'God willing, Aceh will have peace at last'

Guarded optimism prevailed in the capital of Indonesia’s Aceh province after the signing on Monday of a peace pact that Acehenese hope will end nearly three decades of war and suffering.

Up to 5 000 people thronged the grounds of the elegant main Baiturrahman mosque after noon prayers and a mass prayer for peace, jostling for a glimpse of televisions beaming the signing ceremony in the Finnish capital, Helsinki.

Residents were sombre rather than joyful, quietly applauding when Indonesian Minister of Justice and Human Rights Hamid Awaluddin signed the agreement with Malik Mahmud, the self-styled prime minister of the exiled Free Aceh Movement (GAM) leadership based in Sweden.

But they said they are hopeful after the relentless bloodshed the province has endured since separatists first demanded an independent Islamic state in 1976.

“I think all people of Aceh are thankful for this happy day,” a law student who gave her name as Zraika said. “At least we are heading along the right path.”

Muhammad Malik Rahmat, a civil servant at the public works office, said that while he is thankful the deal has been signed, it is “only the first step”.

“Now comes the difficult part, which will decide whether peace is to stay.”

Kharim Ada, a farmer who like many in the city had travelled some distance to see the signing, said simply: “All praise is for Allah. May peace descend on Aceh.”

Among those who witnessed the historic signing were Peter Feith, the Dutch head of a European Union monitoring mission who will oversee the pact’s implementation, and the British ambassador to Indonesia, Charles Humphrey.

Coordinating Minister for People’s Welfare Alwi Shihad, the highest Indonesian official at the mosque, called the event “historical”.

“We should be grateful that today we are witnessing a very historical day ...
As of today, God willing, the people of Aceh will be able to live in peace, prosperity and far from any suffering,” he said. “Let us keep this peace. Let us be unified again.”

Mahmud Rifai (43) travelled more than three hours from Aceh’s Ulee Kareng district with his wife and neighbours to attend the mosque and pray.

“What else can we do? This is the only way I and my family and my friends can contribute to the peace. We are here to pray for peace to come to Aceh,” the trader said earlier in the day before the mass prayer session.

Women in white prayer shrouds, some with young children, milled around with the men.

A man who gave his name as Mustafa said he had come with friends from Lamteument, to where they moved after losing their homes and families during last December’s tsunami.

The tsunami claimed an estimated 131 000 lives in Aceh. But the disaster spurred efforts to end the 29-year separatist conflict, which has left nearly 15 000 dead.

“I hope that peace really stays this time. We have been praying for peace for a long time,” said Mustafa.

Cut Salamah, a housewife from nearby Peunayong, came with a group of women.

“We all long for peace. We have gone through enough suffering already because of the conflict and the tsunami. God willing, Aceh will have peace at last,” she said.

In Jakarta, Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said Indonesians should be proud of the deal they had managed to achieve.

“Indonesians, including my brothers in Aceh, let us appreciate the significant event as something that we should be proud of,” he said during a video link-up with officials in Helsinki.

The peace accord should be a “good start for a permanent solution to the Aceh conflict, for the reunification of the Indonesian people and to build a better future for Aceh”, he said.—AFP

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