Subject: Militia Mob Attacks British Journalist in W Timor Refugee Camp

also: More than 150,000 East Timorese begin fifth month in West Timor camps

Sunday Telegraph [London] 30 January 2000

'We were lucky to get out alive'

by Philip Sherwell

I came face to face with the brutality behind the terror in these refugee camps when, with Julian Simmonds, the photographer working with me, I was attacked by a screaming mob of militiamen who punched us, stoned us and beat us with wooden staves.

It was a horrifying experience, much worse than the air raids we have both experienced in the Balkans. There, our attackers were anonymous and distant; here, I was staring into the venom-filled eyes of my main assailant, a man in his forties with a dirty, greying beard and thick matted hair. He was wearing ragged shorts and a blue T-shirt and wielding a pole like a baseball bat.

The militiamen have a visceral hatred for all Westerners - the UN and the foreign media are regarded as white-dominated organisations that backed the independence movement. And in the camp at Noelbaki we became the target for that hatred.

Accompanied by two Indonesian army escorts and foreign aid workers, we first interviewed refugees about life inside the grim tin-roofed huts. But it was when I asked about a video being shown by the UN High Commisioner for Refugees, in which Bishop Carlos Belo of Dili urges refugees to return home, that the mood turned ugly.

One man started shouting abuse, then slipping away. Moments later he returned with two others. In the local language of Tetum, they shouted 'Bomba'. Only later did we learn its meaning ('attack') but it was already clear it was time to leave. I emerged from the hut to be confronted by the bearded man swinging a three-foot pole.

Separated from the others by a mob that quickly swelled to 40, I was forced to run away from our vehicles - and our escape route. I was trapped and I was terrified.

Blows landed on by back and neck. Then Julian and two - unarmed - Indonesian soldiers appeared. Some of the crowd turned on Julian. The presence of the soldiers may have prevented the attack from becoming more brutal.

At one stage, I slipped and fell in the mud.; a stone thudded against my leg as I hit the ground. It could have been much worse; a man near me picked up a large rock, but I stumbled to my feet before he could use it.

Finally, with the mob still chasing us, throwing punches and stones, we made our way back where the cars had been waiting - only to find that they had gone. The drivers had fled in terror. But it was also then that, inexplicably, the crowd started to disperse.

It would have taken only the smallest spark for the attack to turn truly savage; we were confronted by members of the same pro-Jakarta militias who had left much of East Timor in smoldering ruins and killed thousands of people, including a Financial Times journalist. Instead they settled for roughing us up, terrifying us and chasing us off.

We both thought we had escaped largely unscathed but it turned out that the adrenalin had prevent us from feeling the pain. By the time we were treated by doctors in Kupang, I found that I had bruising, swellings and cuts on my back, neck, arms and legs. Julian was also bruised on his back. At least, the X-rays revealed no broken bones.

'You are lucky to get out of there in one piece,' we were later told by Craig Saunders, the UNHCR chief in Kupang. 'It would have taken only one person to pull out a home-made pistol and...'

He left the rest unsaid.


More than 150,000 East Timorese begin 5th month in West Timor camps

KUPANG, Indonesia, Jan 30 (AFP) -

Five months after their flight from violence in East Timor, more than 150,000 people are still languishing in West Timorese camps where security is described as "fragile."

The number is about half of those who fled or were forced out of East Timor to the West as militias rampaged throughout the former Portuguese territory following its vote to break away from Indonesia.

"The security has improved in the last couple of months, but we have no illusion, it is very fragile," said Craig Sanders, head of the sub-office of the UN High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) in this main city in West Timor.

The volatile situation in the refugee camps was illustrated when two journalists of the British newspaper "The Sunday Telegraph" were attacked and beaten up by pro-Indonesian militia in Noelbaki camp near here on Thursday.

They were rescued after the intervention of a UNHCR team.

But the incident has forced the UNHCR to suspend its operations in the camp and pull out its personnel for three days.

"We are skating on very thin ice -- you cannot make a mistake," said Sanders, who has been operating in Kupang since the begining of refugee repatriation efforts in October.

"At the time, what we were doing was extraction. We were literally between the IDPs (internally displaced persons) begging us to take them and the militias threatening us.

"We are not doing that anymore regularly, but periodically it still happens."

More than 133,000 people have returned to East Timor since the repatriation operation began in October, about 70 percent of them under the supervision of the UNHCR and the rest on their own.

Sanders said the agency believes about 50,000 of the remaining refugees, or about 10,000 families, have no intention to return home and are seeking resettlement in Indonesia.

They are mostly members of the military or police, and some civil servants and their families.

Another 50,000, he said, were willing to return as soon as possible but did not because of direct or indirect intimidation by the militias which still control the camps, while an equal number of people were still uncertain and indecisive about whether they wanted to return home.

Like many of his colleagues in Dili, Sanders thinks some refugees had the option to return home and plant corn, the staple food in Timor, but they preferred to wait for the results of the harvest in March.

Good weather is expected to bring a bountiful corn harvest.

The leaders of the pro-Indonesia militias, who continue to reject peace offers from the independence movement, have been hindering the return of the refugees.

The move, many said, justified their stand and gave them a bargaining chip to pressure both Jakarta and the international community.

Cancio Carvalho, the head of the Mahidi militias, one of the bloodiest among the more than 13 militia groups that had been active in East Timor, openly threatened in January that he could easily release a horde of his followers in Kupang.

The presence of the tens of thousands of refugees in West Timor, has also posed an additional burden to a region which is already one of the poorest in Indonesia.

Jealousy has also arisen, prompted by the shower of foreign aid and assistance for the refugees while the poor surrounding local population have been ignored.

Provocateurs have also been periodically blamed for inciting animosity between the two communities, fanning discord by emphasizing differences.

The sectarian clashes in the Malukus and on Lombok island have already too clearly shown that with a weak or even paralyzed central authority, not much is needed to spark an avalanche of violence in Indonesia.


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