Subject: SMH: Thousands go hungry as pro-Indon mayor blocks aid
Date: Thu, 26 Aug 1999 15:39:08 EDT

SYDNEY MORNING HERALD Friday, August 27, 1999


3,000 go hungry as mayor blocks aid

By MARK DODD, Herald Correspondent in Suai, East Timor

Something is rotten in the regency of Suai. About 3,000 East Timorese refugees are living in unsanitary conditions, without adequate food, water or medicine, crammed into the grounds of an unfinished church under grass roof humpies and plastic sheeting.

They are in fear of their lives because outside the grounds are the Laksaur militia who, helped by local army personnel, drove the refugees from their homes in a deadly pogrom of house burnings, murder and intimidation earlier this year.

The local bupati (mayor) says the refugees, many of whom are women with infants, support independence and are undeserving of humanitarian aid. He cut off their water supply last week and refused access for a relief convoy from Dili.

There is no food shortage in Suai. On Wednesday morning, a crowd of about 2,000 people showed up for a rally in town although their motivation had less to do with singing patriotic Indonesian jingles than it did with a promise of five kilograms of free rice, T-shirts and baseball caps.

Outside the church surly faced militiamen walk down the street carrying machetes. Police stand by, watching. Machetes are a traditional weapon, not illegal they say.

Shortly after 8am, two yellow dump trucks arrive at the rally and start unloading sacks of rice. Among the militia helpers, is a uniformed Indonesian police officer standing atop one of the trucks, heaving bags of rice into a sea of outstretched hands. The local priest in Suai, Father Hilario, has taken responsibility for the plight of the refugees, a thankless task which has incurred the militia's wrath, and a death threat.

"The situation now is bad," he said. "There is no food and no medicine. They have come here because of the militias who have been terrorising the local people." He described the refugees' health as "very bad". They had access to only one water point once the mains supply was restored late on Saturday following United States diplomatic pressure, he said.

"I think the reason they [local authorities] cut off the water was the bupati," Father Hilario said. "He said it was an accident, but he is angry at the people. The refugees don't want to go outside because the militia are still there. The majority of the people are pro-independence." The priest estimated more than 400 people had been murdered by the militia and their army allies in and around Suai since January - a figure not disputed by the United Nations Assistance Mission in East Timor (UNAMET). Most of the refugees were registered to vote in Monday's referendum but he was extremely worried about their safety after polling day. Continuing militia violence and intimidation remains a serious threat to the success of Monday's vote.

But 8,000 Indonesian police charged with maintaining law and order over the ballot period are reluctant to put themselves on a collision course with their army colleagues, although there have been some exceptions. Suai, in the south-west corner of East Timor, and neighbouring Maliana are two recurring sites of militia violence.

UN officials and aid workersclaim militiamen were responsible for a grenade attack last Thursday. A fragmentation grenade was tossed into the church grounds but did not explode among the refugees camped there.

The office of the National Council for Timorese Resistance (CNRT) has closed in Suai due to fears of violence, its staff moving in with the refugees.

"Now we are afraid and pray to God to help us. There are many rumours that after the vote they [militia] will do something," Father Hilario said.

One 25-year-old man, called Bento, said he and his family fled from Zumulai to escape militia violence a month ago. He now lives in the church grounds with his parents, a brother and two sisters after fleeing the family home. "We were intimidated by [militia groups] Laksaur and Mahidi. That is why we fled into the forest. We were beaten, our houses were burnt, many of us were tortured. I saw one of my friends tortured. They [militia] tore out his fingernails and stubbed cigarette butts on his hands," he said.

Asked why the militia did this, he replied: "Because we will not accept autonomy." Two other refugees, Elizabeth dos Reido, 22 and Paulo Augustin, 30 recounted similar stories.

"One day the Laksaur captured two people in our village, Fatulaura," Ms dos Reido said. "One was killed. Most of the people left the village after that incident."

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