Subject: JP: Fertile transmigrant farms turn to dust

The Jakarta Post June 10, 2002

Fertile transmigrant farms turn to dust

The Jakarta Post, Maliana, East Timor

The Balinese farmers who were once settled in Tunubibi, East Timor, would probably faint if they had the chance of visiting the land that used to be theirs.

The one-time transmigration site, which covers a fertile area of 1,000 hectares in Tunubibi, a village four kilometers north of Maliana near the border with West Timor, has now been all but abandoned.

Ruins of transmigrants' houses devastated in the 1999 campaign of terror following the referendum that gave East Timor independence are a reminder of the tragic ending of the great undertaking to lift people from poverty and to build a strong multiethnic nation.

The site is strategically located on a highway where UN peacekeeping forces from Japan are stationed in the south and those from Australia in the north. The troops make themselves more useful by building and upgrading roads.

Lining one side of the street are small wooden houses built near the ruins of the destroyed houses. The occupants are locals who were resettled there from the neighboring districts of Bobonaro, Balibo and Maliana.

Unlike the Balinese, who fled their homes for their dear lives, the locals managed to come out of hiding when security and order had been restored.

The locals and Balinese, 50 families each, were moved to the area in 1982. Each family was entitled to one hectare of irrigated land to the west of the road and another hectare of non-irrigated land on the northern side.

"It was a success story at first," recalled village chief Abilio Martin, pointing to the irrigated ricefields.

"The Balinese could harvest rice twice a year. But now, farming depends solely on when the rain falls because the irrigation dam built in 1983 has burst and the government has no money to rebuild it," he said.

The land on both sides of the road has turned into a vast arid patch of scrubland, which is turning reddish now that the dry season has set in.

In the former resettlers' housing complex is a disheartening view.

Houses have been reduced to heaps of rubble. Even a pura (minor Hindu temple) Surya Arcana Lingga that Bobonaro regent Guilherme dos Santos opened on Oct. 9, 1995 was also targeted. Its stone structure remains intact but its wooden parts have been looted.

Next to the temple is a burned out Protestant church, while a Catholic chapel nearby has been renovated and is back in service.

"Rioters burned down Balinese houses and property on Sept. 4 when everybody in the village had gone into hiding," said Martins. "The Balinese fled across the border and we locals went up to the mountain."

Four hamlets in the area were totally destroyed, he said. "The rioters, who came in large numbers also looted and ran away with cows, chickens and anything they could carry."

A trail of murder was found in the complex. Two graves of local proindependence resettlers were found deep in the transmigration complex. The farmers had been murdered by the Indonesian military-backed militia.

Local resettlers can't stop recounting the days when the Balinese, nationally recognized for their farming skills, spearheaded modern agriculture in the area. Then, the irrigated land could produce as much as 80 quintals of unhusked rice per hectare. The irrigation system allowed two harvests a year.

Now, the locals who have less knowhow in modern farming live a poor life on the arid, unirrigated land. They grow tubers, corn and fruit, such as mangoes, bananas and rambutan.

"We cannot grow anything until December when there will at last be enough rainfall to plant crops," said 72-year-old Joao Pareira Lopes, a local transmigrant from Bobonaro.

Although security and order have been restored to East Timor, the trauma caused by the violence in 1999 still lingers on among Tunubibi residents.

They said the militia living in refugee camps just across the border had threatened to strike again once the international peace-keeping force leaves.

"We feel secure now but we are not sure what will happen once the PKF leaves," said Luis Maya, a 35-year-old local transmigrant who has built his hut among the ruins of abandoned transmigrant homes.

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