Subject: WP: Militias' Words of Fear Strand E.Timor Refugees in Camps

Washington Post Friday, March 31, 2000

Militias' Words of Fear Strand E. Timor Refugees in Camps

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran Washington Post Foreign Service

NOELBAKI REFUGEE CAMP, Indonesia—Sitting on a rickety wooden bed frame in a cramped corner of her barracks, with only a sheet to provide privacy from her neighbors, Augustina Said spends her days hoping she and her family can return to the life they had in East Timor. To their freshly painted house. To their television, refrigerator and comfortable furniture.

But Said, 41, is afraid to leave this squalid encampment of more than 5,000 refugees, near Kupang on the western coast of western Timor, and return to newly independent East Timor. In the referendum to determine East Timor's future last August, she, her husband and their four children were on the losing side, advocating publicly that it remain an Indonesian territory.

"If we return, they will kill us," she said of the independence supporters who dominate East Timor's population. "They don't like us anymore."

A few buildings over, Maria Anapinto, 37, is equally afraid. She voted for an independent East Timor and desperately wants to return, but she said menacing bands of pro-Indonesia militiamen continue to prowl the camp, warning people like her not to head back.

"They tell us that it's not safe," she said. "The militias say they will return to take back East Timor."

Anapinto and Said arrived in western Timor seven months ago with an estimated 250,000 other East Timorese, fleeing the violence that enveloped the territory after its residents voted overwhelmingly for independence. Although 150,000 have trickled back, aid workers estimate 100,000 people like Anapinto and Said are still holed up in several dozen western Timor camps, trapped by a culture of fear that shows no sign of abating.

U.N. officials had expected a solution to the refugee problem months ago, with independence supporters rushing home and those who favored integration with Indonesia either returning or settling elsewhere in the archipelago. But continued militia intimidation and worries about retribution have complicated the process. Officials now worry that the ramshackle camps, where almost 1,000 refugees have died from disease, are evolving into permanent housing, creating a group of people with no country to call home.

"A lot of them are settling in for the long haul," said Craig Sanders, who directs the U.N. refugee agency's operations in western Timor. "For a variety of reasons, they're still too afraid to return home."

The United Nations and the Indonesian government want the refugees to move on--either back to East Timor or elsewhere in Indonesia--but they differ on how to make that happen.

The Indonesian government has promised to move militiamen out of the area. But it also has threatened to stop providing refugees food and other aid, a move that is drawing stiff condemnation from humanitarian officials and diplomats.

"It's like they're putting a gun to the head of the refugees to force them to move," said one Western diplomat in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital.

The U.S. ambassador to Indonesia, Robert Gelbard, warned that any aid cutoff would be "a serious mistake" that could lead to a "strong reaction from the international community."

Whether a halt in aid from Indonesia will have a significant impact on the refugees is unclear because, Sanders said, most food, medicine and other support comes from international organizations.

But he and other U.N. officials acknowledge that the situation is becoming increasingly problematic. "We don't want these camps to last forever, but at the same time, we don't want people to be coerced into making a decision about where they are going to live," Sanders said. "They need to be allowed to decide without anyone pressuring them."

That is rare in the camps. Although militia members have been largely disarmed by the Indonesian military, those who lurk in the barracks have embarked on a campaign to persuade pro-independence refugees not to leave, telling them that there is not enough food in East Timor and that the multinational peacekeeping force there has been raping women by the hundreds. A militia umbrella group called UNTAS has even begun printing a two-page newsletter that warns refugees not to go home because of "saddening and disgraceful conditions" in East Timor.

The militia groups have tailored a different message to those who sided with Indonesia in the election, warning them that vengeful, pro-independence East Timorese will kill them as soon as they cross the border.

U.N. officials and military analysts believe that militia leaders, who were recruited by the Indonesian military before the election but were mostly abandoned after the defeat, view the refugees as a bargaining chip. "It's a group that has lost everything," Girmai Wondimu, a U.N. field officer in western Timor, said of the militia members. "They have to hold on to these hostages."

Some political analysts and diplomats argue that the Indonesian government needs to break up the militia groups and move the leaders away from western Timor. "The solution to this problem still largely rests with the Indonesians," said Gary Gray, chief of the U.S. diplomatic mission in East Timor.

To counter the militia groups' propaganda, U.N. workers have embarked on a public relations blitz of their own. They are making their pitch on five radio stations, and are also videotaping interviews with returning refugees and playing them in the camps. They also are encouraging refugees to attend "family reunions" on the border, where they can talk to relatives who live in East Timor and hear firsthand about the living conditions there.

But the U.N. workers toe a fine line in encouraging pro-Indonesia refugees to return. Although East Timorese independence leaders have said they favor reconciliation with Indonesia supporters who did not participate in the violence, several dozen who have returned have been beaten by their neighbors, and at least one has been killed, according to U.N. officials.

Despite the risks, some Indonesia supporters have been heading back in recent weeks, reasoning that the prospect of getting roughed up in East Timor is still better than living in the camps. "The militias in the camps kept telling us they would shoot us if we didn't do as they said," said Fernando Da Costa, 25, as he boarded a ship bound for East Timor from the western Timor city of Kupang.

That same message has persuaded others to stay. Vinancio Gomes, a former soldier, said he would love to leave his cramped bunk at the Tuapukan refugee camp but has heard of a letter circulating through the camp that details how some returning former soldiers were killed--a story aid workers believe was concocted by militia groups.

"This may not be a good place to live," Gomes said, "but at least nobody is going to kill me here."

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