The Widow's Battalion
York Times Magazine
January 20, 2002, pp. 30-31.
For Indonesia, separatism is as much of a problem as radical Islam, and women have joined the fight.
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.)
joined the group two years ago at
16, ''to defend our country from the Indonesian colonialists.'' She took
part in a GAM ambush of an army truck. ''Everyone in the truck was
killed,'' she says, studying the flaking red varnish on her toenails.
''Fifteen of them.''
like many of the women, is not actually a widow. But most have lost family
members to the war, and since many are married to GAM rebels, the prospect
of widowhood is never far away. ''They killed my brother in front of my
own eyes,'' says Fatima, who at age 20 is younger than her well-polished
M-16. ''They took his body and threw it away somewhere. The hardest part
is that I have never found it.'' Fatima joined the widows' battalion in
the face of rapidly escalating abuses by Indonesian soldiers. ''They
terrorize us more often now,'' she says. ''They tell us Aceh will never be
independent. They tell us they will not let it happen."'