Into the Jungle
Wednesday Feb. 8 2005, Banda Aceh, Indonesia.
A man and a woman holding a piece of paper with my name picked me up in Banda Aceh. The pair, my connection to the jungle rebels, were surprised that I was so small and young. They had expected a large man in his forties. I was a little stressed out when they asked if I wanted to cover the tsunami aftermath right away. Later I understood that these were code words meaning that we were going to the place where I would stay in Banda Aceh.
Another member of the GAM drove a motorcycle to make sure everything was ok and we followed in a car 100 meters behind. When we arrived to the safe house there were five people. Some of them were not aware that Jack, my contact, was an active GAM member, so we slipped into a room where we were able to speak in a more relaxed manner. We agreed that I should take some pictures of the tsunami aftermath, my cover story in case we were stopped by the military. We ate dinner, drove around and returned to play video games. At ten pm there was an earthquake, another aftershock of the tsunami. Overnight, three civilians, five GAM soldiers, and twenty TNI soldiers were killed in a gunfight, I was told.
Thursday Feb. 9 2005, Banda Ache, Indonesia.
My translator is really getting on my nerves. She is not translating everything. Her English is bad, and she acts like a little sister. She tells me it's too dangerous to go the mountains and I try to explain that is why I came here to do a job about the conflict and I expect it to be dangerous.
I was able to convince her to translate my request to sleep with the guerilla in the jungle for a few days. I had to call up the GAM government in Stockholm, get their permission and then get a commander to approve it. I got the permission for a day trip to visit a camp right outside of Banda Aceh, and picked up antibiotics for Jacks friends that were shot yesterday.
Everything goes smoothly. Jack and I leave to meet up with a few others who will drive us to the mountains where they live. We drive slowly and come to a suburb of Banda Aceh. Jack explains that it is controlled by the GAM more or less. After getting lost a few times, we find a gravel road. By the road there is a village that was badly damaged by the tsunami. Further up on the road they are burning everything to clear all the debris from the tsunami aftermath. The smoke is so thick it is very difficult to breath and you cannot see five meters ahead of the car. Trees lie all over the road and we have to get out to clear the path. The closer we get the poorer the villages seem to be. We park the car by the side of a mountain. The area is populated by refugees of the tsunami. We start scaling the steep slope of the mountain and I can see a glimpse of the first solider.
After we climbed for a bit, we met one of the guerillas who took us through narrow paths up the mountain. The closer we came, the more soldiers we saw, and finally we got to the top. We were greeted by a higher commander and finally got a chance to take some pictures. It was a bit of a show, but I was able to leave with some good photos. Jack told me that a GAM soldier, his friend, was killed today.
Sunday, Feb. 13, 2005, Banda Aceh
I woke up this morning and didn't know what was up or down. Everything was dark and shaking. We were out of electricity and there were three powerful earthquakes, one after the other. I start to get used to the sounds one falls asleep to here: crickets and howling dogs. In the ceiling fan, they've told me that there is some form of mini crocodile that spits poison. I haven't been able to see what it looks like yet, but it calls me every evening.
The heat was so penetrating that Jack suggested we go take a dip. In a dirty little creek in the mountains people were washing rugs and children and adults were washing their hair. I sort of felt I couldn't tell them I probably would get the diseases that most tourists will get, so instead I proceeded to jump in. Above me small mountain monkeys played in the trees and I swam with children and soldiers.
On the way home, Jack visits a friend from the Special Forces in the military. I have no idea how he has been able to keep his identity hidden, but he has many contacts high and low. Jack finally gets the phone call that I've been waiting for. Agreeing to go out into the jungle.
It feels strange that when I finally get the ok, I have my doubts. All this waiting around hasn't felt too good. I get my camera in order and charge it and the laptop since there is no electricity at Jack's place. Jack wonders if I should be carrying a weapon if I am going out into the jungle. I say absolutely not. But, how are you going to be able to defend yourself then? I obviously can't.
Monday, Feb. 14, 2005, Banda Aceh
I woke up full of excitement and anticipation that I would be leaving for an adventure today. My new translator and friend Oki came to pick me up, we took a tour of the city and then visited the press center where I learned that I received permission to go to Lhoksemauwe. Oki wanted to take a look at his house that was destroyed by the tsunami and then we went to his university. Next to the university I noticed a Danish field hospital. I went in to check it out and was offered a good Danish lunch with my first beer in a long time. Of course they brought their own Tuborg Beer with them.
Back home at Jack's place, I found out that I could go to the mountains and we were to depart in the night so that we would not be seen. Oki and Jacki would take me there and then I would be on my own with the Rebels. I got a list of things that I needed to bring. Batteries in two different sizes, two dictionaries, vitamins, medicine, and noodles. Everything was ready and we had a new car, but then I found out that the plan was off again. The guys that were supposed to pick me up in the mountains ran into some Indonesian military forces and gunfire, making it impossible to go out.
Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2005, Banda Aceh
Oki picks me up in the morning and we go to a refugee camp just to kill some time. I stay for a while to take some photos and when we get to the second refugee camp, Oki finally gets the call I have been waiting so long for. Today apparently would be a good day to try all over again.
I had to go home, charge my batteries and get my gear all packed again. When I got to the media center I wrote a few last panic emails of what area I would be in more or less, in case something should happen. I bought some extra emergency supplies while Oki picked up Jacki, the guy who was supposed to take me in. We took off into the darkness.
The drive is supposed to take some four hours but already after two hours the car is boiling and overheating. We have to take a right somewhere in the middle of nowhere. We are able to find water and continue driving, but the car stops two more times and I am totally tense with anticipation and it would be such an anti climax if the car collapsed.
Jack sits in front, talking on the phone to the guys I will soon meet. We are instructed to turn on the right flasher to show who we are as we crawl slowly down the road. Oki tells me to get ready. I put on my vest and my backpack. I have no idea what to expect.
Suddenly the door is thrown open by two men with weapons. I jump out and roll down the ditch. We start creeping across the road. It is dark as coal. and I can hardly see anything. They gesture that I have to take off my shoes. We creep through the rice paddies and every time there is a car we duck. I have a hard time keeping my balance with my backpack and the slippery mud and I fall a few times. The water is tepid and the mud squeezes between my toes. When I get out I feel something crawling on my legs: I have to yank off a few leeches. We press on in total darkness. I can't see anything so I hold on to the backpack of the guy in front of me. At 3:30am we stop to sleep and eat.
Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2005, Mountains, Jungles of Aceh province, Indonesia
It is 7 am when I am woken up by my new friends. We eat crackers for breakfast and then start walking. I crack out my camera and take photos. The air is humid and it's getting really hot. The view of the mountains is fantastic and the terrain is beginning to change. Sometimes we walk on paths and sometimes we use a machete to get through the jungle. I try to conserve my bottled water as much as possible, since I have no idea where I can get fresh water next time. We take a break after five hours, to rest and make coffee. Two of the guys take off to get some water. Everyone seems tired and thirsty. After some rest we push on. There are so many new impressions all at one time. New sounds and new scents.
We continue on, lost several times, until we settle down and put up camp for the night. Earlier during the day, I was trying to joke around by gesturing that it would be nice to take a dip. When the camp is in order, a rebel jesters to me, "Dip?" I think he's joking but we start going down the mountain where I think we are going to sleep for the night. It's difficult to climb down the mountain and I know I'm going to be just as sweaty when I scale it again.
Waterfalls and amazing trees and a naked Guerilla washing himself and his clothes right in front of me. I feel like a mixture between Tarzan and David Attenborough, when I swing from branch to branch to come down the mountain, to the water. The water is cool and feels lovely; I wash my clothes and take a shower in the waterfall. I sure as hell get just as sweaty climbing up again. But, it was well worth it.
When darkness falls, we're around the campfire. My clothes are hanging to dry and I'm sitting in just my underwear, but it is such a wonderful tepid evening. My knee hurts and a guerilla gives me some tiger balm and gives me a massage. He starts massaging my leg and then my back. It feels a bit weird sitting in the middle of the jungle, getting a massage by hardened guerillas in just my underwear. We stay up for a little while longer and then we fall asleep.
Thursday, Feb. 17, 2005, Jungles of Banda Aceh Province
I wake up with a high fever and a strong dizziness. It's 7am and it's quite cool outside. I'm sweating and I'm nauseated. I tried getting some breakfast, but everything just comes right back up. The guys understand that something is wrong, and all they can say isÉ"Malaria." We are able to get reception for our cell phone and I call Oki, in Banda Ache city. I have to get to a hospital because I knew if I had high fever, dizziness and can't get any food in my system; it can get really fucking ugly fast. Oki talks to the commander and then translates for me. "He says you are lost and it's about six hours from the big camp. The head camp. Can you walk?" SIX HOURS: I PANIC..
...SHIT SHIT SHIT...I CAN'T DO THIS I'M THINKING TO MYSELF. No energy in the body. Hardly any water and six hours of trekking with a twenty kilo backpack. I try to explain that I can't go on six more hours, but they don't get it. They pack their gear and we get going again. One of the guys trades his bag with mine and immediately it feels a little easier. But, my knee is in pain and I feel like I'm walking in a bubble. Every step feels like lead and the slope is very steep.
I started thinking about Corp. Khil, who I served under in my military service. He always bit his lips together, clenched his jaw: come on fucker, just fucking fight. And, yah, I have no other choice than to keep on keep on keeping on. We take several rests. My fever is going up and down like an elevator. All of a sudden it feels good and then the next second I am freezing and shaking, then sweating, then nausea. When we stop for lunch the rebels get some water and cook some noodles. I try to get some noodles and eat a little, but everything comes right back up. We start heading on again and I'm starting to get really scared and frightened.
If it gets so bad that I faint, I feel like I'm not going to get out of here. You just can't carry someone on a stretcher in this terrain. I'm trying to think of and figure out where I am, if there is a crisis, if I can be tracked via my cell phone. The problem is I very seldom have reception.
Every place we rest, I look around to see if a helicopter would be able to land there. But, the jungle is too dense and they would have to circle for days to try to find us.
Friday, Feb. 18, 2005. Mountains. Aceh Province, six hours from the base camp.
My pulse is way too high when I wake up, the fever is still there. But, I pick at a plate of rice and a liter of water. I don't know how long we have to walk today, but I start to feel that it's coming to a critical point where I won't be able to take it any longer. I can't deal with it anymore. I can't deal with this shite.
I get a hold of Annika at the agency. I'm having a hard time holding my cell phone because I'm shaking too much. I still don't have any coordinates to give them and I still don't know how far we have to walk today. Annika tells me that the agency is working on a way to get me out, but it's quite difficult, since they don't want to have the Indonesian government involved. It give me a new sense of hope and I calm down a bit because if I've come this far, I really don't fucking want my pictures to be confiscated by the military. After a while the phone reception starts breaking up. I lose the line and I am alone with guerrillas who don't understand me. They are trying to tell me that there is only one more hour till we arrive at base camp, but they've told me this before and after 10 hours I don't believe it anymore.
At least we are walking downhill and it feels good. The vegetation is dense and we chop our way through a ravine with machetes. I am quite happily surprised when after an hour we arrive at a big river. When I look up I see that there are ten new guerrillas further ahead. I am thinking we have to be close now. We walk up the river, the stones in the river are slippery and I fall several times. Finally, we cross the river and get to the big camp.
I try to go around and greet everyone and finally I just sit down. One of the guys approaches me with medicine. I'm given just about everything and I actually start to feel better. The cell phone has no reception. Apparently, we are four hours away from a safe place to make a phone call.
While I wash myself in the river, the rebels start frenetically damming up the river to fish. They dam up part of the river and let the water drain until the fish cannot swim and then grab them. There are all types of fish and eels. It feels more like a scout camp than a hardened guerrilla life. The young guys take it easy in the sun, and swim in the river, jumping off the cliffs and doing flips into the water. Some of them clean the fish while others cleaning their clothes and weapons.
I find the highest commander and give him the second dictionary. He's tough but quite nice. He definitely does not smile at all. I explain to him that I have to get down to the hospital because I probably had contracted malaria. He writes a note that says, Banda Aceh, March 1st.
No no no. I must get there tomorrow. I get a knot in my stomach. What if they're not going to let me go till March 1st? There is a lively discussion and I go down to the water. I have to find a way to contact my agency and tell them that they don't want to let me go till March. When I get back to the commander, he agrees that I can take off tomorrow to make a phone call. There is nothing that I can do to hurry up the process, so all I can do is wait. I eat three small grilled fish and then go down to the place where I am supposed to sleep. One of the leaders I had trekked through the jungle with tells me that I am going back to Banda tomorrow. I am at first happy, but I don't know who to trust any longer.
We try to use the dictionary and as I understand it, two guys are supposed to accompany me down to the road to Banda Aceh. I get my map out and I realize that I'm not going to be able to have the energy to walk for twenty or thirty hours and that only a helicopter can get me out of there. They show me very clearly that this is a very bad idea, as it is impossible to do it without the military finding out. I have never felt so trapped.
I try to tell myself that I have to dig this situation but it's difficult. When am I going to come home? Will I be able to call tomorrow? If I have to stay here till March 1st, everyone is going to think I died. I fall into a delirious sleep with no idea what will happen.
Will I be able to go home or am I stuck here?
It seems in the morning that the rebels feel it is time for group photograph. The rebels take their time cutting and trimming their hair and beards for the photo. One of the guys acts like their hair dresser and trims and styles their hair. Others are shaving and even trimming their nose hairs to look good. It's kind of cool that even though they live year round in the jungle and they meet only their enemies, they still have time to be vain.
I have stopped asking if I am allowed to make a phone call. I concentrate on fucking walking on this crazy terrain. We walk along the river. The stones are slippery with algae and sometimes the water is too deep to wade in so we have to literally climb or scale the waterfalls or steep cliffs. We are resting when one of the guys sights a few civilians fishing further down the river. We are still in the middle of nowhere and to bump into a couple of civilian fishermen is just as unlikely as if there were a restaurant located here.
After eight hours we make it all the way out. I am tired but psyched to come home. We make a few phone calls and when I learn it would take four hours until Jack could pick me up with his car, I decide to hitchhike the rest of the way to Banda Aceh. We sit on a hill and wait for darkness to fall. At dusk we sneak up to the rice fields. We steal cucumbers from a plantation and they taste like heaven. I am so looking forward to coming home that I could care less that I'm dirty and wet and sneaking through the rice paddies.
When we come down to the houses, it's dark and cold. We meet a local contact who takes us up to the road. We whisper our goodbyes and then we are out and free.
The local contact hails a car that seems to be heading towards Banda, when I am finally in the car I feel like I can relax. Even though I am filthy dirty, and exhausted, it feels wonderful to finally be back to civilization. The car stops several times and picks up more and more people along the way. Finally there are so many hanging onto the car it seems to be some kind of record. It rains a little and we drive very quickly through the night. I try to find a seatbelt, but forget about it. It's three am when we are finally in Banda Aceh. Jack picks me up on a motorcycle and takes me back to his house. There is no electricity and even more people have moved in with him. I can't take a shower, I have to sleep on the floor but it is nice to be back.
Sunday, Feb. 20, 2005, Banda Aceh, Sultan Hotel
I wake up early out of habit. There is still no electricity. Oki drives me to the only functioning hotel in Banda Aceh. At the Sultan Hotel they give me a deluxe room and it's totally filthy, but there is water and a bed, so I am in heaven. There is only one functioning lamp in the room, so it's a bit dark. I wash my pants and my shirt and then I call the agency. We agree that I should leave Banda as quickly as possible. After a nice, hot shower, I immediately fall asleep.
Monday, Feb. 21, 2005, Banda Aceh, Sultan Hotel.
I wake up at eight thirty, go downstairs for breakfast. No one knows that I am leaving and Oki is quite surprised when I call him to say goodbye. Oki is too busy to meet me so he sends a couple of friends to take me to the military airport. The plan had been to fly out with an international organization, but the only option I have is the Indonesia and Malaysian military flights. I am lucky and get a seat on a plane that is going to Medan. Standing in line, I see the Indonesian military searching bags. Shite what if they see the flak jacket and find out that some journo has been up to the mountains, and then I'm fucked. When it is my turn then I open my bag and shuffle my clothes around to hide the vest. Everything is fine and finally we take off from Banda Aceh. Along the way, the airplane starts coughing...and one of the motors dies and there is panic and I just have enough energy to think man I wish someone other than me had been able to see these photos. We are able to get to Medan with one broken engine, and I think to myself there can't fucking be anymore in store for me. Nothing else can fucking happen. The rest of the trip goes smoothly and I land in a paradise called Singapore.
© Martin von Krogh
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