Subject: CNS: East Timorese activists stress reconciliation, return of refugees

Apr-14-2000 East Timorese activists stress reconciliation, return of refugees By Jennifer E. Reed Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Reconciliation and the return of East Timorese refugees from Indonesia are needed for an independent East Timor, said a church official and other activists visiting the United States.

``Probably the most important thing we're working on is to unite the East Timorese people,'' said Ilidio Gusmao, coordinator of the Justice and Peace Commission of the Diocese of Baukau, during an April 12 visit to the U.S. Catholic Conference in Washington.

The ``church is working to really educate the people, particularly the Catholic people, about the role they can play in the reconstruction of our land which was destroyed,'' he said.

Gusmao and other activists spoke through a translator in a meeting with Thomas Quigley, policy adviser on Asia for the U.S. Catholic Conference. The group traveled to the United States as guests of the U.S. government through the State Department's International Visitor Program to study democracy and human rights. They also were scheduled to visit cities in New York, Rhode Island, Arizona and California.

Gusmao said food aid distribution standards set by the World Food Program of 22 pounds a month per person ``are not being followed.''

``Distribution is not even. Some of the people who need the food most are not getting it,'' he said.

But there was improvement in distribution after Catholic Relief Services, the international relief and development agency of the U.S. bishops, began work in Baukau earlier this year, he said.

``They began to help make a much more effective system. ... They tend to work well and invite us to work together with them, and they played a significant role in helping work toward reconciliation,'' said Gusmao.

Much of East Timor was destroyed when violence by pro-Indonesia militias and Indonesian troops escalated following an Aug. 30 referendum in which almost 80 percent of the voters chose independence from, rather than autonomy within, Indonesia, which had integrated the former Portuguese colony as a province in 1976.

East Timor is under control of the U.N. Transitional Administration in East Timor, which is overseeing the region's transition to independence.

Schools, clinics and homes were destroyed throughout the region.

Now, many people are frustrated by current conditions of high unemployment and slow reconstruction, the activists said.

By mid-November some schools were reopened, but even now ``the teachers are largely teaching on a volunteer basis,'' Gusmao said.

Aniceto Guterres Lopes, executive director of the Justice and Human Rights Foundation, said, ``There can't really be a real reconciliation until those who were forced to leave and go to western Timor -- who are now still being influenced strongly by the militia and the Indonesian army -- are able to come back and live their lives.''

He said East Timorese appreciated U.S. government support so far, ``but we are not totally ready yet for independence, and we will need continued support to do that successfully.''

He added he hoped the bishops' conference would press the U.S. government ``to help us achieve what we need.''

Because of the violence, some 270,000 East Timorese fled to or were forcibly moved to western Timor, and tens of thousands remained there as of mid-April, many in Indonesian government-run camps. According to the United Nations, some 150,000 people have returned to East Timor since October.

Armandia Gusmao, sister of National Resistance Council of East Timor President Xanana Gusmao, said an estimated 50,000 East Timorese, mostly militia family members who ``actually do want to come back,'' are afraid to leave western Timor because of intimidation by militia and the Indonesian army.

``You have to go through an application process to get back home, and that can bring certain risks. Up to this point many people have actually just jumped on ships and returned illegally,'' she added.

Ilidio Gusmao said some 10,000 people from the Diocese of Baukau still remained in western Timor.

Lopes criticized the ``active misinformation campaign'' carried out by militias in western Timor who tell people they will be in danger if they return to East Timor. But he said many church groups are working to convince people it is safe to return.

Since March, when the Indonesian government barred most nongovernmental organizations from working in western Timor, the Catholic Church there has played a key role in communicating the message that people can return safely to East Timor, Lopes said.

``It's pretty much only the church and the sisters who are able to go in and carry out these activities'' in western Timor, he said.

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