The Jakarta Post
April 29, 2001, was the date of my first arrival in Banda Aceh as a photographer for a foreign news agency in Jakarta to cover the conflict in Aceh.
The prevailing clashes had created widespread fear among people in the region, including journalists assigned to Aceh to cover the war between the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and the Indonesian government.
As a stranger and non-Acehnese, I faced many difficulties. The language barrier was obvious because Acehnese, especially those in rural areas, very rarely speak Indonesian. The experience gained from conflict coverage also served as a valuable lesson in my job when the disaster of December 2004 hit.
Aceh, as the region with the largest Muslim population in Indonesia, applies sharia, which was declared by then Aceh governor Abdullah Puteh after getting the green light from former president Abdurrahman 'Gus Dur' Wahid.
There is slight anxiety that non-Muslim minority citizens like me may run into problems in Aceh.
However, non-Muslims have lived in Aceh for a long time, as shown by their fairly big communities in various cities including Banda Aceh.
I did not expect to remain in Aceh for over 10 years. But with the passing of time, I have felt at home and Aceh has become the primary residence for my small family.
Two of my children were born, with the eldest attending school, in Aceh.
Bringing up children in a region where we are minority group members is certainly different from doing so in other parts of Indonesia.
In Aceh nearly all state and private schools are unsuited to non-Muslims.
The only choice is to send my children to Methodist and Catholic schools ' only these schools are 'national' rather than Islamic in nature.
Living in Aceh has many advantages. Aceh still has a comparatively low rate of criminality. Its small number of vehicles and absence of large industries ensure a relatively clean and healthy environment, a very valuable asset hardly found in Indonesia's major cities.
Aceh is also a public health pioneer, having initiated health coverage (JKA), with free health services for citizens domiciled in Aceh. All health facilities can be enjoyed by the public free of charge based on Aceh citizens' identity cards.
Romora Hito Simanjuntak, my daughter, experienced a free delivery under the JKA scheme, introduced by the former governor Irwandi Jusuf, who won the first direct gubernatorial elections in Aceh following the 2005 peace agreement.
If anybody asks me whether I am considering moving to another city, my answer is no for now. I still feel at home in Aceh although we belong to a minority group with limited rights particularly in terms of religion.
Today Aceh is moving toward better conditions with concrete changes underway. Let's hope Aceh will catch up further with other Indonesian regions ' hopefully just their positive features.
The writer is The Jakarta Post's correspondent in Banda Aceh.
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