He escaped on Dec. 26, 2004. That day, as the tsunami tore through the prison, drowning inmates in their cells, Iskander punched his way through the roof and got away. We know the rest: nearly 170,000 people dead in Aceh, a gargantuan relief effort, andamid the tragedya historic peace deal between G.A.M. and the Indonesian government. But Iskander's story didn't end there. In fact, it's just beginning. Irwandi Yusufhis real namewas last week sworn in as the first directly elected governor of Aceh province.
Irwandi, as I can now call him, won nearly 40% of the vote, twice that of his nearest challenger. But he insists he was a reluctant candidate. "Being a governor is like being in prisonI will lose my freedom," he recently told reporters. His reluctance is understandable: 4 million Acehnese now pin their hopes on Irwandi Yusuf as he starts one of the toughest jobs in Indonesia.
Guerrilla movements tend to form shaky governments; just look at the other end of the Indonesian archipelago, where East Timor is still mired in poverty and violence years after its hard-won independence. Yet Irwandi was never a gun-toting guerrilla. A veterinarian by training and a university lecturer by profession, he led a double life as an underground G.A.M. campaigner based in Banda Aceh. That, hopefully, has equipped him with the wiles to navigate Aceh's complex political and religious scene.
Improving the welfare of his people is Irwandi's top priority, of course. In theory he has the financial wherewithal to achieve this: Aceh is rich in natural resources, particularly oil and gas. So far, though, these riches have mainly profited the national treasury or the oil Goliath ExxonMobil, or simply lined the pockets of corrupt officials. Keeping Aceh's wealth in Aceh, and then directing it to where it's desperately neededhousing, infrastructure, job creationwill be Irwandi's biggest test.
To succeed, he must mediate between an Aceh not yet prepared to trust its old oppressorsthe central government and the militaryand a Jakarta still unconvinced of the new governor's loyalty to the nation. (At his inauguration inside the parliament building in Banda Aceh, Irwandi stood politely as the Indonesian anthem played, while Acehnese watching via screens outside jeered.) In return for G.A.M. abandoning its claim for independence, Jakarta has promised Aceh greater autonomy over its own affairs. But Irwandi must still win over a local legislature packed with pro-Jakarta nationalists and reform a dysfunctional bureaucracy which, with the help of greedy and ruthless men in the military and police, helped make Aceh possibly the most corrupt province in one of the world's most corrupt countries. He is well aware that a previous governor, the widely loathed Abdullah Puteh, was also in jail, in Jakarta, when the tsunami came, awaiting trial over a helicopter scam for which he was later convicted.
Irwandi must perform another balancing act with the ulemas, or Islamic religious leaders. Aceh is famously devout, and since 2003 has implemented shari'a-style by-laws against drinking, gambling, premarital sex and improper dress. These are now being enforced by shari'a officials, who have publicly whipped men and women for adultery. Aceh's ulemas are pushing for even stricter punishments, such as amputating the hands of thieves. Irwandi publicly opposes such ideas, which he knows offend the Western donor countries upon which his province's frail economy partly depends. But the clout of Aceh's ulemas cannot be ignored either, and it is unclear yet whether he has the courage or inclination to stand up to them.
Last week I called Irwandi again and asked him about the bad old days. Back in May 2003, I had been reporting on a massacre of villagers, including several boys, by Indonesian troops, and I knew that Irwandi, like thousands of other Acehnese, had been tortured by the security forces. But the governor wanted to look ahead. "I have shaken hands with my torturers," he said. "Of course, I won't forget. You can never forget." And my role in his arrest? Any hard feelings? "No," he laughed. "It was part of my life then. Those were the risks I had to take." His life now presents a new set of challenges, and I, along with millions of long-suffering but hopeful Acehnese, wish him luck with them.