But now with the fighting already having returned to pre-cease-fire levels, Mariani and her neighbors are preparing to flee the "peace zone." Last week, under the auspices of a Geneva-based nongovernmental organization, Indonesian officials and representatives of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) turned up in Tokyo for a last-ditch attempt to head off renewed conflict. But the chances of the two sides reaching a compromise are minuscule. Jakarta is promising only a measure of autonomy, and insists that the separatist group first unconditionally disarm. GAM, which insists on independence for Aceh, will almost certainly refuse to do this in the face of one of the largest military buildups in Indonesian history. The army's objective this time around appears to be nothing less than GAM's eradication. "We will fight them all out," said armed forces chief General Endriartono Sutarto during a recent troop inspection. "The military is the final resort in settling the Aceh question."
Caught in the cross fire are ordinary Acehnese. At Simpang Keramat, most shops are boarded up and abandoned, and women are preparing bags of rice and other supplies for their flight. Most young men have already left: they are often regarded as potential GAM recruits by the Indonesian military and therefore might become targets themselves. "Don't Display Your Weapons," exhorts a sign outside the village. Somebody has blanked out the "Don't."
Civilians have always done most of the dying in Aceh's conflict, which has claimed more than 10,000 lives since 1976. And they are likely to suffer a lot more, since the years have not diminished Jakarta's apparent conviction that the Aceh issue calls for a military solution, not a political one. Nor, after a five-month pause, have the rebels lost their taste for battle. Invited by Libyan-trained GAM commander Darwis Jeunib to a remote village in Biruen district in the north, I see a few dozen of some 1,000 soldiers he claims to lead. Though their AK-47s, strung with Acehnese flags, are antiques, their uniforms and army boots are box-fresh, making them better equipped than the motley GAM troops I have seen on previous visits. The new hostilities, says Darwis, will be "more brutal than in the past," and will be accompanied by a massive number of civilian casualties.
There is no reason to doubt this grim prediction. The Indonesian government itself estimates that up to 200,000 Acehnese could be displaced by war, and has avowedly allocated $48 million to help them. The army promises that the boats disgorging soldiers and ammunition on Aceh's shores will also carry rice and other vital supplies for civilians. "I'll believe it when I see it," says one 45-year-old village leader, who is too afraid to give his name. We meet in the ramshackle sports hall of Lhokseumawe Polytechnic, where about a thousand refugees (700 of them children) from two villages near Simpang Keramhave sought shelter from a troop buildup in their area. They rely on donations begged from vehicles passing the campus gates.
Their numbers will swell in the coming days, even as government and GAM officials debate the future of the province and the soldiers keep arriving. In many Acehnese villages, boys run up to passersby to shout "Merdeka! (freedom)." For many GAM leaders, the word is still synonymous with independence. But among their people, who have had a first, unforgettable taste of peace, it also means freedom from fear and a chance to finally live a normal life. "We want our children to be able to go to school, get educated, stand on their feet," says teacher Mariani passionately. "A military operation will make things worse. Young people will get caught up in the conflict. They may end up joining GAM and fighting the military. We don't want that. We don't want a whole generation lost."