Monday, September 9, 2013

Updates: Interviews with Aceh’s Conflict Survivors

I’ve been looking at the traffic on this blog and it went way up when I was talking about the Leuser Ecosystem, the danger to the environment that mining and palm oil present, the importance of forest stewardship, and the Rohingya.
So from now on, even when I’m talking about things like conflict survivors I’m going to throw these words in there so you’ll read about this stuff because friends, it’s like plumbing—it’s all connected. 
You cannot have a good forest stewardship plan in Aceh without addressing the inequities and suffering of people who have lived through, and are still living through, the effects of the 30 year conflict with the Jakarta government.  Until that very sizeable minority is assured that both the provincial and national government cares about their well-being they will place rainforest health and conservation second, and survival and justified resentment first. 
So: rainforest, rainforest, rainforest, tiger, tiger, tiger, Sumatran Elephant, orangutan, Leuser, tree, plant life, water, water, river, river.
Do I have your attention?
A few posts ago I wrote about some questions I had regarding Steven Shewfelt’s Legacies of war: How Violence Shapes Post-Conflict Life, so I wrote him asking if I could reproduce some of Chapter 5 Displacement in Aceh here. He has graciously consented.  There are 2 reasons I wanted to post this section on Aceh.  First, this is one of the few documents that refers to anyone wanting to know about what conflict survivors are thinking: about their homes, their safety, and the future of their province, and it also specifically mentions Aceh Tiimur.  Second, and perhaps conversely, this lack of any other survey of this kind leaves poor Dr Shewfelt at a disadvantage, since his pool of respondents are pretty much the only respondents ever to be asked these types of questions.  And I believe that the people who spoke with him may not really represent residents of Aceh Timur as a whole, but I could be wrong.  He conducted focus groups with both men and women but does not say how many or where. He also interviewed a group of 20 Javanese men in both Aceh Timur and still in North Sumatra where they had fled from Aceh Timur during the conflict.

So I’m going to ask him if there is a part I missed, and if he did indeed interview more than 20 people individually, and how many 8-12 member focus groups he conducted, and if the individual interviewees were not just men, and if these men were not just Javanese.
Because as we have seen in the previous posts, Javanese make up only about 25% of the Aceh Timur population, and there were no ex-combatants or women or youth interviewed individually.
So while it was heartening to see an attempt to find out how people were doing after 2005, it really may not be sufficient to make any conclusions about anybody but these 20 guys.
But there are some interesting bits.  I think his main conclusion is that the trauma suffered by people as a result of their being displaced from Aceh is not as severe as the trauma suffered by people who remained in Aceh and who to this day experience the effects and after-effects of this war that’s now gone underground.

(My comments are in red and in brackets; the italicized or bolded sections are also my emphasis).

"Respondent after respondent during these interviews and focus group discussions in Aceh pointed out that one of the consequences of the conflict was that the security situation made it impossible to harvest crops. Once the conflict ended, clearing fields, planting crops, and rebuilding living accommodations became a primary focus of many rural villagers’ lives. Moreover, several villagers noted that “staying busy” by engaging in these kinds of activities and organizing others to work on them together was one of the best ways for people to move beyond the trauma they had experienced during the war. In one village in which loyalties during the war had been divided between villagers sympathetic to GAM and villagers sympathetic to the government, people from these different factions were unwilling to speak to or deal with one another during the conflict. Government sympathizers would “walk to the other side of the road” when they saw a villager approaching who they knew was sympathetic to GAM, and vice versa. I asked a number of people in this village to describe if, when, and how relations between people on either side of the GAM / government cleavage had changed. Without exception, the villagers noted that these sympathies no longer mattered. And the most important factor in generating this change was the signing of the memorandum of understanding that ended the war in August 2005: [because everyone in the villages was told that they would be compensated and be able to make a living.] . . .  Previously there were some pro-GAM and some pro-TNI people in the village. . . . . Things changed little by little [after the singing of the peace agreement].  As the peace agreement has been implemented with considerable success, [really???] people who live in the province and see the day-to-day improvements in the security situation, even if they have not returned to their homes of origin, are less likely to hold on to the polarized sentiments through which they see a potential enemy in everyone who is not a known compatriot. [true, but most do not believe that the government upheld its promise of providing reparations to conflict survivors—see Aceh Village Survey] This dynamic was evident in a focus group discussion with people who were still displaced but lived in Aceh. Interviewer: Now, after the MOU, are you worried, afraid of experiencing prejudice or something? Respondent 1: There is no prejudice anymore, because it’s not only Javanese here, there are also people from Gayo, Sumatra and Aceh. No matter here or anywhere else, the people of Aceh are now united. And there are ex-GAM members, for example in Sindang Balik, and they live here now, so [there is] no more prejudice and we are not worried.
"Rather than security concerns, which would be most likely to be related to polarized sentiment, these respondents (all Javanese) [my emphasis] gave economic explanations for the fact that they were still displaced.
"The most notable exception to this pattern came from the respondent in the focus group who had experienced the most severe trauma during the conflict. . . . That the respondent who experienced the most severe trauma during the conflict would be the lone person concerned about security may be explained by the findings in the previous chapter that higher levels of trauma are associated with increased polarization and decreased trust. [it’s my opinion that the majority of people in Aceh Timur have experienced that trauma, so I’m unsure how the interviewer was able to recruit so many well-adjusted respondents.]
". . . The stories told by displaced people living in Aceh were considerably different from the stories told by people who left the province. Interviewees in [Langkat] North Sumatra consistently gave security concerns as the main reason for their failure to return to their homes of origin.. . .

"Whereas the respondents who were still displaced but lived within Aceh gave economic explanations for their displacement status, these respondents tended to focus on security concerns.
Respondents who live in Aceh, having observed the changes underway in the aftermath of the conflict and likely having had more significant opportunities to interact in everyday settings with people across the lines of cleavage that defined the conflict, better understand the reality of post- conflict life in the province and are less terrorized by their memories of the way life in the province functioned at the time they were displaced. In contrast, those who live outside Aceh have an image of life in their home of origin that hinges more on what it was like when they were displaced than it does on the current reality, which is in fact largely secure.
[It almost seems as if Dr Shewfelt is equating being “less terrorized” with being mentally equipped to handle the realities of post-conflict life, when in fact I'd argue just the opposite.  Prolonged exposure to horror produces shock, numbness, mental shutdown . . . you say you’re fine when in fact you are anything but.] 
". . [The] security concerns [of Javanese living away from Aceh] are all rooted in past experiences.  . . .
"We might assume the security concerns expressed by the respondents in North Sumatra reflect more severe traumatic experiences. Such an assumption would probably be wrong. As noted above, survey respondents in North Sumatra scored lower, on average, on the traumatic events index than did respondents in Aceh . . .for Javanese who remain displaced).
". . . A final explanation for the finding that interview subjects in Aceh and North Sumatra give different reasons for why they have not returned is that the dynamics of the places in which they live have affected their understanding of life in their homes of origin. The fact that respondents in Aceh are less likely to identify security concerns is consistent with the idea that living in Aceh has provided them with a balanced perspective on the current reality in that location and has begun to break down the perception that the ethnic “other” is by definition a potentially lethal enemy. By the argument presented above, this would occur because survival strategies in the reasonably stable post-conflict Aceh context [I am not sure what he means by “reasonably stable.”  In what way?] involve engaging across lines of cleavage [meaning, I think that in order to survive, people in Aceh had to be friends with everyone, or at least pretend to be], which is likely to lead to decreases in concerns about security, decreases in political polarization, and increases in social trust.
". . .  the narratives suggest that there is something different in the evolution of political perspectives when one lives in the former conflict zone than when one lives outside that conflict zone, . . . One explanation for this difference is that people living in Aceh see in their daily lives the changes brought on by the peace process and are quicker to let the emotional scars of the war heal . . .[and this is where our differences lie, I think]
". . .  I viewed this investigation as the first step in disaggregating traumatic experiences into more than one type in order to better understand if and how different kinds of trauma differently affect post-conflict outcomes. I argued that the international attention paid to IDPs and refugees makes this a reasonable place to begin. The non-findings in the chapter are as interesting and important as are the findings. First, the evidence suggests that displaced-related experiences have almost no independent effect on post-conflict social and political life. This contrasts with the findings in the previous chapter that traumatic experiences, of which displacement-related experiences are a subset, do have an effect on post-conflict social and political life. It seems that, as compared to the other traumatic events people in a conflict zone tend to experience, those related to displacement are not particularly meaningful. . . .  As much as intuition may suggest and as much as  policy-makers tend to focus on displaced people when providing humanitarian and reintegration assistance, this study suggests such a focus may be misplaced if the goal is to stabilize post-conflict political life. In this sense, the findings here are consistent with findings in other post- conflict settings that a disproportionate focus on the needs of the displaced is often perceived by those who stay behind in the war setting as unjust. Such perceptions create tensions that interfere with the peacebuilding program (Demichelis 1998; Pickering 2006). . . .  a more fruitful avenue might be to focus assistance on those who can be identified as having experienced traumatic events more generally defined."
Even with my questions and concerns about both this study and the Aceh Village Survey, they both in the end reinforce what I think is one of the most important things to remember about life in Aceh Timur: for many, many people, the conflict has not really ended.  And local NGOs like JMD, international conservation agencies, provincial government ministries, and Big Palm Oil/Mining--we all need to remember this as we try and assist this incredibly complex ecosystem and its fragile inhabitants.

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