TEMPO.CO, Jakarta - There are few signs to show that the civil war in Syria which began in 2011, will end any time soon. On October 2014, when the conflict was at its peak, Djoko Harjanto, 59, was posted to the Syrian capital of Damascus as Indonesia's extraordinary and plenipotentiary envoy.
One of Djoko's assignments is to continue the repatriation of Indonesian citizens trapped in Syria's conflict. He travelled to Aleppo, which recently became the defining battle zone between troops loyal to the government of Bashar al-Assad and opposition forces. In fact, Indonesia has the only running consular office in the war-torn city of Aleppo. As of February 2012, a total of 12,576 Indonesians have been sent home.
In the course of carrying out his assignment, Djoko, who has been a career foreign service officer since 1984, discovered a new problem: the increasing number of victims of human trafficking, who mostly end up as domestics in Syrian homes.
In 2012, out of 4,000 people repatriated, only one was a victim of trafficking. But the following year, the number jumped to 26, and last year, out of 235 people repatriated from Syria, 112 were victims of trafficking. "The legal ones may have left, while the illegal ones keep on increasing," Djoko in Damascus told Tempo reporters Mahardika Satria and Hadi Reza Maulana, in a 40-minute telephone interview. He shared his views about his experience in Syria so far, and about humanitarian aid from Indonesia which, unfortunately, may have ended in the hands of combatants. He described conditions at the Indonesian embassy in Damascus, run by personnel whose families are not allowed to join them and how it continues to function, despite the war. "The end of fighting in Aleppo does not mean the end of the war yet," said Djoko.
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How is the security situation in Damascus today?
The situation has been stable so far, with daily life and the local economy carrying on as usual. Markets and supermarkets are open for business, also the cafes and restaurants. There are six schools just outside the Indonesian Embassy compound in Damascus and they are all up and running, under no physical threat.
How do conditions compare with the time before the war broke out?
There are problems with electricity and water, whose consumption must be limited. Electricity usage follows a two-to-four-hour formula, i.e. there will be two hours of electricity followed by four hours of generator-supplied power. That's our daily routine.
Why is the embassy continuing to operate while half of 64 others in Damascus have closed down?
Because there are still many Indonesian citizens in Syria, about 2,600 of them, many of whom work in households. Most of them arrived before the war broke, about five years ago, but there has been no opportunity yet to send them all home. Our main task is to protect them, particularly since the embassy in Damascus is property owned by the Indonesian government, including the (ambassador's) residence. So, we are also protecting state assets.
What is the main function of the embassy today?
Because Syria has been in a war situation since 2011, based on the government's instructions, our main task right now is repatriation. The Indonesian government has declared the situation in Syria to be Alert 1 level. This is the most critical condition, in which all diplomats and staff are not allowed to bring their dependent families. Teachers who taught at the Damascus Indonesian School also had to be sent home. What remains now are just the diplomats and local staff. The embassy is staffed by 21 personnel, comprising six diplomats and 15 local staff. Outside, there are 24 university students and one high school student. According to the immigration office, there are 2,401 Indonesian citizens in Syria, most of whom work as domestics. But we know the numbers are close to 2,600 people, because some of them came in through illegal channels.
Where are they now?
They can be found in Damascus, Hama, Homs governorates and also in Aleppo, which has become a battle zone. But most are in Damascus. Many of them come from West Nusa Tenggara, West Java and Banten. They have not been able to go home because their employers have not paid them their salaries. Indonesian workers who have gone back are those who have been paid by their employers, or those whose employers fled to find refuge elsewhere without paying them.
How many have been sent back home?
Since the first repatriation on February 2012, the total number is 12,576 people, in 281 groups. Throughout 2012, we sent back 4,937 people. The following year, it was 4,947 and 1,701 in 2014. Then there were 606 people the following year. The latest batch was in 2016, when a group of 347 people flew home, some of them just this December. We will be repatriating more in January 2017.
What was your mission to Aleppo last June?
We are posted in a war zone. As chief envoy, I felt compelled to see for myself the condition of Indonesians still trapped in dangerous areas. We knew the risks we were taking. According to standard operating procedure, an ambassador who travels outside of Damascus must be escorted by security forces. I got that escort when we traveled to Lattakia, Tartus, Homs and other areas. But I don't know why, when we went to Aleppo, we did not get an escort unit. I came only with my staff and a driver.
Were you armed?
(Laughs) No. We are not soldiers. But we did inform the Syrian Foreign Ministry that I planned to go to Aleppo. My objective was to look at the condition of our consular office there, and to provide help to Indonesians working around the Aleppo area. The scope of work of our consular office extends all the way to eastern Syria, including Raqqa, which became the capital of the Islamic States of Iraq and Syria or ISIS. We hired a local staff, a lawyer to protect our domestic workers there. He had asked for money to rent a building, to pay for administrative fees and so forth, and I sent it to him. So, I had to come and see for myself where the money went. And that's how our office at Aleppo remains open. So, my trip to Aleppo was not a bravado thing.
Although admittedly, all through the 250 kilometer drive, my heart kept pounding continuously, because we passed troops on tanks, carrying mortar and other heavy weapons.
Were you able to meet Indonesians in Aleppo?
I met some of our citizens there, but not everyone. At the time of our visit, there were 11 domestic workers staying at the consulate office. We advised them on the repatriation process, how to get their salaries and so forth. Thankfully, all our domestic workers in Aleppo had not faced any major problems. Right now, there are still six of them seeking shelter in our consular office. Four of them will be escorted to Damsacus, to be repatriated with the next group this coming January. (*)
Read the full interview in this week's edition of Tempo English Magazine