etmnlong.gif (2291 bytes) spacer

Observations and Analysis of a Fact-Finding Mission to the East Timorese Refugee Camps in West Timor

by Karen Orenstein, East Timor Action Network

Tuapukan refugee camp   Contents
Humanitarian Situation

Political Situation
Human Rights Accountability
Conclusions and Recommendations
Tuapukan refugee camp, West Timor. Photo by Karen Orenstein.


A delegation of congressional staffers, human rights advocates, journalists, and a noted filmmaker returned May 1 from a week-long fact-finding mission to East Timorese refugee camps in West Timor, where more than 100,000 refugees remain. The delegation, coordinated by the East Timor Action Network, also visited Jakarta and Dili, East Timor meeting with Indonesian non-governmental organization (NGOs), church leaders, government and military officials; international aid workers; East Timorese NGO leaders; and U.S. Embassy staff.

During the mission, delegation participants examined both humanitarian and political facets of the refugee crisis; the issue of accountability for human rights violations against the peoples of East Timor and Indonesia; and the role of the U.S. government in resolving the refugee crisis.

In West Timor, the delegation visited Kupang (the largest city in West Timor), and the border areas of Atambua and Belu. They traveled to refugee camps Tuapukan (12,000 resident refugees) and Noelbaki (5,100 refugees), and Fatululik (a transit camp with about 300 registered refugees) in Kupang, and visited the Cassa camp area in Belu.

While in West Timor, the delegation met with the governor of the province, Piet Alexander Tallo, as well as the regional military commander, Colonel Jurefar. They met with a number of West Timor-based NGOs including: Lap Timoris (Timorese Organization for Advocacy and Research), Flores Volunteers for Humanity and SVD Center of Concern, LOKMAS (a civil society-promoting organization), Indonesian Christian Student Group, Advocacy and Information Center, Lusco Atambua, as well as with a number of church leaders, including the bishop of Atambua, Bishop Anton Paiin Raut, Tom Therik, and Father Jerry Lanigan, an Irish priest who has lived in Atambua for 29 years. The delegation also met with representatives of international organizations, including UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), UN Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET), UNICEF, Catholic Relief Services (CRS), International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC), Doctors Without Borders (MSF), Community and Family Services International (CFSI), and World Food Program (WFP).

In Jakarta, the delegation conferred with ELSAM (Institute of Research and Human Rights Advocacy), Fortilos (Solidarity Forum with the People of East Timor), Volunteer Team for Humanity, and SOLIDAMOR (Solidarity for Peace in East Timor), and met with U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia Robert Gelbard and William Gary Grey, the First Secretary for East Timor at the Embassy. Some participants also spoke with Dewi Fortuna Anwar, a senior Indonesian foreign ministry official, and Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Southeast Asia Bureau Chief at the Washington Post

In Dili, the delegation met with the East Timorese NGOs Fokupers and ETWAVE (two women’s justice organizations) Yayasan HAK (East Timor human rights and legal aid organization), Caritas (an aid organization), and Manuel Abrantes of Bishop Belo’s Peace and Justice Commission. They also spoke with Sidney Jones, head of UNTAET’s human rights division, and Dr. Dan Murphy, who runs the Bairo Pite medical clinic in Dili.


The healthcare situation was by far the most troubling aspect of humanitarian assistance in the refugee camps. In speaking with aid workers, several issues repeatedly presented the most pressing risk. The rainy season, which is normally three to four months, has thus far lasted over six months. People in the camps already living in difficult physical conditions are now living in continuous damp, exacerbating respiratory and other illnesses. Once the rains stop, mosquitoes will breed; a potential malaria catastrophe looms. The normal environmental prophylactic of fumigation will be impeded, since spraying on plastic sheeting won’t work, and blue plastic UN tarps are abundant in the camps. Further, there is a shortage of mosquito netting.

Tuapukan refugee camp, West Timor. Photo by Karen Orenstein.

The most fundamental healthcare problem is inadequate capacity to deliver healthcare services. Before the refugees arrived, a ratio of 15,000 to 20,000 West Timorese per doctor was the norm. This ratio still exists for West Timorese, but more than 100,000 refugees must also be served by the same doctors. There are not enough healthcare workers to staff clinics in areas with refugee populations, and there is a shortage of vital medicines. Further, as of April 1, the Government of Indonesia (GOI) cut medical support for the camps. Consequently, the Indonesian Red Cross no longer assists East Timorese living there. The GOI has also recently ended a program in which recently graduated medical students were sent to rural areas, further weakening the healthcare infrastructure. Some international NGOs, such as World Vision, have already left West Timor. Connected to this is the general lack of attention refugees in West Timor receive in terms of international aid as compared to East Timor – a frustration voiced by some aid workers.

A Doctors Without Borders (MSF) worker at Tuapukan informed the delegation that approximately 240 people had perished there. She said that while the general level of health in the camps is adequate, conjunctivitis, malaria, diarrhea, and respiratory illnesses are present throughout Tuapukan. Many refugees are afraid to seek out assistance from MSF when sick. Possible explanations for this are fear of medical personnel (there is a long history of abuse on the part of GOI healthcare providers in East Timor); lack of knowledge about MSF’s programs in the camp; fear of repatriation as a result of medical attention; or the misconception that payment is required for treatment. No general health census has been conducted in Tuapukan, but mortality rates should be available in a matter of weeks. MSF so far plans on being there until July 1, with the possibility of extension contingent on the status of the crisis. They are now engaged in training refugees in door-to-door health outreach.

Before the refugee crisis in West Timor, tuberculosis was already at epidemic levels in East Timor. Refugees forcibly deported to West Timor in September brought TB with them, and crowded, damp conditions in the camps have only exacerbated the problem. Yet largely because it is unclear how long the camps will be extant, and that the six month regiment required for treating TB entails daily supervision of medicine ingestion (disruption of treatment gives rise to drug-resistant TB strains), refugees are not being treated for the disease.

Refugees in West Timor are scattered throughout two hundred sites. While some refugees live in large camps of over 10,000, many live in sites consisting of five or six families. Some even live with West Timorese relatives. Access to food in the larger camps is basic. According to a Catholic Relief Services (CRS) worker in Tuapukan, for example, the nutritional status of children is stable. Access to food at the many smaller sites is sub-standard, in large part due to their widely dispersed locales and a lack of international NGO resources. Some delegation members noted children in the camps with reddish hair, a sign of malnutrition.

Another negative aspect of food distribution is militia control. In Belu, workers from CRS escorted the delegation to the Cassa camp area, where members of the delegation observed food distribution being directed by young men in militia and pro-autonomy t-shirts. While international organizations try to lessen the effect of militia control, it is difficult to know who is and who is not a militia member. Further, in spite of whether food is given out at a central location or is delivered on a more "door-to-door" basis, relief groups are not necessarily able to prevent militias from taking a "food tax."

When walking through the camps, the number of children wandering freely is noticeable. Only a minority of refugee children attend local schools. A refugee at Noelbaki camp described a "tent school" run by volunteer teachers, themselves refugees. The school consists of two rooms for primary and two rooms for secondary levels. Children at the "tent school" attend classes for a total of four and one- half hours per week.

According to several different sources, there has been a low level of local relocation of displaced East Timorese, but no transmigration to other islands. A priest in Atambua maintained that this is due in part to the length of time and effort involved in preparing for a transmigration program.

West Timorese
The East Timorese refugee crisis has stretched resources and increased tensions throughout West Timor, one of the poorest provinces of Indonesia. Physical borders rarely distinguish refugee camps from surrounding communities. In some areas, refugees equal or outnumber the existing West Timorese population, creating both a psychological and physical strain on the local community. Increasing levels of conflict among the refugees, such as a recent shooting, create panic among West Timorese citizens. Further, the Indonesian government has taken land from West Timorese for the camps without compensating the owners. The GOI is only recently beginning to talk about compensation. West Timorese are increasingly resentful of international aid to East Timorese refugees. Several church leaders in West Timor voiced concern that the refugees are too demanding, both on aid agencies and on West Timorese. Church and government officials with whom we met reiterated their desire for the refugee crisis to be resolved expeditiously for the sake of peace and stability in West Timor. But West Timor’s civilian government has limited power to push for that goal.

West Timorese NGOs
The delegation met with a number of NGOs based in Kupang, Atambua, and Flores doing very important work in the camps. The Indonesian Christian Student Group, made up of university and high school students, works with the refugees daily. They provide a variety of services, from building latrines to food supplementation, to advocacy work and counseling, particularly for traumatized children. TRUK-F, the Volunteer Team for Humanity based in Flores, assists in healthcare, evacuations, and investigations of human rights abuses. The Advocacy Information Center, involved with a number of humanitarian efforts with an emphasis on the needs of women has spent a great deal of time investigating violence against women and children. It must be noted that all of the local NGO workers have aided the refugees and challenged the grip of TNI on civil society at great risk to themselves. After the referendum, the Advocacy Information Center had to go underground. The military repeatedly threatened the staff of Lap Timoris, sometimes with death.

To its detriment, the UNHCR has coordinated very little with local NGOs. This is a particularly serious oversight given that local NGO workers often have better access to refugees, and better understanding of the political context in which they live. It is also said that the UNHCR does not have good working relationships with the refugees themselves, a problem compounded by a substantial language barrier.

Intimidation and Harassment of International Aid Workers
There is ongoing harassment of international aid workers, but less than during the first months of the crisis. On the first day of the delegation's visit to Kupang, two to three hundred members of the newly formed umbrella militia group UNTAS ("Timorese Warriors"), organized by eight or ten leaders, surrounded a UNHCR-sponsored workshop for international NGOs and high level Jakarta staff. While no one was hurt, the situation was extremely threatening and tense. In the words of one UNHCR worker involved in the meeting, UNTAS leaders had earlier that day manipulated refugees, "picking up rabble from the camps" and had brought them in truckloads to disrupt the UNHCR meeting. Interestingly, the majority of militia leaders are well-off financially.

During the delegation’s visit to Tuapukan and Noelbaki refugee camps in Kupang, the UNHCR worker leading the delegation through the camps was visibly nervous. He described the situation as a "fiasco" and a "circus," referring to a lack of Indonesian military (TNI) presence in the camps. The previous day, the regional military commander had assured the delegation of the civilian nature of the camps. Presumably to coincide with his statements, civilian police were in charge of security in the camps that the delegation visited the following day. Civilian police actually have no control over the camps, and the security consequences of this left the aid worker worried. He also told the delegation that throughout Kupang, international aid organizations are unable to hire local staff because of potential threats from militias.

The UNHCR has a tricky relationship with the TNI. While the TNI is a source of many problems for the refugees and aid workers, the UNHCR also relies on them to provide protection and help in repatriation. To this end, they are in daily contact with each other. At the same time, the UNHCR has to regularly prod the TNI to stop creating problems.

Refugees Taken Off Timor Island
Some 11,000 to 30,000 East Timorese taken off Timor island are believed to still be missing. A representative from ICRC (who admittedly does not work directly on this issue) was unable to provide much information about this problem, nor was the U.S. Embassy’s point person on East Timor. But UNHCR and ICRC in Kupang apparently do exchange information weekly about off-island refugees. One international aid worker commented that, as far as he knows, East Timorese taken to Flores and Alor are better off economically and suffer far less from intimidation, and recently ICRC transferred some 60 or 65 people from Flores to East Timor. According to U.S. Embassy staff, there has been no formidable response to the idea that there are large numbers of people taken off-island still unaccounted for. He did mention the possibility that a number of East Timorese children were taken to Islamic religious schools in Java, but, again, was unable to confirm anything. There is clearly a lack of coordinated effort to track the fate of all of those taken off-island, and a possible lack of resources available for such inquiries.


The refugee crisis in West Timor is fundamentally the result of a political crisis. According to both international and Indonesian humanitarian aid workers who work most closely with the refugee population, the overwhelming majority of displaced East Timorese in West Timor want to go home but are afraid to do so. This is true regardless of whether a refugee voted for autonomy or independence. Craig Sanders, who heads the UNHCR operation in Kupang, hopes to repatriate 50,000 more people by the end of this year. The UNHCR itself plans to stay in West Timor until December 2001. International and Indonesian aid workers, Indonesian government officials (both in West Timor and Jakarta), and the East Timorese leadership all believes repatriation is the best solution to the refugee problem. Yet, UNHCR recently reported that repatriation has slowed to a trickle.

Obstacles to Repatriation
According to many aid workers, the greatest obstacles to refugee return are intimidation by TNI-supported militia leaders and a mass disinformation campaign propagated by militia leaders and the press in West Timor. In the words of UNTAET’s representative in West Timor, "The camps are under the control of a vocal minority." The delegation heard a number of accounts and, on several occasions, saw evidence of militia control and intimidation, and TNI collusion. Economic disincentives present another obstacle, as does the lack of a functioning justice system in East Timor (which is discussed later in the report).

Cancio Lopes De Carvalho   
Militia leader Cancio Lopes De Carvalho. Photo by Karen Orenstein.   

Militia Leaders, TNI Control and Intimidation

During a meeting with the delegation, the regional military commander of West Timor, Colonel Jurefar, assured the group that militias are prohibited from meeting in the camps, and that there are actually no militias. (Although at one point in the meeting he said the group’s understanding of the term "militia" differed from his definition, "pro-integration fighters".) A number of other TNI and GOI officials also purported that there were no militias in the camps. Two days later, in a camp near the border inBelu, members of the delegation witnessed and were invited to participate in a large meeting of militia leaders, which was said to have been going on for two days. The meeting was led by Cancio Lopes De Carvalho, a murderer notorious for bragging about disemboweling a pregnant woman, who heads the Mahidi ("Indonesia Dead or Alive") militia. His assembled comrades-in-arms were mostly middle-aged men. Outside of the meeting, younger militia members were controlling food allocation at a Catholic Relief Services distribution site. Reliable sources informed the delegation that close to the militia meeting house, a large cache of modern weapons was buried. Three other such caches are said to be buried nearby, each belonging to a different militia leader.

Collusion between TNI and militia leaders continues. Delegation members heard separate reports of a low-level training plan, based on the continuous drilling of fifteen militia members by the TNI with five men rotated in and out at a time. Plain-clothes TNI are widely believed to be in the camps, while militia leaders are seen going in and out of army compounds. There is also suspicion that some of the military in the area actually are Kopassus special forces operatives. According to a respected human rights NGO in Kupang, TNI has a multi-phased plan to deal with militias. During the first stage from October to February, TNI recruited local West Timorese to join the militias. During the second stage, TNI promoted cross-border incursions. During the third stage, occurring now, the TNI publicly states that military training of militias has stopped, in reality because the majority of such training has already been completed.

According to a priest in Atambua, KODIM (local level TNI) handle the militias with "baby gloves." He further maintained that KOSTRAD (strategic command – special forces) want TNI collusion with militias, and militia violence itself, to stop. The priest also suggested that other elements of the TNI support the militias.

The notorious Battalion 745 (comprised of many East Timorese soldiers) which killed, looted, and raped its way from the eastern tip of East Timor to West Timor in September, has since been liquidated and its troops dispersed, including some active East Timorese soldiers. A few may still remain in West Timor. The equally brutal Battalion 744, however, is still intact and stationed in West Timor, and includes East Timorese members. Many East Timorese TNI from KODIM commands are also living in the camps.

Fatululik transit camp.   
Women and children await repatriation in the Fatululik transit camp, Kupang. Photo by Karen Orenstein.    

East Timorese military are still on the TNI payroll. As soon as they declare their intentions to go home, these East Timorese soldiers lose salaries and pensions. This was the case for ten ex-TNI families at the Fatululik transit camp whom the delegation met. These families accepted that they would not receive a pension from the military, and were looking forward to going home and starting new lives as farmers.

Although, in general, militia are no longer seen openly walking around the camps with weapons, modern guns are constantly surfacing, despite a pledge by the GOI to disarm and disband the militias. In a clash between refugees in early April in Tuapukan, the largest refugee camp in Kupang, two men were killed – one with a modern weapon, the other with a traditional one. According to a witness, weapons were everywhere in the camp. The U.S. M-16 was one of the primary weapons used. Few military and police responded to the attacks.

The refugee camps, which according to international norms should be civilian in nature, are highly militarized. While Colonel Jurefar assured the delegation of the civilian nature of the camps, where civilian police handle security, the reality the delegation experienced in the camps was quite different. When the delegation arrived at Tuapukan and Noelbaki camps in Kupang, the day after the meeting with Jurefar, they were escorted by police, who had been waiting for them since early morning. The lack of a military escort made the UNHCR representative leading the group through the camps extremely nervous. He referred to the situation as a "fiasco" and a "circus." According to the UNHCR representative, about 20% of the household heads in Tuapukan are on the TNI payroll, and do not recognize the authority of the police. He maintained that the civilian police almost never enter Tuapukan; security in the vast majority of the camps is, in reality, the responsibility of the TNI. Plain-clothes military intelligence officers, however, were present at the delegation’s camp visits.

The delegation was prevented from visiting Naibonat camp, located on a military base in Kupang, due to unsafe conditions there. At the time, there was no international presence in the camp. Throughout Kupang, international aid organizations are unable to hire local staff due to an inability to guarantee their security. And, as stated earlier, international and local humanitarian aid workers continue to be threatened.

In addition to the above acts of intimidation, women refugees face a number of additional constraints. There is widespread sexual abuse of women in the camps, particularly in the Betun area. This issue is under the jurisdiction of non-special forces civilian police, a body with virtually no power. According to a West Timorese NGO focusing on women in the camps, it is also particularly difficult for women to assert their desire to go home. Widows are in an especially vulnerable position. Some fear that if they return to East Timor, they will be accused of killing their husbands. There is a fear among both female and male refugees that the longer they are away, the more people in East Timor will assume them to be guilty of crimes. It is therefore important to these refugees that a functioning judicial system be in place when they return home. As in East Timor, women in refugee camps in West Timor face domestic violence, but probably at elevated levels due to the stress of living in difficult, crowded conditions.

Mass Disinformation Campaign
A mass disinformation campaign by militia leaders and the press in West Timor is spreading fear throughout the camps. Rumors abound alleging horrific conditions in East Timor and abuse by international forces. While there have been some acts of retribution in East Timor, they have been miraculously few after the terror campaigns of the Indonesian occupation forces and their militias. There has not been one confirmed murder of a returning refugee in East Timor. Furthermore, an isolated act of retribution in East Timor, no matter how mild, is magnified exponentially in the camps: name-calling is transformed into murder by the time it reaches West Timor.

While the UNHCR has been working hard with some success to counter the disinformation, their counter-campaign began late. The UNHCR uses tactics from facilitating "look-see" visits to posting pictures of people’s villages on walls in the camps (which the delegation members viewed directly). In "look-see" visits, refugees are taken to their home areas in East Timor to see conditions there for themselves and then report back to others in the camps. There have been cases of participants in these visits, or their family members, being threatened by militia leaders upon return to the camps. If people in the camps are told a relative in East Timor has been killed for revenge, the UNHCR goes to the family member in East Timor, photographs or video tapes her/him, and then returns to disprove the lie. When talking with refugees at Fatululik who were within days of returning home, household heads told delegation members that they felt safe about returning to East Timor because they had received letters from family members in their home villages during the past two months encouraging them to come home.

The delegation met with Colin Stewart, UNTAET’s representative in Kupang. His office essentially serves as a diplomatic mission, in that it represents UNTAET and the interests of East Timor to the West Timorese government. One of Stewart’s mandates is to promote political reconciliation between pro-integration and East Timorese leadership. His office is currently focused on the refugee crisis, particularly political aspects of repatriation, such as countering militia propaganda. At the time of the delegation’s visit, Stewart was working on the repatriation of 6,000 refugees to Baucau. The government of West Timor has opened a similar diplomatic mission in Dili.

East Timorese refugees in the camps have been living in a state of uncertainty and, often, terror for more than eight months. The overwhelming majority was brought to West Timor against their will, usually at gunpoint. They have been living in very difficult physical conditions; many are traumatized. The UN failed to provide adequate security for the vote, and essentially abandoned East Timor at the height of military and militia violence during the first few weeks in September. Indeed, it is because of an international failure of security that the refugees are in West Timor in the first place. Many refugees are therefore understandably reluctant to trust the accuracy of information they hear from UN sources about security in East Timor. It is little wonder that the UNHCR is having difficulty countering disinformation rampant in the camps.

Economic Disincentives for Refugee Return
Both the GOI and TNI provide economic disincentives for refugees to return home. The GOI has refused to use Indonesian funds to pay the pensions of East Timorese who were civil servants and police under the Indonesian regime if they choose to return to East Timor. UNTAET is trying to change this policy so civil servants can be paid regardless of where they live, but is experiencing difficulty with the GOI. As stated earlier, East Timorese TNI members also lose their pensions if they decide to go home. These policies clearly add to economic fears about restarting life in East Timor.

Social Structure
Family structure could play a role in some refugees' decisions to return to East Timor. According to a church leader with whom the delegation met in Kupang, some refugees came into West Timor in groups of related people, and, as such, one person alone can not decide to go back to East Timor. These "house societies" are both territorial and of blood origin.

IV. Human Rights Accountability

Genuine accountability for events in East Timor is crucial to achieve full repatriation, as well as justice and reconciliation for the people of East Timor. The following is a brief overview of the status of justice and accountability related to war crimes and crimes against humanity committed against East Timorese. Indonesian investigations into military and militia figures named by a special GOI-sanctioned human rights commission on East Timor, KPP HAM, have begun and are being lead by Attorney General Marzuki Darusman. However, there are no laws in the Indonesian criminal code allowing for war crimes, crimes against humanity, or other human rights legislation. Legislation has been drafted which would create an ad hoc court for crimes committed in East Timor, but it still has to get through parliament, where there will likely be formidable opposition. Furthermore, even if the draft law gets through relatively unscathed, credible judges must be found, a witness protection program must be established, and all other facets of a credible judicial infrastructure must be put into place. Equally important, there must be military cooperation, an enormous but fundamental hurdle. As both Indonesian NGO leaders and U.S. Embassy staff in Jakarta repeatedly stated, the existing justice system in Indonesia is essentially non-functional, allowing the military to behave with impunity.

While Marzuki Darusman may have the best intentions, most of his staff does not. They are almost all holdovers from the Suharto regime, and in the words of one Embassy official, are "not at all the kind of people you would want" for such work. They are widely seen as incompetent and unfamiliar with international human rights law. The large interrogation/investigation team that Marzuki has created includes members of the Indonesian police and TNI, the two institutions most guilty of human rights violations; leaders of the human rights NGO community in Indonesia invited to participate in a 25-member advisory panel have therefore refused to join. Marzuki has also chosen to interview only a small portion of those suggested in the report of KPP HAM.

Similar ad hoc courts for several areas of Indonesia are also included in the same draft legislation that sets up a court for East Timor, as well as the establishment of a permanent human rights court without retroactive powers of prosecution. Without exception, Indonesian NGO leaders with whom the delegation met, including some who had taken part in KPP HAM and others who were helping to draft legislation for a truth and reconciliation commission, had no faith in the emerging Indonesian justice system. While many believe in the sincerity of Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid, they have grave doubts about military cooperation and even the intent of Wahid’s own government bureaucracy, the majority of whom are also holdovers from the Suharto regime. Regarding a truth and reconciliation commission, NGO leaders fear that GOI’s intentions are focused on "reconciliation" but not on "truth," as the government is most concerned with burying the past. Such a commission would deal with cases not brought to trial. The general sense was that important cases will be taken to the truth and reconciliation commission, while lesser cases will be brought before a court. One former member of KPP HAM who is an active NGO leader expressed great pessimism in the Indonesian justice system’s ability to prosecute any high level official, and further cited a military-sponsored television public relations campaign propagandizing against a fair justice system.

East Timorese at every level of society want an international tribunal rather than Indonesian trials. They have no reason to trust an Indonesian system of justice that systematically and brutally oppressed them for twenty-four years. Overwhelmingly, East Timorese felt that East Timor should not be a test case for the process of Indonesian accountability. Many East Timorese suggested that cases within Indonesia should be the test of Indonesia’s justice system. They argue that trying and convicting those responsible for ordering and committing military and militia terror in East Timor is an international, not strictly Indonesian issue, and should be treated as such. They are being joined by members of the Indonesian NGO community, who repeatedly told the delegation they too want to see an international tribunal, which they see as the only viable option for real justice.

UNTAET's Sidney Jones with delegation.   
Delegation meets with Sidney Jones (left, rear), Human Rights Division, UNTAET.   

Concurrent with the Indonesian investigations are UN investigations into atrocities that occurred in East Timor. The delegation met with Sidney Jones, head of the human rights division of UNTAET. She is working on establishing an East Timorese judicial system and investigating possibilities for an international court.

A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) recently signed between UNTAET and the GOI allows for arrests in the other signatory’s country, transfer of suspects between the two countries, and the sharing of information, witnesses, and forensics. According to Sidney Jones, the MOU will be of great value if suspects are actually transferred to East Timor, but she was skeptical of this taking place. As of the end of April, there had been no formal requests for extradition, but plans were underway for UNTAET’s submission of five such requests. Jones is particularly hesitant about sharing information with the Indonesian investigating team because there is currently no way to determine how such material may be used.

Although the UN human rights division has a capable forensics team and access to evidence, there is limited access to the perpetrators of crimes. Civilian police (CIVPOLS) assigned to investigations are treating each case as an individual crime, rather than placing it in a broader political context. However, a new joint human rights and CIVPOL investigation unit is being established to help address this shortcoming.

The establishment of a functioning justice system is critical for full repatriation. Sidney Jones told delegation members that to get the majority of refugees home, it is necessary to bring militia leaders back to East Timor, but a good judicial system is needed to make that happen. An increasing number of East Timorese refugees believe that the longer they remain in the camps, the more likely that those at home will think them guilty of human rights violations. A credible judicial system is therefore extremely important to ensure refugees that it is safe to return home. In East Timor, there is growing frustration over the lack of a judicial system; according to Jones, the first trials in East Timor are slated to begin in late June or early July. In the meantime, East Timor faces several substantial hurdles, including a lack of experienced judges, prosecutors, and defendants. Jones and others are discussing the creation of a special panel to try international war crimes with both foreign and East Timorese judges. There has also been further delay in rehabilitating East Timor’s two prisons. Overflowing detention centers constrain police from additional arrests. This clearly endangers witnesses, whose protection cannot be adequately guaranteed if there is not enough room to hold those they are testifying against.



The overwhelming majority of East Timorese refugees in West Timor want to go home. Refugees who voted for independence as well as those who voted for autonomy want to return to East Timor, their home and land of their birth. Most militia members now in the camps, and most who have returned to East Timor, were part of the "rank and file" and were not responsible for murders, rapes, or other atrocities. The majority of militia members were teenage boys or young men who were forcibly conscripted. Many were threatened with harm to themselves or to their families if they did not join.

   Tuapukan camp.
  Pam Sexton visiting Tuapukan camp. Photo by Karen Orenstein.

A small minority of commentators has argued that refugees stay in the camps for free food, shelter, and healthcare. But as Craig Sanders of the UNHCR said, "Basic assistance to these people is not anchoring them here." And as another UNHCR worker also pointed out, the UNHCR tries to keep living standards as low as possible so people don’t stay.

The civilian government of Indonesia, in both Jakarta and West Timor, wants the refugees to return, as does the East Timorese leadership. Clearly, the best solution to the refugee crisis is repatriation. So why aren’t people returning home? Refugees face intimidation from militia leaders, East Timorese TNI living in the camps, and Indonesian TNI. This includes a mass disinformation campaign that has saturated the refugees. East Timor’s lack of a functioning judicial system presents additional obstacles, as do economic disincentives created by the GOI. Counter to international norms of civilian refugee camps, camps in West Timor are highly militarized. The same people who forced East Timorese to leave their homes often control the camps; most people in the camps were forced there at gunpoint on Indonesian trucks, ships, and airplanes. The majority of the refugees -- women, children, and men without blood on their hands -- live side by side with East Timorese soldiers still receiving TNI payments. Indonesian soldiers are widely present, while militia leaders responsible for mass murder and rape have free reign and access to modern weapons. The cumulative impact is intense psychological pressure against attempting departures to East Timor. But, ironically, East Timor is now far safer than refugee camps in West Timor.

Parties involved offered a number of explanations for continued TNI backing of the militias and the ongoing intimidation of refugees by militia leaders. One is that the TNI is very bitter about East Timor’s independence, the first real loss the TNI has ever suffered. Soldiers came to East Timor to be trained and to earn career advancement. Consequently, the TNI feels a perverse emotional attachment to East Timor that it is not ready to relinquish. Another explanation is that militia leaders are, in effect, blackmailing the TNI in order to continue receiving monetary and military support. The militia leaders know a great deal about the military chain of command responsible for the destruction of East Timor, and may be threatening to reveal the truth about what happened in East Timor if the Indonesian military does not maintain its support. Yet another explanation is that militia leaders need to hold on to the refugees in order to appear as a legitimate force backed by "the people." Control of the refugees may serve as political leverage for militia leaders with the GOI and, in their thinking, even East Timor.

A number of steps could be taken to resolve the refugee crisis. First, as the GOI has promised more than once, militia groups must finally be disarmed and disbanded. Militia leaders must be separated from the rest of the refugee population, arrested, and extradited to East Timor to stand trial. This would greatly ease repatriation; in one example, a church leader in Kupang who works closely with the refugees told the delegation that when a militia leader was removed from a camp for several days, approximately forty refugees returned to East Timor. TNI support for the militias must stop immediately.

The fact that more than eight months after the refugees were brought to West Timor, militias with easy access to arms and their leaders still roam the camps freely points to a serious disconnect between what the civilian government of Indonesia wants and what the military powers prefer. If within a period of approximately two weeks the TNI was able to destroy more than 70% of a country, kill thousands of people, and coordinate a very systematic forced mass deportation by land, air, and sea of over 250,000 East Timorese, then surely it should be able to disarm and disband militias in the camps and arrest militia leaders. If it cannot, all the more reason to differentiate U.S. support for the Indonesian civilian government and the military.

The U.S. government must increase pressure on the GOI to disarm and disband the militias, arrest militia leaders, and extradite them to East Timor, and ensure an end to TNI collusion with militia leaders. The Population, Refugee, and Migration (PRM) bureau of the State Department should stop pushing for rapid closure of refugee camps until people are safe to decide whether or not to return to East Timor free from intimidation. PRM is now proposing camp closures starting June 30, contrary to the recommendations of the UNHCR. Within a matter of weeks, they expect refugees to choose between staying in Indonesia and returning to East Timor. They hoped to register the refugees by the end of May (although recent flash flooding which claimed over 120 lives in West Timor may have changed this goal.). The June 30 deadline is entirely premature. If at the beginning of May, refugees are unable to safely choose whether to return to East Timor or stay in Indonesia, there is little reason to believe that they will feel safe to do so within a few weeks. Past attempts at registration have failed because they did not provide adequate protection for refugees; many refugees still do not understand the registration process.

PRM seems to endorse both shifting the bulk of responsibility for the refugees onto the GOI, and cutting off funding for the UNHCR. Given that the presence of refugees in West Timor in the first place is largely due to an international failure of security during East Timor’s referendum process, it is unreasonable to expect the GOI to shoulder this burden alone. Further, in proposing to cut-off funding for the UNHCR, PRM fails to acknowledge that the refugees would be the ones most hurt. While most parties involved would like to see the refugee problem end immediately, this is unrealistic until there is military cooperation allowing for genuine security.

Furthermore, as Nobel Laureate and CNRT Vice President Jose Ramos-Horta has suggested, it would be of great benefit to both returning refugees and their communities if the UNHCR devoted more resources to reintegrating and resettling refugees. According to Ramos-Horta, the UNHCR’s role essentially ends when it delivers refugees to Dili. Instead of leaving them there, the UNHCR should take refugees to their hometowns and work with community members to integrate the returnees back into their community.

The U.S. government should further pressure the GOI to ensure that all harassment and intimidation of international and Indonesian aid workers stops immediately. The U.S. should support a coordinated effort to track, locate, and safely return East Timorese refugees taken off Timor island.

Human Rights Accountability
As stated above, accountability for human rights violations committed by the TNI and the militias they support is crucial for justice, reconciliation, and full repatriation to take place in East Timor. Genuine reform of the TNI and its subordination to Indonesia’s emerging civilian government are key to such accountability, and the current U.S. ban on military ties with Indonesia is essential to progress toward civilian supremacy over the TNI. Without exception, members of the Indonesian NGO community with whom the delegation met stated that the ban is the most critical point of leverage for reform forces in Indonesia. As one NGO leader said, "The military ban is responsible for the Timor case being taken seriously. It puts a lot of pressure on Darusman. They are dragging their feet, but there would be nothing if it weren’t for the U.S. military ban." Moreover, the ban is crucial to pressure the TNI to cooperate with the safe and just resolution of the East Timorese refugee crisis.

The ban should not only be maintained, but conditions for lifting it should be strengthened. As another Indonesian NGO leader stated, the U.S. should not provide aid and training to the TNI until there has been genuine accountability for human rights violations in Indonesia as well as East Timor, the TNI has truly been reformed, and the dual function of TNI has been revoked. Brutal TNI repression continues today in Aceh, the Molucca Islands, and other provinces of Indonesia.

The U.S. must also continue its support for an international tribunal on East Timor. As was stated previously, East Timorese and Indonesian NGO leaders with whom the delegation spoke expressed extreme pessimism in the evolving Indonesian judicial process. Many of these Indonesian NGO leaders previously supported an Indonesian, rather than international, process of justice, but have lost faith in that option and now see an international tribunal as the inevitable alternative. The U.S. should be prepared to support the establishment of an international tribunal in East Timor with significant East Timorese and Indonesian participation.

Edited by Ben Terrall
Special thanks to the Solidago Foundation.

ETAN Press Release on Delegation's Return
About the Delegation Members

Links to press and other reports from or about the delegation

Take Action to Bring the Refugees Home

UNHCR map of refugee camps (in Acrobat .pdf format)

Other links concerning the refugees

Search this site                 powered by FreeFind

If your browser does do not support forms use: Search   Site Map   What's New

Note: For those without a fax application on their computer - CallCenter V3.5.8, is a Native 32-bit Voice Telephony software application integrated with fax and data communications... and  it's free of charge!  Download from



make a pledge via credit card here

Bookmark and Share

Background | Take Action | News | Links | What You Can Do | Resources  | Contact

ETAN Store | Estafeta | ImagesHome | Timor Postings | Search | Site Index |