Subject: CNN: Rising from the ashes: the story of an E Timor town

Rising from the ashes: the story of an E Timor town

December 7, 2001 Posted: 3:12 PM HKT (0712 GMT)

By Lucy Lee

BALIBO, East Timor (CNN) -- The transition to independence has not been easy for the East Timorese, many are only just starting to put the legacy of pain behind them. CNN follows the Australian peacekeepers who everyday see a scarred people trying to create a new society from what was previously a battleground.

Corporal Jason Branch recalls the day he arrived at the East Timorese border town of Balibo in September 1999.

"The place was empty. There were no locals. The only person we saw was a mad old lady. She was roaming the streets, talking to herself."

Three images repeat themselves each time a soldier from the Second Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment describes the Balibo he remembers.

The mad old lady. Silence. And burning houses.

The soldiers had come as part of the Australian-led international force, INTERFET and were amongst the first foreigners to set foot into the territory, after the violence that followed East Timor's vote for independence from Indonesia on 30 August 1999.

As pro-Jakarta militias laid waste to the land, thousands of East Timorese either fled, or were forced to abandon their homes.

Balibo, which lies on the border with West Timor, was an easy target.

Villagers recall how bands of angry militiamen rounded them up and herded them across the border, into squalid camps.

Those who could, escaped to the surrounding hills. Only the mad old lady remained -- bewildered, traumatized, and alone.

Six other battalions from the Australian army have come and gone since then.

Past scars remain

The men who now watch over Balibo have returned for a second time and two years on, the scars of the past remain.

Everywhere, there are charred houses, their paneless windows gaping at passers-by, yet there is a fundamental difference.

"The first time we were here, running into a local was an event. We would come back and report the matter to our superiors. Someone would be sent to investigate," says Captain David Good. "Now, there are Timorese people everywhere."

These are the people who have made their way home, emerging from hideouts in the hills and refugee camps across the border as the United Nations tried to breathe life into this shattered land.

They've since voted in East Timor's first democratic elections, stunning the world with a voter turnout of more than 90 percent, and are now awaiting the day they can declare their homeland truly independent.

'War zone'

Balibo today hangs somewhere between uncertainty and normalcy.

On the road, children laugh as they kick around a discarded tin can as they head to school.

Women, balancing the day's market fare on their heads, chatter to each other in street corners and farmers can be seen going off to the fields.

And juxtaposed against all that -- the roar of armored personnel carriers as they patrol the streets, laden with battle-clad soldiers.

"You'd think we're in a war zone," a colleague mutters.

This is not war, but in a very real sense, the Australian Battalion is keeping the peace.

The 1,057-member force is in charge of a now largely quiescent area of some 1,100 square kilometers.

The only serious potential threat comes from across a highly-porous border, where disgruntled militiamen and elements of the Indonesian army might easily stray.

"It's been rewarding for a soldier to come back here and see that peace and security has returned," says AUSBATT's second-in-command, Major Mick Reilly.

"But it is important to show the people, and those who may cause trouble that we are here."

Peacekeepers are popular

On patrol with the troops, we are amazed at the number of locals who run out to greet the soldiers.

A careless observer would think that in Balibo, a peacekeeper's day consists primarily of riding around in military vehicles, waving at the locals, and exchanging high-fives with kids.

These are popular men and it is no wonder they are well liked.

This is a town that has seen a lot of pain and two deserted houses in the middle of town bear witness to that.

Captain Good tells us the locals will never live in them, despite a shortage of proper accommodation in Balibo.

The first, a blue building, is remembered as the place where the "Balibo Five" lived before they were killed by invading Indonesian soldiers some 25 years ago.

The five Australia-based journalists perished as the soldiers took control of the town.

Indonesia claims they died in a cross fire, local witnesses say they were murdered.

Just across the road stands the "Kissing House", so called because the walls used to be caked with blood.

This was the Indonesian military's torture chamber and locals say victims were often pressed so hard against the wall that their lips and gums bled.

Community leader Alberto Amaral Fernandes says with East Timor's transition to independence, the people have started putting behind their legacy of pain.

"These past two years have been special for us. The peacekeepers are here, and there are no more problems along the border. During Indonesian times, TNI (the Indonesian military) used to be very suspicious of us. We were not free. No one dared to go out after dark," he says.

At dusk, we exchange greetings with a local woman and several farmers returning from the fields, the group lingers to talk for a while before slowly making their way home.

In the background, there is the rumble of tanks and as darkness envelops the town, the noise is harsh against the sound of laughing children.

But to the locals, it's a necessary inconvenience for them it means Balibo can now sleep, in peace.

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