Subject: FEER: Searching For Closure

Issue cover-dated March 8, 2001 Far Eastern Economic Review

Searching For Closure A New South Wales homicide detective reinforces traditional sleuthing with hi-tech measures to learn the fate of those missing in East Timor

By Stewart Taggart/SYDNEY

IN THE VIOLENCE following East Timor's independence vote in August 1999, several people reported seeing a Dili restaurateur and her daughter gunned down in their eatery, just two more victims of the lawless mayhem.

At the time, much of Dili was ablaze. East Timorese scaled the razor-wire fences of the Australian consulate--heedless of injury--as they sought refuge from marauding armed gangs. Others either fled to the hills or were herded by force on to trucks bound for West Timor. Many met a violent end. Now, a year and a half later, some semblance of civil order has been restored to East Timor. But thousands of people remain unaccounted for.

In the restaurateur's case, the story took an unusual turn. The woman and her daughter later surfaced in Australia--alive. They returned to East Timor, where they now live. Witnesses were simply mistaken about what happened at the restaurant, and to whom. The case shows the lingering confusion over the fate of many individuals during that traumatic time.

East Timor isn't alone. Finding displaced persons, identifying the dead and compiling evidence of war crimes is a massive challenge facing all citizenry struck by violent political upheavals. Around the world, international aid agencies such as the Red Cross are working to reunite families separated by armed conflict and to provide an accurate record of those killed. In East Timor, learning the fate of the missing has become a priority under the auspices of United Nations peacekeeping forces. In a relatively short period of time--and despite the odds--an investigation into the missing has begun, with a hi-tech twist.

Catholic charity Caritas Australia has teamed up with a New South Wales homicide detective to compile information for a missing-persons database. By adapting advanced computer software used for missing-persons cases in New South Wales and reinforcing it with traditional on-the-ground detective work in East Timor and the scientific advantages of DNA technology, they hope to close the book on at least some of the cases.

"Just the perception that someone in authority cares is of major psychological assistance to a population that's been severely traumatized," says John Scott Murphy, spokesman for Caritas. "Even though it may not lead to finding someone, the benefits of that will be a major leap forward in healing the wounds."

TOUGH ODDS Last year, Dana Wakeling, the homicide detective, spent four months in East Timor establishing a national "Missing Persons Unit" with funding from Caritas. She volunteered her services for the project after hearing of it from a New South Wales deputy coroner who had visited the island. The unit, which became fully operational in November, now has 48 entries--all unresolved. Over time, the database is expected to swell as it becomes better known throughout the country.

But it's up against daunting logistics. East Timor never has had a national identification system. It has never conducted a census. The country doesn't have a nationwide telephone system and there are very few computers, which hinders the spread of hard information and increases the emotive role of hearsay. What's more, the memories of many people reporting missing-persons cases are clouded by emotional trauma.

"Given the volume of what happened in such a short time, you can end up getting very disjointed stories from people," says Wakeling.

In the early days after a UN peacekeeping force arrived in East Timor in September 1999, a number of mass graves were discovered. At the time, investigators had few proper forensic crime-site tools. Little could be done beyond establishing atrocities had taken place. In most cases, the bodies were hastily reburied to avoid disease outbreaks.

Wakeling hopes some or all the bodies in these graves might one day be exhumed again, with the remains examined against missing-persons cases in the database. Clothing and possessions found with the bodies might provide initial clues as to their identity, which could then be checked against other information such as eyewitness accounts. These could then be backed up by DNA analysis as a final step.

In March, Wakeling plans to return to Dili with 1,000 DNA-testing kits to provide a scientific backstop to traditional detective work. DNA testing, which increasingly is being used worldwide for police investigations, can provide greater confidence of a positive identification once a case is established, she says.

In one specific case, the Timorese Missing Persons Unit has eyewitness reports of the disappearance of three brothers near where two bodies were later found. Wakeling and her colleagues hope DNA tests of the remains and of surviving relatives will resolve their identities, allowing a proper family burial.

The issue now for Caritas is whether it can find a laboratory willing to analyze the DNA tests cheaply. Costs vary widely-- they can run anywhere between $50 and $500 for a single test.

In the meantime, the Missing Persons Unit is struggling to make itself better known in East Timor. Its three officials are fanning out through East Timor to encourage local government administrators and village leaders to gather material to plug into the database. In early February, the unit received a major boost when Bishop Belo, the Catholic church's leading official in East Timor, endorsed its work and requested that all church officials in East Timor cooperate.

Using the Australian software, the Missing Persons Unit hopes its database will become a clearing house for information now collected on an ad-hoc basis by civil authorities, local priests, human-rights organizations and non-governmental aid agencies--most working independently of each other. For instance, many records of missing persons are kept by local Catholic priests. Others are collected by international agencies. Organizations like East Timor's current UN civilian police, or Civpol, concentrate on maintaining civil order and investigating crimes.

"There were some missing-persons records beforehand, but nothing kept in as systematic a way as it is now," says Luis Carrilho, a spokesman for Civpol in Dili. "It was always one of our goals to have something of this kind, but it wasn't possible due to a lack of resources."

Records that go into the Australian-developed database include all details about a missing person: height, weight, date of birth, place last seen, financial details, names of relatives and friends. They also can be organized to help establish patterns and potential linkages between cases, such as the number of people missing from a particular place during a particular time, the number of people missing for longer than a certain number of days, or the number of people missing in a particular age group.

TAKING ACTION Despite the programme's sophistication and the eagerness of Wakeling and her colleagues, the decision to pursue detective work further and to push for DNA tests and mass exhumations will be left to East Timorese authorities as they progressively take over governmental and police functions from the UN. Since September 1999, many longer-term governmental decisions have been delayed--or put off--by UN administrators fearful of overstepping their temporary mandate to run the country.

On August 30, East Timorese will go to the polls to select representatives for a new national government, marking the final stage in its journey toward independence from Indonesia. Once that occurs, East Timor's new government can make long-term decisions in a host of areas--including criminal justice. In the meantime, the Missing Persons Unit has resolved a few less serious cases of impetuous teenage runaways in Dili. That marks a start.


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