Embedded in Aceh

The armed forces have trained reporters to survive in areas of conflict. GAM, meanwhile, remains open to the press.

INDONESIAN Military (TNI) and GAM (Free Aceh Movement) troops may be attacking each other, but both apparently “agree” on one thing: winning the sympathy of reporters. Both parties may let their weapons sound at one another in a show of force and with hearts aflame, but they continue to speak to reporters with smiling faces.

On Aceh’s battleground, reporters have had no difficulty in interviewing the TNI. They have also been free to contact Teungku Sofyan Daud on his cellular or satellite phone, wherever the GAM spokesman happens to be. TNI and GAM apparently know full well that the war in Aceh is not just an effort to finish off their opponents, it is also a way to win over world opinion through the media.

Prior to the security operation in Aceh, TNI had invited reporters to Sanggabuana, Karawang, West Java. There, at the training area of the TNI’s Army Strategic Reserve Command (Kostrad), 54 reporters from the print media, radio, television, and the Internet took part in military-style training.

They gathered in military camouflage fatigues at the TNI Headquarters in Cilangkap, and then went on to Sanggabuana–a two-hour drive away–in three military trucks. As is the case in the military, the reporters stayed in barracks. The emergency procedures training, the program to equip the reporters who sought to cover events in Aceh, took place over three days: 11-14 May. The trainers came from Kostrad, under the leadership of Colonel Bahram.

“Sanggabuana was chosen because the environment is not much different from the situation in Aceh,” said Deputy Chief of the TNI Information Center, Brig. Gen. Tono Suratman. It could well be that the Sanggabuana training was inspired by the embedded journalist program of the US military where those covering Gulf War II joined its troops. “This is the first military training of reporters since Indonesia became independent,” said Tono.

They were introduced to the skills of ensuring their safety when covering conflict areas, including when trapped in the midst of firefights or after getting lost in the jungle. As experienced by TEMPO reporter Abdul Manan, who took part in the training, the military-style hazing was truly exhausting. Before arriving at Sanggabuana, they had to climb up 225 steps, and were then punished by being told to walk while squatting, just because they failed to sing the song Halo-Halo Bandung in chorus.

“From this second on you must obey military law, and follow military discipline. This is why every violation must be
punished,” said Lt. Col. Nachrowi, head of TNI’s General Information Section, reminded participants. On the first day, the reporters, who were divided into two platoons and six squads, were introduced to military regulations, lining up and showing respect, together with roll calls three times a day. There was also the shock of being woken up by gunshots, accompanied by pounding on doors and the shouts of the trainers, during the middle of the night while they were sleeping soundly. In the pitch-black night they had to be in a state of readiness, dressed in military fatigues, line up in an open field, and then be dismissed.

The following day, the reporters were introduced to the various forms of weapons usually used by TNI and GAM, such as the AK-47, SS-1, AK SN, M-16, AR Galil, and Micro Galil. The TNI’s standard weapon is the SS-1 that can shoot 600 meters, made by PT Pindad, Bandung. GAM’s is the AK-47 with a range of 700 meters, made in Russia. There is also the M-16 made in the US, the AR Galil and Micro Galil, two types of weapons produced in Israel, together with the AK SN made in Bulgaria.

After getting to know the weapons, they were taught how to wear bulletproof vests. In general, these are only effective against bullets from a distance of at least 35 meters. “Less than that, they are useless,” said one trainer. Wearing the vests was a burden in itself for the reporters. In Aceh, GAM uses AK-47s with a caliber of 7.65 millimeters. A vest which can stop a shot from this type of weapon weighs 18 kilograms. The steel plate inside it is far thicker than in a normal vest, which weighs 15 kilograms.

Apart from wearing the vests, reporters could protect themselves with a variety of other materials, such as drums filled with water or sand, a pile of sandbags, and logs of at least 60 centimeters in diameter. Those lost in the forest must remember the lessons of survival on few supplies. Trainers showed various kinds of edible leaves, fruit, roots, and animals. As an example, the reporters were given snake and lizard meat with kecap soy sauce.

The core material of this training was a simulation of the fighting and reporters’ security in the conflict areas. For instance, what should a reporter do when a TNI post is attacked by GAM and he happens to be there? There is the TNI’s so-called 5M technique, when, as soon as shooting is heard: they disappear, roll up, crawl, aim, and shoot. Because they were reporters, the final M was replaced by “cover it”. They were then taught first aid for the wounded victims of firefights.

At night, the reporters took part in night war games, which, in the military tradition, are the arena to test your resolve. One by one they were asked to walk alone into the dark jungle and hills at a distance of 1.5 kilometers. Along the way they crossed graveyards, and passed scarecrows. One reporter even went so far as to bow before a headstone and shout out in horror when he met a scarecrow.

This training at Sanggabuana was certainly very beneficial for the reporters. But, as with the voices that threatened the involvement of American reporters with the military on the battlefield in Iraq, the participation of Indonesian reporters in this training has also been questioned by a variety of groups, including the Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI). “There was no problem with the training. But, in Aceh, reporters should not be made to wear military clothing, as well as other military attributes including weapons,” said Rommy Fibri, Head of the AJI Jakarta.

According to Ira Koesno, an SCTV reporter who participated in the training, if reporters also wore TNI uniforms, they become legitimate targets. But Maj. Gen. Sjafrie Sjamsoeddin said the TNI would not require reporters to wear TNI uniforms when covering Aceh. He also invited reporters to write whatever they chose. The TNI should not involve itself on whether to write or not write news.

Later, Sjafrie called for a correction of his statement. Responding to mass media reports, he said that TNI HQ was
seriously considering the work of foreign and local reporters and their reporting of what was happening in the theater of military operations in Aceh. “If there is untrue reporting, TNI will pursue legal channels against the mass media involved,” said Sjafrie.

GAM itself, in the midst of its limitations, is very friendly to reporters. Teungku Sofyan Daud, for instance, has never closed off access to the press. Via two mobile telephones–a cellular and a satellite one–that he always carries with him during his guerilla activities, the press can easily get confirmation on issues. A number of reporters and photographers have even joined up with GAM guerillas for the duration of the military operations in Aceh.

GAM still keeps close to reporters. Facsimile pages labeled “Acheh-Sumatra National Liberation Front, Teuntara Neugara Atjeh” (TNA), containing GAM press statements, are routinely sent to all the media. On May 8, before the declaration of martial law by the Indonesian Government, GAM announced that Aceh’s status would revert back to its status during the second Colonial War (the first Colonial War was in 1873).

Through Sofyan Daud, GAM called a general strike througout Aceh, except for hospitals, the Red Cross, NGOs, drinking water and electricity supply companies, along with the mass media, including vehicles of reporters and those delivering newspapers. Both TNI’s and GAM’s protection of reporters also benefited some people who sought safety in Aceh.

Last week, the reporters covering Lhokseumawe witnessed a car filled with people in fatigues and carrying weapons, with the sign “press” stuck to its front window. The word “press” on the maroon Toyota Corolla sedan was a sticker with large red letters on a white background. It is not clear who was responsible for that.

Tomi Lebang

TEMPO, JUNE 02, 2003-038/P. 22 Heading Cover Story

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