Teungku Iskandar, 44, is a typical former combatant of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM): tall, dark-skinned and sturdy with a long scar on his face and a serious demeanor.
Iskandar was the adjutant of GAM’s highly regarded commander Teungku Abdullah Syafie, who died in an ambush by the Indonesian Military (TNI) in 2002.
During his teenage years, Iskandar learnt how to use a rifle, survive battle and protect his leader. He spent time behind bars for several years and was tortured by the TNI.
“My current state is similar to most other former foot soldiers. But what makes me different is that I can meet you here while my fellow veterans are striving to make ends meet after they handed over their weapons,” he said.
Iskandar said many of his GAM colleagues were finding it difficult to find jobs and faced bleak futures as they did not have the necessary skills to work, with their leaders having ignored them.
“Many of our leaders have forgotten us. They are now living in luxurious houses, having more than two wives and driving fancy cars. Meanwhile, their former subordinates received nothing but misery.”
“They should help their men. We fought together and we should enjoy the peace together. Our leaders are just too busy chasing money and power,” said Iskandar, who claimed he’d done just about anything to survive.
According to the Central Statistics Agency, the unemployment rate in Aceh in 2011 stood at more than 7 percent, among the highest in the country.
The relatively unstable security situation has further assailed the Aceh economy, with investors already wary about setting foot in the province, resulting in an unemployment explosion.
Former GAM spokesperson for East Aceh Kafrawi shared similar difficulties in finding work, while acknowledging that his life was better compared to the period of that ended in mid 2005.
“I’m pretty lucky as I can earn money as a freelance contractor. However, I am not so sure about my fellows,” he said.
According to Kafrawi, East Aceh has the highest number of former combatants in Aceh, but only half of them are better off financially.
“East Aceh had more than 3,000 registered and unregistered combatants,” Kafrawi said.
Most of the combatants work as farmers or fishermen. “They have no adequate capital. Sometimes they meet me to ask for capital. I just give them a small amount because I am broke too,” Kafrawi recalled.
Under the memorandum of understanding (MoU), which was signed in Helsinki, Finland, between the GAM leaders and the government in 2005 to mark an end to more than 30 years of bloody separatist conflict, all former combatants were to receive an allocation of farming land, employment, or in the case of the inability to work, adequate social security from the authorities in Aceh.
Based on the latest data from the Aceh administration, there are around 25,000 combatants and families, which is more than the 3,000 combatants registered by GAM leaders to the government in 2005.
Former combatants from Pidie Suadi Laweung gave bitter smiles when questioned about the promises stipulated in the MoU.
“Where can the government find any idle land for us? The government just issued a moratorium on logging in forests. Here, we don’t receive any land,” he said.
But the Office of the Coordinating Political, Legal and Security Affairs Minister’s Aceh Desk coordinator Maj. Gen. Amiruddin Usman said the government had compensated former combatants financially in exchange for land allocation due to difficulties in securing land plots.
“The land problem is already settled. There’s no longer any issue there,” he said.
Outgoing Aceh governor Irwandi Yusuf refused to comment on government efforts to help GAM foot soldiers.
Until 2010, the government had paid a total of around Rp 2.4 trillion (US$266 million) of reintegration compensation for ex-combatants, conflict victims and Javanese militia deployed to fight the GAM.
But as the number of registered GAM members soared from 3,000, as listed by the Aceh Reintegration Agency (BRA), a combatant could only receive around Rp 1 million from the Rp 25 million promised.
“It would be better for them to give us sustainable jobs rather than money,” Iskandar said.
GAM leader Zaini Abdullah, also a candidate in the upcoming Aceh gubernatorial election, acknowledged problems in providing capital to former GAM combatants to help them make ends meet.
“It’s a difficult problem to resolve,” said Zaini.