Subject: Suffer the children caught in Timor crossfire

Suffer the children caught in Timor crossfire

08/24/2007 07:06:38 PM EDT


THIS MOUNTAIN town in Timor's eastern highlands has known its share of horrors and in recent weeks bad times returned with a wave of violent demonstrations and the alleged rape of an 11-year-old girl which some assert was a political crime. In the 1970s, hordes of starving civilians streamed down the slopes of towering Matebian mountain to surrender to the Indonesian army here, and in the 1980s residents backing guerrilla resisters were often arrested and tortured. Wall paintings depicting legendary commanders recall this proud heritage today.

This month, a small faction of pro-Fretilin party extremists held the town hostage for a week after President Jose Ramos Horta nominated the CNRT (National Resistance Council of East Timor) party of Xanana Gusmao to lead a coalition government. Although most-voted, Fretilin had failed to win a parliamentary majority in the June elections.

As the protests by about 40 machete- wielding, rock-throwing demonstrators intensified between August 6-10, so did the terror gripping townsfolk, many themselves Fretilin voters. Local police considered sympathetic to the rioters looked on. CNRT official Antonio Ramos was among the first to flee, following an aborted arson attack on his headquarters in which a guard was injured. ''Police did nothing, although the demonstrators were clearly committing crimes,'' he said. UN security forces at the time were focusing on another outburst of fanaticism at Viqueque, further south, where 323 houses were torched and 4000 villagers fled to the mountains, according to UN deputy chief Eric Tan.

The term 'fanatic' had even become a badge of pride for rural followers of Fretilin leader Mari Alkatiri. A bus bought by the Baguia faithful to ferry delegates to last year's party congress was emblazoned with the name 'Fanatik'. During the congress, UN head Atul Khare repeatedly but vainly asked Mr Alkatiri for a strong statement denouncing violence.

By night, rocks were thrown on the roofs of targeted buildings, the usual warning of an impending attack in East Timor. These included the Catholic orphanage, housing some 45 children from the age of six to their early teens. It is run by the Salesian order and supported by Australian priest Father Chris Riley's Youth Off the Streets project. Fretilin has been at odds with the Catholic church since its 2004 demonstrations against the Alkatiri government, denounced as a 'dictatorship'. Orphanage director Jojo San Juan is not resident full-time because he serves other mountain towns, involving long, hard travel, so the children are cared for by young workers, apart from an adult couple who live in an adjoining house.

By the night of August 9, the children were extremely fearful, as rioters' aggression grew. The streets were ablaze with burning tyres and threats escalated. The orphanage had even been pelted with rocks by day, an incident involving a 16 year old who had been in the demonstration from the beginning and led it that day, carrying the Fretilin flag. Son of poor parents, he lived in the orphanage for three months in 2004, until they were asked to remove him for disruptive behaviour.

By early evening, the danger of an attack or arson attempt was such that Carlotta, one of the two live-in assistants, took eight girls to sleep at her nearby home. The danger had heightened the previous day, after a church official requested demonstration leaders to suspend activities on August 10 so the town market could be held. They responded with menaces.

''I think the church was under threat from then on.'' the church official said.

Seven girls aged six to 13 remained in the female dormitory. To quell fears they slept together in twos or threes. Like most Timorese villages, Baguia only has electricity for a few hours before midnight.

Assistant Juliana Pereira, 23, has her own bedroom within the dormitory, with louvre windows facing the street.

By 10pm the girls were in bed with lights out when someone tried to force the doors. The intruder failed, but remained on the veranda. Two girls peeped out and recognised the 16-year-old boy who left after a while.

Around midnight someone banged on Juliana's windows, and then poked a hand through the louvres, retreating after she yelled. She then slept and heard nothing of the following events.

One of two traumatised 13 year olds who were present said that at 2am the doors were kicked in by a machete-wielding youth shouting ''I'll kill you all!'' striking the weapon repeatedly on the bedposts. He moved to the bed nearest the door and attacked an 11-year-old girl. Another girl who witnessed the attack said the youth had demanded to know whether his victim was ''Fretilin or CNRT'' and when she replied ''Fretilin'' he tore her clothes off and raped her.

Two girls who saw the face of the attacker illuminated by torchlight identified him as the 16-year-old. When Juliana recalls the attack, her eyes brim with tears. ''Nobody came to help us, nobody'' she repeats incredulously. At dawn, they walked to the police station to report the crime. The 16-year-old was later identified walking in the street and arrested. Because there are no local facilities to detain minors, he was released. UN police spokesperson Monica Rodrigues said on 22 August that investigations were continuing, with the suspect bound to ''weekly presentations to Baguia police until trial occurs''. She added that Pradet, a non- government organisation (NGO) supporting trauma survivors, would provide psychological support to the victim.

First press reports quoted lurid exaggerations by priests with second-hand information, tending to discredit the story. Scores of Fretilin supporters had invaded the orphanage, they claimed, and nine girls had been raped. Fretilin leaders denounced claims of the party's involvement as a ''bare-faced press campaign to discredit Fretilin''. It condemned ''an act of abuse'' in Baguia as ''a hideous act of an exclusively criminal nature perpetrated by a 16-year-old youth who had previously lived in the orphanage. It had no relationship with Fretilin actions in Baguia''. None of the priests who made statements had been on the scene. Called by Juliana, Father Jojo raced to the orphanage and pieced together a first-hand account, presented in writing to Baucau bishop Basilio Nascimento.

Baguia continues without permanent UN police protection as citizens report ongoing threats, although extremists quietened nationwide after a decision last week by Mr Alkatiri that Fretilin would end a parliamentary boycott.

Australian Kirsty Sword's Alola Foundation expressed early support for the distressed children, donating a generator for 24-hour lighting, and last week ADF soldiers provided a two-day friendly security presence, much of it spent in street games with local kids.

The child whose story is doubted is a typical Timorese stick-figure of a little girl. More than 60 Dili NGOs including UNICEF have called on politicians to stop involving children in violence. The girl's quest for justice will be watched closely, as a symbol of East Timor's most vulnerable: a child, female, and not a politician or soldier.

Back to August menu
World Leaders Contact List
Main Postings Menu