Subject: IPS: Soldiers' rapes cannot be forgotten


July 17, 2003 5:42pm Advertisement

by Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Jul. 17 (IPS/GIN) -- Ivete Oliveira refuses to let the past be buried, especially the past of women who were sexually abused by Indonesian soldiers during East Timor's struggle for independence.

She is determined that the men who lead her new nation - Xanana Gusmao, East Timor's former guerrilla leader and its current president, and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Jose Ramos Horta - do not forget these victims either.

Yet her campaign and that of other East Timorese women to secure justice for the women abused during Indonesia's 24-year occupation - is not an easy one, 26-year-old Oliveira told a hushed gathering at the U.N. conference center here this week.

"The men who lead our country are trying to close their eyes about this. They are more involved in the national interest and talk about the need for reconciliation with Indonesia," she said at a discussion that focused on war, women and peace.

"But we want to fight for justice," Oliveira, an advocacy officer at the East Timor office of the Catholic Institute for International Relations, told IPS. "It is not fair for the women who were raped during the struggle for independence. The military men who committed these war crimes are still free."

The message Oliveira brought to Bangkok echoes what surfaced in April during a public hearing of the Commission for Reception, Truth-seeking and Reconciliation (CAVR), held in Dili, East Timor's capital.

Fourteen women from across the half-island nation were invited to give testimonies about how their lives had been affected during East Timor's over two-decade struggle, before it became a free nation in May 2002.

Among them was Olga da Silva Amaral, who recounted her ordeal in 1982. "Before I was raped, they hit me in the head with a wooden chair until I bled, I was hit with a firearm in my left ribcage until I was injured, I was kicked in the back with military boots until I was unable to walk," she told the CAVR.

"But the torture continued," she went on. "I was given electric shocks to my ears, hands and feet. I was jumped all over until I felt that my blood no longer flowed and I had no more strength. That is when they raped me. They tortured me like this for months."

For women's rights activists in East Timor, these testimonies cannot be set aside because officials like Xanana say it is the time for reconciliation and looking ahead, instead of reopening old wounds.

In fact, these activists say they are reason enough for an international tribunal to be set up to try perpetrators of war crimes committed during East Timor's years under Indonesian rule from 1975 to 1999.

The CAVR, which bears similarities to the South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, has been given a mandate to hear eyewitness accounts of the atrocities that happened when Indonesian troops invaded the former Portuguese colony.

An estimated 200,000 East Timorese - a third of its population in 1975 - died as a result of bombings, killings and starvation during the Indonesian occupation of what Jakarta considered its province.

Activists say rape was used as a weapon of war, resulting in hundreds of women being systematically abused.

Violence peaked in the weeks after a U.N.-sponsored referendum in 1999, when close to 80 percent of East Timorese voted to secede from Indonesia.

Pro-Jakarta militia went on the rampage, destroying and burning buildings across East Timor. Hundreds of civilians are believed to have been killed. In at least one incident in Suai district, militia slaughtered at least 100 women and children, and others have related how they were raped by militia members.

Currently, the judicial mechanisms to prosecute the crimes committed during this period are a special rights court set up in Indonesia to try senior police and military officials.

Since January 2001, a Special Panel on Serious Crimes in East Timor has also been trying militia leaders and those accused of rights violations.

The panel indicted another 57 people this month. This brings the number of people, including soldiers and pro-Jakarta militia, indicted to 296, of whom 216 are at large in Indonesia. A total of 32 people have been convicted after trials in Dili.

But these attempts at justice are not enough for some rights groups, who are calling for the creation of a special international tribunal to satisfy the needs of justice.

"Such tribunals will provide integrity and maintain high standards needed to try people for war crimes that were committed," says Sunai Phasuk of Forum Asia, a Bangkok-based regional human rights lobby.

"What is happening today is that the military officers and those involved in human rights abuse in East Timor are roaming free and enjoying impunity," he adds.

Agrees Oliveira: "We need a tribunal to end this impunity, otherwise women in Aceh and West Papua provinces will also be abused like what happened in East Timor." Aech and West Papua are home to separatist struggles, and Jakarta in May sent in troops to impose martial rule in Aceh.

The cry for justice that Oliveira and other East Timorese women are making for the victims of the war-related rapes highlights the new nature of warfare, according to the U.N. Fund for Women (UNIFEM).

"The battlefields have become the bodies of women. The use of rape has become systematic, as a weapon of war," Noeleen Heyzer, UNIFEM executive director, said at this week's discussion that accompanied the local release of 'Women, War, Peace,' a book published by the U.N. agency in 2002.

This is reflected in the book's stories of women who have been victims of war across the world, she added. "Systemic rape against women must be seen as a crime against humanity."

The UNIFEM book said that civilian casualties in war are at an all-time high - "more than 75 percent in the wars of the 1990s" - as opposed to the 15 percent civilian casualty rate during World War I.

Heyzer agreed with Oliveira that the culture of impunity enjoyed by men who use rape as a weapon of war must be challenged. "We have to bring to justice those who have committed crimes against women," she said.

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