Fresh start for Acehnese sent home

The Aceh authorities have started a rehabilitation camp for deported Indonesians, where they are taught skills to help them find a means of livelihood.

MR ABDUL Malik is inmate No 13 at Camp Rancung.

He is popular with fellow inmates and Indonesian armed forces personnel for his rendition of P. Ramlee songs at the camp, an ad hoc rehabilitation centre set up by the military and local authorities for illegal workers returning from Malaysia.

Here, 48-year-old Malik and 544 other Acehnese have spent the last two weeks learning a new trade and forgetting their painful experience in Malaysia, where for some, it ended with permanent physical scars after clashes with security forces who sought to deport them.

Mr Malik showed proudly the marks on his left leg, both hands and abdomen as testimony to what he endured in that bruising encounter last month.

“I think many of us regret having fought with the police,” he said, his weather-beaten face in a deep frown. ”We were afraid to return to Indonesia initially. Now we know that our country cares for us and many are going to think twice before leaving.”

Aceh’s military commander, Colonel Dasiri, who received a thunderous ovation from the workers as he walked into the camp, believes that such a change in attitudes was a reflection of the success of rehabilitation.

He said when they first arrived, many cringed with fear of being tried and executed by the military.

“Now they are very receptive, they trust us and we believe they deserve another chance,” he said, adding that 14 of the inmates who were identified as cadres and sympathisers of the rebel Aceh Free Movement would also be given that chance.

Col Dasiri disclosed that the government’s idea of having such rehabilitation camps could be a norm in other areas in Indonesia to which large numbers of illegal workers have been sent.

Rancung is actually a scout camp converted by the military for the rehabilitation project.

It is tucked between two huge industrial complexes – one producing liquefied natural gas and the other fabric – about 10 km away from the city centre.

Here, the inmates live in 12 makeshift tents in a 10-ha expanse of land, which also houses a medical clinic and a technical training centre.

The inmates, all of whom wear white T-shirts with number tags displayed conspicuously, follow a daily schedule of physical exercises and classroom lectures by local government and military officials.

They learn basic skills, such as how to make soya-bean products, including doufu and tempe.

There are also classes on construction work, repairing of cars and electronic products, as well as farming.

They attend a daily moral-education class and are even briefed on proper immigration procedures.

For leisure, they are grouped in a large hall, the size of two basketball courts, to sing pop songs and the Indonesian national anthem.

aid Col Dasiri: “The aim is to teach them to be useful to society and not be a menace.”

He said that after their stay at Rancung, the workers will return to their respective villages in Aceh, where they will undergo further training depending on what they want to do.

He maintained that contrary to conventional wisdom, the resource-rich province in north-western Indonesia was not short of jobs.

About 90 per cent of Acehnese work in farms, which meant that there would always be extra hands required to do a variety of things, from planting crops to harvesting them.

The rapid pace of economic development here was another reason. Some observers believe that development in this province of 3.2 million people is proceeding on par with other parts of the country.

Every sub-district in Aceh now has a road, irrigation or electricity project under way. A highway built a few years ago connects Lhokseumawe, Lansa and the capital Banda Aceh.

In the face of such tangible developments, the separatist Aceh Free Movement seems to be a lost cause, argued Col Dasiri.

“It has lost its grip on the hearts and minds of Acehnese,” he said. “People here are more concerned with economic development.”

The military, by administering a rehabilitation camp for the illegal workers, aimed to win them over to such a mindset to diffuse further the appeal of going abroad to work and falling prey to separatist sentiments.

Inmate No 13 leaves Rancung today to return to his wife and the five children he has not seen in the last two years.

He is penniless now, having lost all his money to the syndicate leader or taikong who smuggled him into Malaysia.

But Mr Malik is keen to start again and dreams of owning a rice plantation some day.

He said: “I won’t leave Indonesia again. I’ve learnt my lesson.”

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