"The outside world knows very little about Aceh's rich past.. mainly because of the decades of fighting."
Today the people of the Indonesian province of Aceh go to the polls in historic local elections. It's a democratic breakthrough that follows the signing of a peace agreement last year between separatist rebels and the Indonesian government ending almost 30 years of bloodshed.
Aceh has endured a tumultuous history, with the separatist conflict which ended last year just the latest in a long line of violent upheavals. As a correspondent, I visited Aceh at the height of some of the worst fighting and saw the the terrible results of war. There are no winners.. but at least something positive is now happening in the form of elections. Ironically it took the worst of natural disasters to shape this latest chapter in Aceh's history - the peace accord which paved the way for the polls was spurred by the December 26, 2004 tsunami, which killed an estimated 169,000 people in the province.
ABC Cameraman Dave Anderson (left) and myself during a visit to Aceh's grand mosque in the capital Banda Aceh, 2000.
The outside world knows very little about Aceh's rich past.. mainly because of the decades of fighting. Journalists were either banned or restricted from entering Aceh for long periods of time. I was lucky enough to visit Aceh on many occasions soon after President Suharto was toppled in 1998. I met with rebel guerillas and civic leaders who were instrumental in shaping the events now going on. I have written about some of these exciting trips and close encounters in my book Running Amok
Shut your eyes and think of Aceh.. if it's a complete blank here are some facts courtesy of AFP:
POPULATION: About 4.5 million (before tsunami)
GEOGRAPHY: Aceh stretches over 55,390 square kilometers (21,390 square miles) on the westernmost tip of Sumatra island.
CAPITAL: Banda Aceh.
LANGUAGE: Indonesian, Acehnese.
RELIGION: Muslim (97.6 percent), Christian (1.7 percent), Hindu (0.08 percent), Buddhist (0.55 percent).
ECONOMY: Coconuts, coffee, timber, tobacco, oil and natural gas.
HISTORY: In the 16th century Aceh was an important trading center and seat of Islamic learning. Its power began to decline over the next century, but it remained independent of the Dutch who dominated the rest of the Indonesian archipelago.
In 1873 the Netherlands declared war on Aceh after negotiating a treaty in which Britain withdrew any objections to their occupation of the region.
The first Dutch force of 7,000 retreated when its commander, General Kohler, was killed. A new army contingent, twice as large, succeeded in taking the capital, the central mosque and the sultan's palace but the war dragged on for 35 years before the last sultan, Tuanku Muhammad Daud, surrendered.
Even then no Dutch area was safe from guerrilla attack from the Acehnese until the Dutch surrendered to Japan in 1942.
The Japanese were welcomed at first but resistance soon sprang up. This period saw the Islamic Party, which had been formed in 1939 under the leadership of Daud Beureuh, emerge as a political force.
With the proclamation of the Indonesian republic in 1945, Aceh was given special territory status but in 1951 Jakarta dissolved the province and incorporated it into the mainly Christian province of North Sumatra.
Angry at the move, Beureuh proclaimed Aceh an independent Islamic Republic in September 1953.
This lasted until 1961 when military and religious leaders fell out. The central government resolved the conflict by returning the status of special province to Aceh.
In 1976 a separatist group, the Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (Free Aceh Movement) was established to fight for an independent Islamic state.
Aceh was declared a military operation area in 1988 and Indonesian troops were deployed to quash the separatist movement. Soldiers have since been accused by human rights groups of widespread violations.
Operations were stepped up in May 2003 after the collapse of a brief truce prompted the government to impose 12 months of martial law.
The Indian Ocean tsunami disaster on December 26, 2004 devastated the region, killing an estimated 169,000 people, destroying entire towns and pulverising its infrastructure and industry.
The catastrophe however encouraged both the rebels and the government to return to the negotiating table and in August 2005 they signed a peace deal in Helsinki.
The accord paved the way for Monday's elections, the first in Indonesia to allow the participation of candidates without links to Jakarta-based political parties.