Ordinary People Do Extraordinary Things

From September 2003 to December 2004 I volunteered with Peace Brigades International in Indonesia. PBI offers protection and training to local human rights defenders under threat in conflict zones. Historically, the core work was protective accompaniment of threatened individuals, but PBI has expanded into peace education, trauma counseling, and such protective services as phone monitoring and security training. The goal: to create a safer political space for local civil society members to transform the conflict they are living in. From a while PBI was barred from Aceh, along with other international organizations, but volunteers continued to offer long-distance protective services to all PBI client organizations in Aceh.

By Rachel Sutton

My experience wasn't quite what I expected. I didn't go to Aceh or do any protective accompaniment, but I did support Indonesian human rights defenders in other ways. I spent the first six months working in Jakarta developing contacts with government members, police and army commanders, and diplomats. Since PBI operates at the invitation of the government, this network is crucial. And I worked with some Acehnese clients living in Jakarta. One of them was "Zul."

The first time we met, Zul talked for two hours without my understanding a word, but after a few weeks I could understand him most of the time.

Like many other Acehnese activists and NGO workers, Zul fled Aceh in 2003 during the first few months of the current military operation. The military authorities were arresting dissidents on charges of separatism. Zul left when a relative in the police force told him he was on the latest list of wanted persons. He had been arrested twice previously and was afraid that the next time he would be disappeared.

Initially arrested on suspicion of membership in GAM (the armed separatist movement), he was tortured and witnessed others being tortured, raped, and killed. He was released and offered medical treatment after the army officers decided he was not a GAM member and it had all been a mistake.

Zul had to choose at that point whether to join GAM. He knew a number of people who had joined the rebel group because of similar experiences. He said they were so angry, afraid, and frustrated that they did not see another choice. But Zul did not believe violence could bring peace, so instead he helped found a network in Aceh where survivors of torture helped other torture victims recover. In Jakarta, he advocated for peace in Aceh and protection for victims of human rights violations.

There Zul attracted unwelcome attention, receiving threatening phone calls. Unidentified people repeatedly came to his residence asking for him. The army visited his family in Aceh, asking his whereabouts. Zul thought he was targeted in this way because of his double history as a victim and a human rights activist. A victim who is willing to speak up is dangerous for perpetrators of human rights violations.

PBI called him every night or, if he requested it, more often -- and if he didn't answer, we started to search for him. Occasionally we also offered him protective accompaniment -- once sleeping at his office. He often came to the PBI house to have a little relief from the stress. This was one of the hardest things I experienced -- witnessing someone in distress and only being able to respond in a limited way. Zul moved to a new city and was not bothered there. After the tsunami he felt safe enough to go home. Just last week I was watching a video of Aceh, and there was Zul, hard at work and smiling.

In the Field

In Jakarta I was supposed to join the new team in Papua at any time. "Any time" turned out to be six months later, but I'm not complaining, since Papua turned out to be a difficult place to work and six months "in the field" in Jayapura was long enough for me.

Papua is beautiful. After the smog and grime of Jakarta it felt like heaven. But if all were perfect, PBI wouldn't be there. One difficulty was you could never have anonymity. People whom I'd never met would shout my name and wave on the street. Endless questions came from curious strangers or undercover police agents, so we had to keep security and cultural factors in mind during all conversations. Police intelligence told us,"We know what you do every day, so don't think of lying to us." Then they showed us an example of a daily report. I will never be as famous or as interesting again, I hope.

Every day we read about violent crimes in the newspaper, heard about past violent incidents from local people, and planned our activities to reduce the risk of violence to ourselves. But no matter how worn out or fearful we got, we knew we could always leave for a safer environment. People who lived there did not have that option.

As a PBI pilot team, we were to assess the need for PBI to work in Papua. We were also to accept clients and start to work on peace education.

Especially in Indonesia, working relationships often depend upon personal relationships built up over time. Sometimes I spent whole days doing rounds, visiting NGO after NGO, visiting the police station, visiting the immigration office -- but it worked. After about three months of this, people started coming to visit us every day. Eventually, people started asking to work with us. One group that expressed interest in working with PBI was the Abepura Case Victim's Community.

In December 2000, after unidentified persons attacked the local police station, police troops raided three student dormitories and three residences looking for the perpetrators. All locations housed people from regions of Papua believed to support separatism.

The Indonesian National Human Rights Commission concluded that grave and systematic human rights abuses had occurred, including the torture of 105 individuals (in three cases leading to death) and the summary execution of one individual.

Papua has a long history of human rights violations, most of which have occurred with impunity. In an historic first, the surviving victims of the incident organized themselves into the Abepura Case Victim's Community. Assisted by local NGOs, they supported victim-witnesses in the trial of two high ranking police commanders in Indonesia's brand new Permanent Human Rights Court.

Wanting to be Watched

The victims' community requested that PBI monitor their security and accompany them until the pronouncement of the court verdict. They had not received any threats so far, but due to past experiences they felt unsafe and wanted international observers to watch.

Some 97 people agreed to act as victim-witnesses for the trial. I the end, 22 were called by the prosecutor. These farmers, mothers, and students traveled to another province and testified in a courtroom full of people, including police, about the violence they had experienced. Most of them had never been on an airplane and had never left Papua. Some did not speak Indonesian. I was struck by their resilience and courage.

The Abepura Case Victim's Community hoped their experience could be used by victims of other human rights violations. Even if the defendants are acquitted, as many predict they will be, this is a tremendous example of the power of Indonesian civil society to end the culture of impunity.

Unheroic Heroes

I had always wondered how people could be so brave. "How do they stand up for what is right even when it means increased risk to their safety? Are they superhuman?" The answer was no. Indeed, I never met such unheroic heroes in my life. In addition to their amazing qualities, they had bad habits, missed their deadlines, had internal conflicts, and made bad jokes. In short, they were a lot like all of us.

In the end instead of meeting superhuman saints, what was inspiring was meeting ordinary people who were doing extraordinary things.

Rachel Sutton lives in Ottawa and is a human rights, justice, and peace activist.

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2005

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2005, page 22. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by Rachel Sutton here

Peace Magazine homepage