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Children Suffer in Aceh's Many Years of Unrest
by Tarmilin Usman, The Jakarta Post, October 19, 1999

ACEH (JP): Since Darwisah, 14, was a small girl, she nurtured anambition to be a midwife. She hoped she would be able to financiallysupport her poor parents through the career. But as a sixth-grader in elementary school, Darwisah has to be content with only the dream to become a midwife. It will be very difficult, if not impossible, for her to realize her ambition as she is now facing a great challenge for her future.

Darwisah has stopped her schooling for two months now. If she cannot study further than sixth grade, she can never hope to become a midwife. "I really don't know what to do, but I really want to become a midwife," she said in a strong Acehnese accent.

Darwisah lost her father when she was still very small. Nobody knows where her father, Ibrahim Sulaiman, is buried. Her father was allegedly killed by the military when Aceh was still a military operation zone. "Even our house was burned to the ground," she said with grief clearly showing on her face. Darwisah and her family are only one of many families who fell victim to the violence during the military operation period in Aceh.

As Darwisah and her family have received no aid to build a new house, they live in a hut in Alu Landong Geumpang village, Pidie, some 90 km away from Sigli, the capital of Pidie district. Is it right Darwisah has to bear this plight, and is it right she has to have a bleak future?

However, sweet Darwisah is not the only one with a gloomy fate. Hundreds of girls and boys in the same age group as Darwisah have dropped out of schools in Aceh, leaving behind their ambitions to become, among other things, teachers, soldiers and policemen.

One may ask why these boys and girls, who are believed to be the next generation to take charge of the country, were forced to become school dropouts? There are two big problems that the Acehnese are confronting. First, children can no longer go to school because their schools were destroyed by some unidentified individuals. Second, hundreds of children now stay in various refugee accommodation sites along with their parents.

What will be their future be like? When will the government rebuild the schools? "My child has been doing nothing in these past three months. Her school was burned down some three months ago by some unidentified people," said Abdurrahman, one of the residents of Geumpang.

Hundreds of school-age children in Aceh, particularly in Pidie, are now school dropouts. Their parents, mostly widows, cannot do much to help. They hardly have enough money to keep their body and soul together, let alone sending children to other towns or cities to continue schooling. "We don't feel safe yet. We are still traumatized by the horrible events of the past and present," said Azizah, 45.

At present, there are some 800 school dropouts across Pidie, while thousands of pupils cannot study properly or peacefully. They have to study at other schools in the late afternoon. Some have to join classes at nearby schools.

The Pidie district head, M Djakfar Is, hopes that education institutions in Pidie can find the best solution for the dropouts to ensure that they can continue enjoying their education. Unfortunately, this hope simply remains a hope.

It is difficult for education institutions in Pidie district to find a solution, especially since they are strapped for cash and cannot restore dozens of razed schools. "We have done our best to solve this problem," said the head of Pidie education and culture service, Djohan Nurdin.

He acknowledged that one thousand elementary school pupils were not studying in peace, a factor that explained why most of them were not serious in pursuing their studies. These pupils have to study beyond regular school hours at a building spared from fire damage.

All the Acehnese are wondering who could have had the heart to burn schools. Maybe some do not want to see the education level improved among residents. "We are still curious about the motive behind the arson," said Syahrul Nurfa, an NGO activist.

He said with Aceh in its present condition, parents of school dropouts cannot do much because they are still traumatized with the incidents before the military operation zone status was lifted and afterwards.

When can these young people continue their schooling? Do they have to wait until the "bickering" involving the political elite in this country comes to an end? Obviously, these children are hoping to have a brighter future.

Acehnese children are not thinking about their future now. Away from school, they are enjoying themselves. When they can return to school depends on the local government.

It is not likely that these children will have the same fate as their parents, especially because most of them are children of the victims of the imposition of the military operation zone status. Many have lost their fathers after they were allegedly shot dead by the military. They do not know where their fathers are buried. These children need education so that they can build their own villages. And perhaps someday Darwisah will see her ambition come true.

Copyright Jakarta Post, October 19, 1999

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