The day Ahmad Sajuli left his family, house, and country to wage jihad in Afghanistan is the day he will probably regret all his life, not just because he has to deal with financial hardship, but also because he has to face the stigma of being labelled a terrorist.
Joining a youth organisation in a mosque in Jakarta's Tanjung Priok back in 1984, Ahmad was introduced to the Indonesian Islamic State (NII), an organisation aimed at turning the country into an Islamic state under sharia law. He was then 20 years old and married.
A year after the recruitment, NII offered him a chance to go to Afghanistan, where a war had broken out between the Afghan Mujahideens and the former Soviet Union.
"I was a naïve and uncritical young man with limited knowledge. It was easy for them to indoctrinate me," the 48-year-old Ahmad told Khabar Southeast Asia. "I agreed to join the jihad because as a Muslim it is suggested to help other Muslims with their problems. It shows the brotherhood of Islam."
Leaving his family and country was a hard decision. He had to lie to his family, telling them that he went to Afghanistan for work.
As soon as he arrived there, Ahmad faced things he had never experienced before.
"I was sent into a military academy in a border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan for some time. There I was trained as a soldier and learned how to use guns, before joining the real war," Ahmad recalled.
"I called it the real meaning of jihad. We had a specific war zone, real enemies, and rules. I still remember how we had to walk for 10km to the war zone. It was prohibited for us to destroy anything we passed by, to steal, and of course to kill children and women, even animals," he added.
Today, Ahmad feels, the concept of jihad has been distorted by extremist groups who choose civilians as their targets. Even women and children are frequent victims of their acts.
"The definition of jihad here in Indonesia is going off track," he told Khabar. "They are probably taking, without examining it critically, Osama bin Laden's fatwa [purportedly] authorizing Muslims to kill Americans and their allies everywhere in the world."
"Indonesia is not a war zone. It is a peaceful country. Jihad is needed when the country is under attack from outsiders," Ahmad said.
The tough road home
Ahmad stayed in Afghanistan for three years, then moved to Malaysia where he stayed for 17 years and opened a fabric store. But he was deported in 2006, after the second Bali bombing, because he had joined Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the group responsible for the attacks. Although he says he was not personally involved, the Malaysian government confiscated all his money.
Today he lives in Depok, West Java, and sells kebabs and cookies to support his family. But he lives with the knowledge that many people suspect him of being a terrorist.
Ahmad said he and about 300 of his fellow ex-combatants are under a constant cloud of suspicion, and unfairly linked to almost every attack in the country. So he and his friends established the Ex-Afghanistan Combatants Communication Forum (Forum Komunikasi Eks-Afghanistan), which registered as an official public organisation in October.
The forum aims to help fight radicalisation and terrorism through public discussions and other efforts, and has been working with the National Counter Terrorism Agency (BNPT) to support its deradicalisation efforts, he said.
The BNPT has also been supporting the forum, psychologist Sarlito Wirawan Sarwono, an advisor to the agency, told Khabar.
"Part of our strategy for fighting radicalism and terrorism is inviting them to participate in our projects, giving them life skills, training, and giving them legal assistance to establish the forum as an official organisation for its members," he said.
Terrorism analyst Al Chaidar, a lecturer at Malikus Saleh University of Aceh, said Ahmad's group could be a very effective voice for deradicalisation, and hoped the government would seriously support it.
"The forum has a big influence on radical groups. I can say it is an effective way to fight radicalism and terrorism," he said.
A voice for peace
Ahmad is also looking for more support for the forum, since the government's budget is very small. In 2013, he is planning to open deradicalisation programmes to the public and radical groups, including the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) and Forum Betawi Rempug (FBR) – both known for their violent actions over the past few years.
"We hope both private and state companies can help us succeed with these programmes," Ahmad said.
Ahmad was amazed by how many people attended an August 14th anti-terrorism discussion sponsored by the forum together with the Police Science Research Centre of the University of Indonesia. The event took place in Jakarta's Manggarai subdistrict.
"They were all enthusiastic to learn more about it. One of the participants was a housewife, saying that she would never know about it had she not attended the discussion. She said she is now more aware of radicalisation that might threaten her family at any time," Ahmad said.