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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

A Test for the Best

Kopassus recruits' season of hell


AS IN ALL THINGS, Kopassus does not fool around. On an island off southwest Java, Indonesia's special forces are putting on a fiery show for their families and military commander, Maj.-Gen. Prabowo Subianto. Artillery rounds rock the beach and tracer fire rents the pre-dawn sky. The soldiers look shell-shocked -- because they practically are. The young men have just survived a training period that must rank as one of the most grueling on earth.

How does one join these elite fighters? The clincher to the nine-month initiation program is a season in hell: a 380-km march across mountains carrying only a little rice, salt and basic rations. That is followed by a short swim to Nusakambangan island, only to be captured and jailed. Then compulsory escape and a week of trying to remain uncaptured until the pre-dawn rendezvous and graduation ceremony on the beach.

Small wonder many of the initiates look half-dead. Recapture only hours from the finish means disqualification. In the past, the rules were even tougher: if you failed to complete the course, you could not try again. Now, if the failure was caused by bad luck, such as a broken leg, you get a second chance. When Prabowo earned his Kopassus badge in 1980, 50% of the class did not make it.

Why do young troopers go through with it? "It's a question of esprit de corps, a special mystique," says Prabowo. "There's very little extra money in it." But the red beret of Kopassus is a sign to anyone anywhere in Indonesia that the wearer is someone special, an expert in hand-to-hand fighting, small-boat work, explosives, the works. For the officers, there are extra perks, such as Jeep Cherokees and Pajeros instead of army-version Land Rovers; or fancy hotels rather than rough-and-ready barracks.

There is also the brief moment of post-admission glory and camaraderie. The new recruits stand at attention as Prabowo commences the process of ordination into the corps, marked by the issue of the special beret to each man. Breakfast boxes are the first real meals they have had for weeks. Enlivened by the food and their success, the beach becomes a party zone as Prabowo and his commanders lead the men in dancing to Indonesia's unique Arab-influenced dangdut music. As the commander prepares to leave, the recruits rush to form a corridor across the beach, with their boss slapping their shoulders as he marches through.

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