Subject: SCMP: Bitter harvest as murder gangs strip fields of men
Date: Sat, 22 May 1999 10:13:37 -0400
From: "John M. Miller" <fbp@igc.apc.org>

Received from Joyo Indonesian News:

South China Morning Post Tuesday May 18 1999

East Timor

Bitter harvest as murder gangs strip fields of men

JENNY GRANT in Ermera

The ripe red coffee berries that hang from the tangled plantations in East Timor's premier coffee growing area of Ermera should be picked by now.

But it is only women, children and old men who are picking during the peak harvest season, slowly filling bamboo baskets slung over their shoulders.

In the villages of Ermera, 60km southwest of Dili, teenage boys and middle-aged men have fled higher up into the mountains to escape a military-backed militia operation that began last week.

The armed Red Dragon and Red and White Iron militias have turned their campaign of terror on coffee farmers, producers of East Timor's single most important cash crop.

Last week churches and administrative officials said militias and soldiers killed up to 20 people in plantations near the villages of Fatubolo, Lissapote and Massosae.

"They have a plan to kill all the pro-independence people in our area," said the wife of one local government official. "Our husbands have run up to the mountains to escape and everyone is too afraid to speak."

Locals believe the militias aim to disrupt the coffee harvest and erode the financial independence of farmers in East Timor's most affluent rural district, while terrorising villagers into voting for autonomy.

Ermera is the strongest pro-independence area in the western part of East Timor.

Young men are also being conscripted into the militias, which consist of poor coffee farmers, the unemployed and local thugs linked to the military.

"They want to expand the ranks of the paramilitaries before the United Nations arrives," said an Ermera government official who is in hiding in Dili.

The UN has no presence in this remote area.

Red banners strung up in the main towns proclaim that autonomy unites the Timorese and makes them happy.

One man near Fatubolo said he was rounded up by the militias for being a member of the clandestine opposition and he now has to report to the local military command every day.

In Fatubolo, where flame trees and yellow sunflowers ring a village of thatched houses, one resident presses a list of victims into my hand.

The list details five people who have been murdered in the past three days and four who are missing. The youngest of the dead is student Sebastian Soares, 17, who was shot by paramilitaries as he picked coffee to help his father.

Sebastian's family has gone to retrieve their son's body, the first people to enter the plantation where the massacre happened.

Locals ask me to leave the village because a truckload of paramilitaries is due - the first of regular nightly sweeps of the area.

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