Billy, don't be a hero

by Mark Revington / 20 December, 2003
The only journalist to go behind rebel lines in Aceh emerges to describe Indonesia's brutal and confused military strategies.

Billy Nessen insists he's not mad. And he doesn't want to spend his life in war zones, either. But he says there's something about being shot at that puts a fine edge on life.

"It heightens the senses. You feel there's even more reason to be there. You feel like you're not dealing with the petty stuff. Life is extraordinary. It's like a narcotic," he says.

"The actual experience of being mortared or ambushed takes a little bit ... it's like withdrawal for a minute from your narcotic, it brings you back to something so basic, you're just terrified. Someone told me a long time ago that sometimes you handle it well and other times you don't and it's out of your control. Sometimes you feel like you've mastered or got used to the experience, but then it happens again and you're just as terrified as the first time."

Nessen is a tall, lean New Yorker and doesn't look like a gung-ho war correspondent. He doesn't look 46, either, his long sensitive face remarkably unlined for a man who spent six weeks with guerrillas from the Free Aceh Movement, or GAM, during Indonesia's "final offensive", which began in May.

The only time the strain shows during this interview is when he recalls a river ambush and tears spring up. The guerrillas were strung out across the river, he remembers. When the shooting started, he pounded up the hill towards the jungle, to be met by more hostile fire. The company commander, a 28-year-old named English, saved his life when he took the lead and veered around one side of the Indonesians. At one point, they came face to face with five Indonesian soldiers. Both sides were surprised. English fired first. The Indonesians were so close that Nessen could see the flashes from their gun barrels. Six guerrillas died. But they killed nine Indonesians.

Until then, the guerrillas had worn the confidence of those with the upper hand, says Nessen. Almost too confident. They controlled 80 percent of Aceh, and were supported by their people.

After the ambush, his group rested in a village and waited for stragglers (it's a myth that the war in Aceh is jungle warfare, he says. The guerrillas live in the villages). But just days later, their lookouts failed and the Indonesians surprised them again.

"I was washing my clothes in the market area," says Nessen. "I heard shots and wanted to go back to get my gear, but the guerrillas were running towards me." He was forced to leave the camera gear and run for his life, along with everyone else. That night, surrounded by Indonesian soldiers and sure he was going to die, he used a GAM commander's satellite phone to call his wife and say goodbye.

"I knew I was going to die. I put an arm around English. I had this feeling of extraordinary privilege. I remember saying to myself, 'I'm terrified, but this is where I want to be.'"

The next morning, though, the guerrillas were able to slip past the Indonesians in groups of 50 or so at a time, aided by the villagers.

Nessen is a freelance photojournalist whose work has regularly appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, the Boston Globe and the Sydney Morning Herald. He has been to Aceh six times since 2000, reporting on the 26-year civil war that has claimed at least 12,000 lives. Early this year, when it became obvious that the ceasefire declared in December 2002 was unravelling, he prepared to join the guerrillas. His motivation? To tell the truth. To report from the guerrillas' side. No one else seemed willing to do it, he says.

He knew from previous visits that GAM fighters had the advantage and he discovered that the Indonesian offensive was going badly. Reports of there being just a few guerrillas left to round up were false. None of the GAM company commanders had been killed, and the rebels seemed as strong as ever. However, the Indonesians had changed tactics and were driving villagers out of their homes in a bid to cut off guerrilla supply lines and support networks.

"They're trying to wait out the guerrillas, but they're getting more and more frustrated and they're now killing more and more civilians."

Indonesia fears the Aceh desire for independence, says Nessen, partly because Indonesia earns vast sums from the region's natural-gas fields and timber. But the Indonesians also have their domino theory. First, it was East Timor. If Aceh and Papua gain independence, many people fear that the nation of 230 million, spread across 13,000 islands, will disintegrate.

"And I think there's some shame. Aceh is seen as part of Indonesia and it's like embracing someone you call your brother, only for them to say they want nothing to do with you."

Nessen ignored repeated calls from the Indonesian Army to give himself up. He demanded guarantees. "My fear is of being shot, tortured, beaten and arrested and held indefinitely in a black hole," he told Australia's the Age newspaper.

What he didn't realise until he reached a village with electricity and saw himself on television was that he had become a worldwide cause célèbre. Journalist organisations around the globe had pressed the Indonesian and US governments to ensure his safety. So, too, had his family and thousands of US citizens.

"The American Embassy told me they had never had that much pressure before. Thousands of emails poured into the State Department in Washington."

Almost a week after losing his camera gear, Nessen was ready to surrender. "It's easy to forget the fear when you're taking pictures. When I didn't have my camera, it made it far more difficult to stay there. I got scared. You're just thinking about being killed and the danger, rather than looking for the right shot to show people what it was like. We feel somewhat invulnerable when we're working."

So he phoned Brigadier General Bambang Demarno, the Indonesian commander of operations in Aceh, and a veteran of East Timor. (Cellphones are everywhere in Aceh, says Nessen, who also phones GAM commanders, and one reason why it has been impossible to seal off the province.)

"He was pretty angry," says Nessen, who had spent time with the Indonesian Army and thought Bambang regarded him as an ally. "He called me a dog, which is the worst insult you can call someone in Indonesia. I was picked up by the military with all sorts of tanks and brought back to military headquarters. There were loads of journalists there and for the first time in my life I had a camera stuck in my face. I just smiled all the time, but at each stop on my road to jail there would be more and more cameras. The military then thought, 'Okay, we've had enough of this, let's get him out of here.' It's then that I thought I wasn't going to be in jail for a few years."

Nessen was convicted of passport offences and received a sentence of 40 days, the amount of time he had been locked up. He has since been banned from Indonesia for a year.

During a 24-hour stop-over in Jakarta, though, he was surprised to discover that he had become a media celebrity. "All life would stop when I entered a public place, and people would smile. I think I was the most famous person in Indonesia for a while. People would stop me and give me things. I even met some Indonesian legislators in Denver, Colorado, who wanted their photo taken with me."

He is working on a book and a film about his Aceh experience, adamant that he doesn't want to go back into the war zone. "No, really. I'm tired of guns. I'm thinking maybe ballet. I like the idea of pink tutus and slender Russian dancers."


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