As Indonesia’s Aceh province recovers from the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, a new company there is hiring former guerrilla soldiers to use their skills for tourism. Chad Bouchard reports from Aceh, where he followed former combatants to their old hideouts in the jungle.
The last time Yuni hacked his way through this jungle mountain trail, he was under fire and on the run from his own government.
Three years after the end of that bloody conflict, he finds himself pausing on the steep mountain slope, waiting for a handful of winded tourists to catch up.
Yuni was a foot soldier in a guerrilla independence movement called GAM. He describes a fierce battle to the curious group of foreigners.
Yuni says in this spot he was pinned down for hours, and it was the longest combat with the enemy he ever experienced. He says the fire fight started before dawn and lasted until the afternoon.
Yuni and his brother Don are part of the last generation to fight a brutal civil war spanning three decades, as Acehnese fought for independence from the rest of the country.
The mountaineering and survival skills that once helped them out-maneuver the Indonesian army now come in handy as they march tourists into the same jungle.
The customers are mostly foreign aid workers who live in the provincial capital of Banda Aceh. They pay for treks into the wilderness that was until recently off limits to travelers because of the conflict.
In December 2004, a massive tsunami scoured nearby shores, and changed everything.
A few months later, the rebels and the Indonesian government, both eager to focus on rebuilding from the disaster, signed a peace deal.
But thousands of ex-combatants were left with few skills to earn a peacetime living.
Reconstruction temporarily pumped millions of aid dollars into the local economy, but as the aid money dried up, jobs became even harder to find.
So Don is grateful for the opportunity he has now. He says it is very difficult to find a job in Aceh at the moment, and he is proud to work as a tour guide. He says the salary is good, and all he has to do is take tourists up a mountain.
Mendel Pols, a Dutch citizen, is the founder of Aceh Explorer Adventure Tours. He says it has been hard to get other investors involved, and in light of the bloody history of the conflict, there has been little response from international aid organizations.
“They just laughed. And they said that it was a crazy idea. Some NGO’s, they consider former GAM as former killers,” said Pols. “The fact that my, the majority of my, guides are former GAM rebels practically disqualifies me from receiving aid.”
But Pols says business is steady in spite of the lack of outside support. The company has more than 20 guides and runs day trips into the jungle nearly every week.
“I’m aware of the fact that all of my GAM guides, they have done things during the conflict that we would absolutely reject,” he said. “I’m sure they have killed people, they have shot soldiers. I’m sure that some of them may have intimidated locals, perhaps even stolen food or money. But yeah, you know, you have to start somewhere to start over again.”
Out on the trail, the group reaches a small cave once used as a rebel lookout.
Cooking pots and water bottles are still stashed around the camp. Not far away, a single Indonesian army boot serves as a reminder of the violence.
One Norwegian on the tour, Helena Tideman, says she found it haunting to visit rebel hideouts.
“It’s really hard to imagine what they’ve been through. Being with these guides telling us the stories and – you know it’s kind of a mix of feeling,” said Tideman. “Because it’s, you know for me it’s an adventure to see this but at the same time it’s also, you know, a really brutal history so, yeah.”
Yuni says it is not easy to revisit the battlegrounds where he lost friends, or the camps where the rebels endured harsh conditions away from their families.
He says sometimes he thinks about what he went through when they were hiding in the forest, like the hunger and the fear. The memories are sweet and bitter, he says, and it can be difficult to talk about those times with his wife.
Asked if he feels uncomfortable giving away his hiding spots to tourists, Yuni looks at his brother. With a nervous laugh, he explains that they are keeping plenty of hiding places deeper in the jungle, just in case they ever need them again.