Subject: East Timor: Mass Vanishing Remains A Mystery

The Australian 8 January 2000

Mass vanishing remains a mystery

Where are all the missing East Timorese, asks CARMEL EGAN in Dili

FOR 16 days in September, Dili became the most frightening place on earth.

Murder, rape and torture erupted on the East Timorese capital's streets as soon as the historic referendum was declared a victory for independence on September 4, and the killing and looting continued even after Australian-led Interfet troops arrived on September 20.

Somehow, 80,000 people went missing in the chaos.

How could so many have vanished or have been silenced? What evil was perpetrated against them?

East Timor's most accurate census, based on the number of adults registered to vote in the independence referendum, put the population at 850,000 in August but, by mid-October, one in every 10 was missing.

"The missing people could either be in the hills, or West Timor, or in other parts of Indonesia," Interfet chief Peter Cosgrove said in November, but he could not rule out the possibility that "a tragic fate" may have befallen some.

Since then, questions about the missing have been met with shrugs and head shakes.

"We are not very far in terms of overall figures, partly because the number of people in West Timor and anywhere else is so unclear," said the UN's East Timor human rights head, Sidney Jones.

"But we are not talking about tens of thousands of dead," she said. "We are talking about people who are possibly separated by thousands of miles and cannot get in touch.

"At times of mass population displacement you will not know if they are safe and alive but out of contact, not safe but not allowed to return, or dead.

"If it were tens of thousands of dead we would have reports back of grave sites by now."

East Timorese who have returned from West Timor total 126,000. Of those, 83,500 have returned with the assistance of the UN High Commission on Refugees, and 42,500 have made their own way home.

The Indonesian Government estimates 110,000 remain within its borders, but it is not clear if this is just West Timor or if it also includes other islands in the archipelago.

Many aid workers are sceptical of the Indonesian figures.

Indonesia receives international aid based on the number of displaced people in its care and there is concern the number still in camps in West Timor has been overestimated to keep the aid money flowing.

"The main problem is going to be that until everybody returns from West Timor, we will not know," said human-rights lawyer Danny Brown. "That could take six months, it could take two years.

"There are a wide range of reasons for people not returning. Most of them are being intimidated by militia, who are still active in the camps and towns across the border. Some are not wanting to return until after the rains, others because of their horrific experiences and still more because of militia rumours about Interfet killing and raping people.

"An estimated 40,000 will never return because they are pro-Indonesian, pro-autonomy, militia or collaborators.

"Then there are the people who were taken to other Indonesian territories, such as Flores, Sulawesi and Irian Jaya."

Internal displacement within East Timor also adds to the confusion. Some towns and villages had a 300 per cent increase in population between August and December, while others now have less than 20 per cent of their original population.

Most controversial of all the uncertainties in accounting for the missing people of East Timor is the death toll from September's mayhem.

Although some mass graves and massacre sites have been identified at Liquica, Oecussi, Los Palos, Ermera, Atauro and in Dili itself, most bodies have been lying scattered ­ sometimes in the open air, sometimes buried in shallow graves. In many cases, all that remains is bones and body parts and rags. And the fetid humidity of East Timor's wet season is a forensic investigator's nightmare.

In the first weeks after Interfet's arrival, a unit of 14 military police (MPs) was doing all the investigative work on humanitarian atrocities ­ despite the fact they had no forensic experience. By November, they had 135 murders to investigate. The enormity and urgency of the task dwarfed the team, which focused on recording bodies found lying above ground and noting their final resting places.

They have since been assisted by CivPol ­ the UN's civilian police force, which includes a contingent of 39 Australian Federal Police ­ but they too have been starved of expert help from pathologists, forensic anthropologists and chemists.

Two forensic experts were due to arrive from Australia yesterday, as the first of a revolving allocation of specialists to be assigned to the East Timorese crisis, but they may be too late to help much.

The Interfet death toll based on bodies recovered and reports of grave sites now stands at 1650. Once a body has been recovered it is bagged and buried, with the point of recovery and burial place recorded in case body samples or identification are required in a future prosecution.

But accurate identification is usually impossible.

Many of those who have disappeared are the nation's most capable ­ people who worked within the Indonesian administration, who managed and owned businesses, who are bi-lingual, have clerical skills and certificates of competency.

East Timor needs them to come home as soon as they can. If they can.


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