Militias Launch War of Words
The Herald Sun [Australia] Sunday, 16 January, 2000
Militias launch war of words
THE dreaded East Timorese militia is stepping up its orchestrated anti-Australian propaganda campaign to frighten exiled families into remaining in West Timorese refugee camps.
Stories of human rights atrocities committed by Australian Interfet troops include alleged eye-witness accounts of rape, murder and summary execution.
The lies are being countered by videos, pamphlets and radio broadcasts distributed by the humanitarian aid and repatriation organisation, UNHCR.
But UNHCR is racing against time to repatriate the estimated 110,000 to 130,000 displaced people still in West Timor as the monsoon season takes hold and rates of malnutrition and death increase in the camps.
The aid agency is struggling to convince traumatised East Timorese that peace and stability have been restored in their homeland.
When the Sunday Herald Sun visited camps in West Timor this week, it was confronted with hostile accusations from outspoken camp leaders about Australian brutality.
At Motabuit camp, which houses more than 200 people on the outskirts of Atambua, West Timor's second biggest city, angry men waved copies of the Kupang Post newspaper carrying articles about murder and rape by Australian soldiers.
The men demanded an explanation.
But there are also those in Motabuit who have a vested interest in remaining in West Timor.
One man brandished an article showing an Australian soldier with his gun raised standing over a suspected militia member. The man said he had personally witnessed the militiaman's execution by the Australian. His claims have been accepted as true by the refugees.
The UNHCR estimates about 40,000 exiles in West Timor will never return to East Timor because they were in the militia or the Indonesian Army. Others were involved in vandalism and violence that followed the August 30 independence vote. Or they worked for the Indonesian government as public servants and collaborators.
By January 1, 2000, 125,930 people had returned to East Timor from the West despite threats and intimidation from camp militia.
"When we first arrived, there was a very obvious presence of militia," UNHCR head field officer Alias Bin Ahmad said.
"They are less conspicuous now and no longer armed, but they are still around.
"Before it was physical intimidation and more obvious and sometimes they would try to intimidate us and stone our vehicles, but now the tactics have changed.
"Now it takes the form of intimidation by misinformation about Interfet raping women."
After a lull in repatriation over Christmas and Ramadan, numbers of returnees are slowly building, according to UNHCR spokesman Paul Stromberg, but there is a sense of urgency as death rates rise in the camps.
A recent UNICEF report found that one in four children aged under five living in the camps in the Atambua region was suffering malnutrition.
Aid agencies admit not enough food is reaching the camps and distribution is unreliable. UNICEF, the leading World Food Program and UNHCR have asked that rice rations be increased from 1400 calories per person per day to 2100 a day.
"The Indonesian Government set the 1400 calories as its normal response to people in emergency situations," Mr Stromberg said.
"But it is not enough to sustain the chronically malnourished and traumatised people."
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