High hopes in Aceh

Acehnese want decent housing, help for the poor and a permanent end to violence.

    Muharam Idris has spent much of his life in the jungle, fighting for Aceh's independence from Indonesia.
    Acehnese are hoping the elected officials
    will lift the province out of poverty and conflict
    On Monday, the 31-year-old former commander in the Free Aceh Movement was among 400 voters who went to the polls in Lumpuuk, a fishing village south of Banda Aceh.
    "Whoever will be the next governor of Aceh, we will support him if he's the real choice of the people," Muharam told Al Jazeera.
    About 2.6 million of Aceh's population of more than 4 million registered to vote in the election for a provincial governor, his deputy and other local leaders.
    Their expectations are high, but simple: decent housing, help for those in poverty and a permanent end to violence.
    Lihawa, one of the first women to vote in Lumpuuk, said: "The new governor should pay attention to the poor people who are still living in bad conditions."
    She still does not have a permanent home. The village was devastated in the 2004 Asia tsunami and is slowly being rebuilt with the help of international NGOs such as the Turkish Red Cross.
    Even as the villagers cast their votes, construction workers continued to lay the foundations for a new school and renovate the nearby mosque.
    The elections are the cornerstone of an August 2005 peace agreement between the Indonesian government and rebels from the Free Aceh Movement, which started its struggle for independence in 1976.
    "The new governor should pay attention to the poor people who are still living in bad conditions"
    The December 26, 2004 tsunami, which left some 170,000 people in Aceh dead or missing, helped bring the warring parties to the negotiating table.
    It also brought many Acehnese back to their homeland. Muhammad Subhan was studying for a doctorate at Malaysia's International Islamic University when the tsunami hit.
    He immediately rushed back to Aceh to find 18 members of his family, including an uncle and a nephew, dead. Now 33, he is optimistic about Aceh's future and ready to return to Malaysia to resume his studies. But he first made sure he was at his local polling station at 8am when voting started.
    "This election is very important," he said. "It's the first election where the people of Aceh can choose directly their own leaders. After such a long war and the tsunami, it will help keep the peace and reconstruction going and avoid a return to conflict.''

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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