BANDA ACEH, Aceh — On a lonely stretch of road in the midst of a distant war, Joy Lee Sadler, a 57-year-old nurse from Iowa, did what she has done all her life.

“I did what I had to: I slugged the Indonesian commander in the face,” she said last week from police headquarters in Banda Aceh, the capital city of Aceh province, where she’s been held for the past three months. “I’m a peacemaker — help and heal — but you mess with my friend and you’ll find a tiger.”

Her friend, this time, and traveling companion through this long-rebellious province was Lesley McCulloch, a combative 40-year-old Scottish-born Australian academic and well-known critic of Indonesian rule here.

They’ve become cellmates, too, sleeping side-by-side on mattresses set on the floor of a large windowless office. They are charged with violating their tourist visas by meeting with independence guerrillas, McCulloch doing research and Sadler ministering to the sick and wounded.

“The Indonesians have victimized the people here,” Sadler said, “And victimized them again by denying them my help.”

But she is not the quitting type. Unbeknown even to McCulloch, who has gotten all the press, Sadler has a lifelong history of taking a stand.

“I believe in equality for all, and I’m prejudiced against ignorance and hypocrisy,” she said.

“Joy is the hero of this A-team,” insisted McCulloch. Despite advice from American and Indonesian officials, Sadler has repeatedly refused to leave McCulloch on her own, insisting their initially separate cases be tried together and turning down a cozier house arrest.

“Joy told me, ‘I miss my grandchildren and I didn’t come here to waste away in an Indonesian jail, but we came to the party together and we’re going to leave it together,’ ” said McCulloch.

Indonesian soldiers had ordered Sadler, McCulloch and their Acehnese guide out of a minibus 360 km south of the capital in an area rarely visited by outsiders. Someone had tipped off the authorities. McCulloch, who left her lecturing post at the University of Tasmania in southern Australia to live in Aceh, wouldn’t budge. In her bag were a computer full of her articles and research on illegal military business in the province and a digital camera with photos of Sadler tending to refugees and sheltering with the guerrillas. Sadler had stuffed victims’ statements into her bra.

Fuming at McCulloch’s refusal, the Indonesian commander tried to grab her bag and perhaps accidentally struck her in the neck. Angered, Sadler hit him. The commander responded by slugging Sadler in the mouth, splitting open her lower gum, and punched her in the stomach three times.

“I lost my lunch,” Sadler said, laughing, but then shut her eyes and leaned back with a grimace, hand to her stomach.

Sadler, who began a hunger strike Nov. 28 to protest three further weeks of delay after only two days of trial, is herself ill. Diagnosed as HIV-positive in 1997, Sadler has lost 12 kg in jail and suffers from constant diarrhea, bouts of tearful depression and growing lethargy. The U.S. Embassy, which supplies her with HIV medicines, urged her to eat again. So have McCulloch and Indonesian policemen, who keep her stocked with bottled water.

“I could have been gone two months ago, but she was scared to death,” Sadler whispered when McCulloch left the room. “They clearly had it out for her and they couldn’t disappear us both.”

For the first four days, back in mid-September, it looked as if the notorious mobile police, who held guns to their captives’ heads and denied they had the pair, might do just that.

“They had pure hate on their faces,” Sadler recalled.

Far away in Geneva on Dec. 9, the Indonesian government and the armed Aceh Free Movement (GAM) signed a milestone ceasefire. Yet the central issue of independence remains unresolved. Indonesia, widely criticized for decades of gross human rights violations, believes Aceh’s exit would begin the breakup of this 50-year-old archipelago nation-state.

At first glance, Sadler seems an unlikely hero. News reports about her — and the activist American advocates in her behalf — depict Sadler as a victim of an evil system. Her painted nails and subdued demeanor hardly suggest defiance. Her jailers call her mummy, seek her advice about their love lives and bring children to visit her.

Brought up in a conservative, well-to-do family in Los Angeles, Sadler rebelled early and never looked back. She joined freedom rides for black equality in the early 1960s that landed her in an Arkansas jail. Sadler says she was the “only white in the black student union” at UCLA.

She entered medical school to aid America’s urban poor. After she married a black man, her family cut the purse strings and she was forced to drop out.

Sadler and her husband had two children of their own and during the next several years adopted seven more of all races, mostly children of drug addicts. She and her husband divorced in the mid-1970s and Sadler moved to Waterloo, Iowa, to look after her ailing grandmother.

In 1999, an Iowa doctor asked Sadler, by then a nurse, but just recovering from AIDS-related pneumonia, to accompany him to another Asian conflict zone.

When asked whether she went, Sadler responded in slang: “I have AIDS, AIDS don’t have me.”

Aceh, where 1,700 civilians were killed or “disappeared” this year by Indonesian security forces and where people displaced by the conflict lack medical care, was a logical next step.

Now policemen call on Sadler to treat prisoners, including suspected guerrillas, whom they batter with truncheons. Her jailers take her to the pharmacy, and she writes prescriptions for detainees dragged bleeding back to their cells past Sadler and McCulloch’s open door. On one occasion, Sadler strode into the middle of a loud and bloody interrogation session down the hall, grabbed the policeman’s arm and shamed him into walking away.

“Unlike me, she separates the person from the job they are doing,” said McCulloch. “Joy even helps people who have treated her very badly.”

Sadler, who says she hocked her house to buy medicines for the months she planned to spend working here, intends to come back as soon as she is allowed. She doesn’t know where the money will come from, though, nor what the state of her health might be or how she will be treated on her return. She also worries about a deadly crackdown on a re-emerging referendum movement and for the humanitarian aid workers like herself who will have to pick up the pieces.

But she’s unwilling to cave in to her fears.

“The worst they can do is take my life from me,” says Sadler. “They can’t take my thoughts, my convictions or my lust for what is right. They can only stop my heart from beating.”

Sadler and McCulloch return to the courtroom Thursday; observers expect them to be deported and banned for at least a year after the trial concludes.

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