11 September 2001>News Stories>The Widows' Battalion

The Widows' Battalion

NY Times . 20 January 2002


Cut Intan is 23 years old, five-feet-nothing tall and -- like the 24 young women under her command -- trained to kill. She belongs to the elusive ''widows' battalion'' of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), a 15,000-strong rebel army fighting for independence in Aceh, a rugged, jungly province on the northernmost tip of Indonesia's vast archipelago. ''We all feel a duty to fight for our land and for our ancestors,'' says Cut Intan.

Once a powerful sultanate and a center of Muslim learning, Aceh was colonized in the 1870's by the Dutch, who suffered thousands of casualties. The ferocity of Acehnese warriors -- women included -- was legendary. The wives of two Acehnese sultans led men into battle, and a female admiral once set sail with 500 warships and 40,000 men under her command. Today, GAM is vastly outgunned by the Indonesian military, which has razed countless Acehnese villages as collective punishment for rebel attacks. The fact that Acehnese women feel compelled to take up arms indicates how bitter the conflict has become. Most of the female guerrillas are in their early 20's. Like the great majority of Acehnese women, the widows wear head scarves that leave their faces exposed. (The women pictured here pulled their scarves over their noses to protect their identities.)

Indonesia is the world's largest Muslim country, and its recently elected president, Megawati Sukarnoputri, quickly pledged support for the American-led war on terrorism. At the same time, however, her Indonesian troops were conducting their own campaign of terror in Aceh, massacring more than 30 plantation workers. A few days later, a mass grave containing 48 badly decomposed bodies was unearthed. While its people are devout Muslims -- Islam arrived in Aceh about a thousand years ago -- GAM insists that its struggle is political, not religious. Western analysts agree and suggest that Jakarta labels the Acehnese Islamic ''fundamentalists'' only to justify its brutal tactics. The generals who helped bring President Megawati to power consider it a sacred duty to keep Aceh part of Indonesia. With the cover provided by the war on terrorism, Indonesia is now widely expected to try to crush all resistance in its most turbulent province.