Selected postings from east-timor (reg.easttimor)

Subject: Independent: Trapped by Fear: E. Timor's Forgotten Refugees

The Independent [UK] Monday, June 14, 2004

Trapped by Fear: The Forgotten Refugees of East Timor

Five years after the violence that convulsed their homeland during the battle for independence, thousands of East Timorese are still too frightened to return.

By Kathy Marks

From the refugee camp of Sunkaer Laran, the mountains of East Timor are so close you can almost touch them. It is so close, and yet so far, for people gazing towards the border from their scruffy plywood huts in Indonesian West Timor.

The inhabitants of Sunkaer Laran, and other miserable camps like it, are the forgotten victims of the violence that convulsed East Timor after its independence vote in September 1999. When Indonesian soldiers and their East Timorese militias ran riot, slaughtering villagers and burning their houses, 250,000 people fled or were forced over the border. Nearly five years on, 30,000 remain in West Timor, unwilling - or too fearful - to return.

Some refugees, such as former members of the Indonesian bureaucracy, have made a pragmatic decision to stay. Others have been brainwashed by black propaganda about conditions in East Timor. And some dare not leave, after being threatened with dire consequences by the pro-Jakarta militias who still rule the border region.

East Timor wants the refug-ees and, officially at least, Indonesia also wants them to go home. But the efforts of refugee organisations are hampered by insecurity in West Timor and in any case, their encouraging words are no match for the menaces of the feared militia gangs still keen to stir trouble in the former Indonesian province.

The militia commanders and their supporters, who opposed independence in their homeland, live close to the border. Many are in the town of Atambua, where most of the refugee camps are clustered. International observers say their influence has waned, but that is not the experience of people in the camps. "They control everything," one elderly woman in Sunkaer Laran said. "They tell us what to do."

Agus Dos Santos, 29, lives in another camp, Rai Katar, by the Borluli River, in a hut made from palm branches and tarpaulin. A former farmer, he scrapes a living selling petrol and a locally brewed alcoholic drink, tuamutin, by the roadside. He has not seen his parents since 1999, but is scared to return to his home town of Liquica, in East Timor.

"We are small people and we do what we are told," he said. "We have been told to stay here. If we are told to go back, we will go, but not before then." Asked who was giving the orders, Mr Dos Santos frowned and stared at his hands.

Indonesia has disowned the former militias and tried to curb them, but not everyone follows the official line. A few weeks ago, in the border area, Indonesian TNI soldiers looked the other way when a carful of armed militiamen drove past. After one militia commander, Beny Ludji, was arrested in East Timor, soldiers sat down convivially with his comrades at the border and invited them to help man roadblocks, a blatant gesture of support by the TNI.

Such incidents do little to instil confidence in villagers on the other side. There have been intermittent militia raids into East Timor, and a red and white Indonesian flag was recently raised in the border town of Balibo. Three markets that operated in no-man's land have been closed since a man was shot dead last year while crossing the river into East Timor.

There, anxieties have been heightened by the withdrawal of the bulk of the United Nations peacekeepers stationed at the border since an international force restored order in 1999. As of last month, East Timor's fledgling police and armed forces have responsibility for security, and there are grave misgivings about their ability to cope.

People fear the militia gangs will take advantage of the departure of the troops and return to their homeland. Their fears, echoed by some of East Timor's leaders, were stoked when local TNI commanders reported a month ago that militia fighters were congregating near the border and stockpiling weapons.

Even in the capital, Dili, a three-hour bus ride from West Timor, people are jittery. "I'm afraid the militia will come over and attack East Timor," a hotel worker said. "They will make big trouble now that the UN has gone."

In Batugade, a dirt-poor town on the border, residents say the East Timorese police are too few and poorly armed. Some fear that Indonesia, which occupied the country for 25 years, might invade again. The village head, Sergio Soares Pereira, said: "On the other side, they have infantry with high-class equipment. When they look over here, they see that they can easily attack us."

Patricio Pereira, an elderly Batugade resident, said there had been spats between East Timorese border police and the Indonesian military. "If things continue this way, one day there will be big problems," he said. "We feel abandoned by the peacekeepers. If something happens, we can't protect ourselves, and no one is going to protect us."

Over the border from Batugade lies Atambua, home to an estimated 1,000 militia members, as well as their most influential leader, Francsico Soares. In Atambua, three workers for the UNHCR (UN High Commissioner for Refugees) were hacked to death by militiamen in 2000.

Mr Soares, sipping tea outside his spacious home in Atambua, scoffed at the notion his supporters were plotting to infiltrate East Timor. "We are good men now; not bad men any more," he said, with a hearty laugh. "All the militia people are retired. They are farmers now. If we were still active, the Indonesian military would crush us." He smashed a fist into his hand.

A leader of the East Timorese People's Front, an anti-independence group, Mr Soares - known as "Sico" - has close links with the Halilinta militia. Local militia leaders meet at his house every night. He said: "We have no guns, but if we wanted them, we could make them ourselves. Last time we made many weapons out of metal pipes."

He wants to go home, but only with a guarantee of immunity from prosecution. "East Timor is my country, and I don't forget it," he said. "I want reconciliation, but not justice. Justice is very difficult. The violence came about because of different political views. I am a political leader. If there was a massacre, I'm not to blame. If I kill you, it's my crime. My organisation can't be held responsible. But the UN wants to go after the organisations."

Some observers believe the militias are pinning their hopes on General Wiranto, the former Indonesian military commander who was in charge at the time of the 1999 bloodshed. General Wiranto, who has been indicted for war crimes by a UN-backed tribunal in Dili, is a candidate in presidential elections to be held in Indonesia on 5 July.

General Wiranto has been courting East Timor's President, Xanana Gusmao, who outraged many people by meeting his former foe in Bali recently. Mr Gusmao, who regards good relations with Indonesia as more important than seeking justice for victims of the atrocities, was accused of aiding the Wiranto campaign. On his return to Dili he was greeted at the airport by the first demonstration of his two-year presidency.

Refugee organisations say it is unclear how many East Timorese are being intimidated into staying in Indonesia. Some are former members of the Indonesian armed forces and civil service, who can draw pensions in West Timor and might face retribution if they returned to their villages. Others say they lost everything in 1999, including their families, and see no point in going home while the economic situation in East Timor remains poor.

They have been displaced for so long they have lost their refugee status and are now classed as Indonesian citizens. Half have been resettled in purpose-built communities, although conditions are scarcely better than in the camps. There is no electricity and little water; access roads are atrocious.

Those remaining in the camps have exchanged their tents for makeshift huts, but little else has changed. Sanitation is basic, and food shortages are common. Luis Vieira, head of the Dili mission of the International Organisation for Migration said: "The militias still retain influence in the camps, but so do organised criminal elements involved with the black market and smuggling. The militias are taking a wait-and-see attitude, now the peacekeepers are no longer responsible for security."

Stephane Jaquemet, the UNHCR's deputy regional representative, said: "It's a very difficult transition period, because there will be a security gap as a result of having a much reduced international force. So it's quite logical that some people would like to take advantage of that, but I think the militia threat is much diminished."

A diplomatic source in Dili said, however, that the East Timorese security forces were weak and the TNI was dismissive of them. But he pointed out that the 700 UN troops and civilians left behind in East Timor included a rapid-reaction force that would act as a deterrent.

"Will there be trouble?" he said. "Perhaps. Are there people on the other side of the border who bear this country ill-will? Probably. Will they try something? Maybe. Will it be like before? It remains to be seen. The history of this place, and the fragility and newness of the institutions, probably make people a bit more scared."

Meanwhile, families remain divided by the border. Refugees used to meet their relatives at the markets in no-man's land. Now people on both sides need passports and visas to cross the border, and few can afford it

In Sunkaer Laran, villagers have given refugees a patch of land. They grow corn and sweet potato, tending them with care. Looking over at the mountains that rise up so close, they joke, wistfully, that East Timor is really their back garden.


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