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Taken For Torture
Now a poor villager has lost all hope

At the age of 60, Nyak Jempa is waiting only to pass from this world — to leave behind a life that has shown her much cruelty and little mercy. A poor village woman, she ekes out a miserable existence in poverty-ridden and strife-torn Aceh, caring for her 75-year-old husband and orphaned nephew. One morning in March 1998, Indonesian soldiers appeared at Jempa's house and accused her of giving a goat to rebels from the Free Aceh Movement. The movement has long fought the central government for the independence to set up a separate Islamic state with Shariah law. Jempa told the military men to look around: she was obviously too poor to own any goats. The soldiers ignored her denials and took her to a building in her home district of Pidie, known to locals as a torture chamber.

For the next two-and-a-half months, Jempa lived in a miasma of pain and fear. For the first two days, three times a day, she was tortured by soldiers in an effort to make her confess. "They subjected me to electric shocks by putting electric rods on my breasts, private parts, feet, fingers," she says. "The pain was unbearable and I screamed, which made them laugh. I passed out from the pain." As she relates her experience, Jempa breaks down, sobbing. Routine beatings took over from electric shocks. Acehnese informers known as cuaks helped the soldiers in their dirty work.

During the day, the soldiers would blast the detention center with loud music to drown the screams of the 100-plus detainees. At dusk, every dusk, inmates braced themselves for sudden death. "Every evening the lights would go off at 6 p.m. and people would be taken away, never to be seen again," says Jempa. "I never knew when it was my turn to die." While the physical and psychological abuse was excruciating, the accompanying shame was almost unbearable. Jempa and other inmates were put into tiny rooms that were named after animals, such as "Dog" and "Pig" — considered unclean by Muslims. "Whenever a cuak passed by, he would call out 'dog,' and all of us in that room would have to bark like a dog," she recalls, softly. "If we did not, we would be beaten. We are human beings but were forced to live like animals. It was humiliating."

Jempa's husband and four adult children were too terrified to try to have her freed. "The soldiers told me if my husband tried to come to get me, he would be killed," she says. "He ran away and hid in another village. I thought I would never go home again." But in May, soon after President Suharto was ousted, she was released. Several months later, the government revoked its nine-year military operation, during which time human rights groups say soldiers killed at least 2,000 Acehnese. Jempa no longer lives in fear of being taken again by the army, but not much else has changed. Unrest still bubbles moodily, erupting now and then like an active volcano.

Jempa does not expect peace to supplant violence in her lifetime — or that of her 14-year-old physically handicapped nephew. While the new government of President Abdurrahman Wahid did free her from her captors, it so far has failed to rectify and rehabilitate the wrongs of the past. "I have heard several times that the government will be giving out aid, but that has never reached me," Jempa says. Her hopes for the future are bleakly simple: "I have none." She points to her nephew, who was left in her care after his mother died during childbirth and his father of illness. "I also have no hopes for him."

Every time Jempa walks, the pain in her abdomen and chest reminds her of the torture and beatings. Still, her husband is too infirm to work and her children struggle to feed their own families. Jempa provides rice and vegetable by weaving thatch roofs out of dried leaves. "The most I can make is 3,500 rupiah [37 cents] a day," she says. "It is not enough." Each month she sinks deeper into debt to pay for basic needs, such as electricity. She sighs without changing her worn expression. "I do not have many more years to my life," she says. "I do not have any more motivation. I just accept everything that God has to give."

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