Subject: East Timor faces challenges of nation-building

Daily Yomiuri Shimbun (Japan) August 2, 2000

East Timor faces challenges of nation-building

Yoshimi Nagamine, Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer

I recently visited East Timor, which chose independence from Indonesia in a referendum in August last year and has since been trying to create a country from scratch with the full support of the United Nations.

Nearly a year has passed since the outbreak of violence in the wake of the referendum.

The completion of emergency aid--such as food provision to residents, who effectively became refugees--by the U.N. Transitional Authority in East Timor (UNTAET) has finally marked the end of the first phase of U.N. assistance.

From now on, U.N. aid will place priority on reconstruction and development, including introducing legislation, setting up administrative organizations and improving infrastructure.

The central market of the East Timorese capital of Dili is a lively place, with hundreds of makeshift shops stocked with food and home appliances imported from Australia, Indonesia and other countries. Ethnic Chinese, who had fled East Timor, have returned and resumed their businesses.

The number of restaurants, of which there were only a few until half a year ago, has burgeoned to more than 30, and the signboards of fashionable shops such as hair salons and photo studios could also be seen. The scene indicated that new buds of vitality have burst forth in this southern Pacific island, which was once devastated by violence.

In reality, however, a host of problems are crying out for urgent solutions. Among them is the issue of the return of former militiamen who have stayed in the Indonesian territory of West Timor.

During the violent upheaval, 250,000 East Timorese fled to West Timor and became refugees. Of them, 160,000 have returned to East Timor.

Most of the remaining 90,000 are supporters of Indonesia, including many former leaders of the anti-independence militia that played a major role in the violence.

They must be well aware that they cannot go back to their villages and be welcomed with open arms by residents, regardless of the reasons why they joined the militia.

Likisia Province, which lies about 40 kilometers west of Dili and has a population of about 50,000, was one of the armed militia bases, and many residents were killed there.

Not surprising, residents still harbor a cold view of the militia.

When residents of a village learn of the likely return of militiamen, village elders and leaders gather and set up a "reconciliation committee" to decide whether they should allow the militiamen to settle in the village.

Even if the villagers allow the militiamen to live in their village, they must live in places designated by the elders and are obliged to work for free, rebuilding and cleaning up homes destroyed or damaged during the conflict.

Villagers tend to panic if a rumor surfaces that militiamen may have hidden themselves among residents who have returned from exile.

Villagers have been closely questioning returnees to root out concealed militiamen.

Ai Kihara, a Japanese national who, as a U.N. human rights official, has been advising local residents on various problems in the region, said that one returned militiaman was kicked to death by a group of villagers, and that four others were seriously injured in a knife attack.

Another problem which has recently emerged in many villages is that of women who became pregnant after being raped by militiamen during the conflict.

East Timor, which is a Catholic community, prohibits abortion. Villagers tend to give such women the cold shoulder.

Now that many of the rape victims have given birth, they seem to be in desperate straits as they live isolated from other villagers and have infants to care for.

The number of such victims is not small. In one village of 300, 10 such women gave birth all within the same short time span.

Maria Domingos, a representative of Communication Forum for East Timorese Women, a nongovernmental organization that is active in the protection of women's rights, said, "Women also fought for independence alongside the men. I want local communities to give aid to women who became rape victims in the confusion."

During almost half a century of Indonesian rule, many pro-independence women experienced hardship and fell victim to sexual violence at the hands of soldiers of the Indonesian Army.

In the mid-1990s, an underground organization disclosed photographs through the U.N. Human Rights Commission, showing East Timorese women being sexually tortured in various ways.

The photographs were so heinous that ordinary newspapers could not carry them.

"From now on, we have to construct a society without discrimination against women," Domingos said emphatically.

"To do so, women should express their opinions more actively and participate as core members of society in building a new nation," she said.

To address the situation, UNTAET has begun considering setting up a gender unit in its administrative governance division and appointing women to key posts.

Although East Timor will not be treading the primrose path to self-reliance, the focus will be on what roles women can take on in building their newborn nation.

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