Subject: Oecussi Refugees Tell of Lost Paradise

The Australian 28 October 99

Refugees tell of lost paradise

>From SIMON PRISTEL in Oecussi

SHELTERING in church grounds guarded by Australian Special Forces, refugees in the East Timorese enclave of Oecussi told yesterday of the reign of terror that had destroyed their paradise by the sea.

The bodies of three men were found lying in a rice paddy amid reports that other victims of militia violence had been dumped in wells.

"They macheted them ... cut off their heads," said Juakin Asqueli, 19, who found the bodies in the paddy.

Even last week, while Interfet was defending its decision to delay sending troops into the isolated region, three East Timorese were allegedly shot while running from their village.

Locals have begun compiling a list of friends and family who have been killed, listing dates, places, witnesses and how they died, either macheted or shot. So far, the list contains 34 names.

Only when international troops landed in the landlocked enclave last Friday, as part of Operation Respite, did most of the militia flee.

But the more than 3000 people who have returned from the steep hills surrounding the coastal town still fear militia attacks.

While they feel safe to walk around their destroyed town during the day, at night they take refuge in the church, where Australian Special Air Service troops protect them.

Huddling beneath bright pink bougainvillea growing next to the church, the refugees said yesterday the terror campaign began on August 27 – three days before the independence ballot. It started when an anti-independence militiamen attacked the political offices of the National Resistance Council of East Timor (CNRT).

After the overwhelming independence vote was announced, the armed militia invaded the town. The local population was driven into refugee camps in West Timor. The lucky ones escaped and fled into the hills. The militia then set fire to the houses – every house.

>From a circling Australian Black Hawk helicopter yesterday, the destruction to Oecussi town was overwhelming – often, all that is left of homes is a black ring of ash and the bent skeletons of steel bed frames. Only the church has survived unscathed.

Lieutenant David McCammon, 23, of Melbourne, said Oecussi was a ghost town when he arrived last week.

"I was quite shocked by the devastation, and it is the same throughout the enclave. The militia obviously had a bit of extra time here than they had in Dili to destroy everything," Lieutenant McCammon said.

"It is amazing to think people go and do that sort of destruction, particularly in such a beautiful place."

When the Australian troops went up to the hills with some East Timorese independence leaders this week, people came running out from everywhere.

"They were happy to see us, waving and kissing our hands," said Lieutenant McCammon.

About 40 militia were arrested the day Interfet arrived, and local East Timorese captured two more suspected militiamen yesterday.

The thousands of people who fled into the forests, where they survived for two months eating fruit and anything else they could find, are slowly returning.

It is estimated that half of the enclave's population of about 50,000 are still in West Timor. Interfet believes militia are still stopping them from coming home.

On the steps of the church yesterday, Ambrozio, 30, examined a list of dead that included his elder brother.

"Our family was terrorised ... (the militia) forced most of us to go to the refugee camp where my sister was taken and raped," Ambrozio said.

Interfet has been busy securing the township and distributing food and cooking utensils and treating illnesses.

At the former market, where someone has scrawled "no fear Indonesia – now back to 1975" on the scorched walls, dozens of people lined up yesterday seeking treatment for wounds and minor ailments.

Aid groups are expected to land in Oecussi either today or tomorrow, with increased supplies of food or medicine.

Major Andrew Plant said that with only 350 troops in the enclave, "it'll be some time before we are able to establish a permanent presence" outside the Oecussi township.

"This was once a beautiful place before it was destroyed – but it will be beautiful again one day," Major Plant said.


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