Republic of Indonesia incorporated it as a province and deployed the army to quell any secessionist tendencies. The GAM declared Acehnese independence in 1976 with a majority of the population supporting the separatist movement.
At the height of the conflict in the early 2000s, an estimated 50,000 national army soldiers and at least 25,000 GAM fighters battled for Aceh. The war claimed tens of thousands of lives, and both sides perpetrated human rights abuses against each other as well as Acehnese citizens.
Joneval (pronounced “Joe Naval”) is the last person you’d expect to find near a war zone. He’s short and stringy, with a flock-of-seagulls haircut and an animated, expressive personality. Now a law student in the city, he’s not outdoorsy. Rather than joining his friends for rock-climbing or hiking, Joneval prefers chatting in cafes and checking out girls. Overall, he seems a little soft.
Growing up in a southern Aceh village, however, made Joneval used to seeing troops and rebels. He was raised in a world with a 7 p.m. nightly curfew and the sound of machine-gun fire echoing sporadically from the jungle on the edge of town. So when an armed soldier roused him from sleep on April 5, 2005, he wasn’t particularly alarmed.
His father was asleep upstairs, and his mother was nursing Joneval’s infant brother. Earlier that day, there had been an aftershock from the Boxing Day quake that had set everyone in the village on edge.
The soldier who entered Joneval’s home was wearing an Indonesian national army uniform and carrying an automatic rifle. He told Joneval that the earthquake had triggered another tsunami and the water was coming. He was going to escort his entire family to higher ground. He then put Joneval on his back and ordered him to hold on.
Still groggy, Joneval was confused, but he didn’t resist. The explanation seemed plausible, and if his family would be joining him there was nothing to worry about. It wasn’t until they met up with other soldiers in the jungle that he realized something was wrong.
His family wasn’t following. Only he had been taken out of the house. Also, the soldiers’ uniforms were suspect — frayed and incomplete. The reality of the situation finally struck home when he overheard the soldiers speaking Acehnese rather than Indonesian. They were not TNI. They were GAM fighters and they were kidnapping Joneval.
Ransoming members of wealthy families was a fundraising tactic occasionally used by the GAM army, and recently there had been a spate of kidnappings in South Aceh. Joneval, though, was the son of an office worker and an elementary school teacher – hardly a lucrative target. Still more baffling, his uncle was an active member of the GAM.
That night, Joneval cried. He was scared, and he didn’t know where he was going or when he would see his family again. Six others had also been kidnapped, and among them Joneval was the youngest. After three days trekking through rugged jungle, they arrived at the GAM hideout.
The camp sat nestled between parallel spines of emerald mountains. A collection of raised huts with thatched roofs flanked a wide river, and across it spread rice paddies, cassava fields and loose orchards of fruit trees and chili bushes. The place struck Joneval as idyllically calm and beautiful. Around sixty male and female GAM members were living there in apparent pastoral harmony.
The separatists were welcoming, and Joneval quickly adjusted to his new surroundings. But he still didn’t know why he had been taken. After two days, one of his captors told him.
They’d kidnapped the wrong kid.
The soldiers had meant to take the teenage son of a businessman who lived in Joneval’s neighborhood. There had been a miscommunication about the address and they got Joneval instead, whose family couldn’t foot a ransom and whose uncle was one of their own. Using a cell phone, they called Joneval’s parents and told them about the mix-up. The leader apologized and said they’d take him home as soon as it was safe to leave the jungle again.
Living with the soldiers was an adventure Joneval would never forget. He swam and fished in the river every day. The combatants told jokes and stories and let him play with their automatic rifles. They were extremely kind, and always made sure he had plenty to eat. He remembers his days in captivity as some of the best of his young life.
He stayed at the camp for 50 days before the combatants determined it was safe enough to descend to the coast again. They proceeded cautiously, disguised as firewood collectors and taking four days to leave the jungle.
Joneval was returned to his home on May 25, less than three months before negotiators for the GAM and the Indonesian national government signed the Helsinki Peace Accords granting Aceh special autonomy and effectively ending the war. Reconciliation has been gradual, but the peace has held, and the former GAM commanders have become political leaders.
The main combatant from the jungle hideout is now running to be the district head of South Aceh. Joneval’s not certain he’ll vote for him, but he’s leaning that way. After all, he is a very good man.
About the author: Gordon LaForge is a second-year Fulbright English Teaching Assistant based in Banda Aceh. He served his first Fulbright year in Bontang, East Kalimantan. Before coming to Indonesia, LaForge lived in Prague where he taught kindergarten and wrote for The Prague Post. LaForge graduated from the University of Colorado at Boulder with a bachelor’s degree in English literature.