Subject: NYTimes/Liquiça Journal: Can East Timor Forgive and Forget?

The New York Times April 25, 2000


Can East Timor Forgive and Forget?


LIQUIÈCA, East Timor -- In his heart, says Joaquín da Luz, no matter how many people he hurt, no matter how many homes he burned, he was always one of the good guys.

"We were forced to join the militia," said Mr. da Luz, a tough man of 43 with a black stubble of beard. "If we'd had a choice, who would have wanted to be in the militia? But if I'd refused they would have killed me."

His words could just as well have been printed on a little card. All around newly independent East Timor, this is what former members of the violent anti-independence militias are saying.

It is an extraordinary moment here: hundreds of the men who brutalized their country last September are trickling back from their refuge in Indonesian West Timor to beg forgiveness from the survivors.

They may be astonished to see how successful they were in their work. Directed by elements of the Indonesian military in a campaign of revenge against a vote for independence last August, the rag-tag militias ravaged the homes and lives of virtually all of the 800,000 people who lived here.

"House after house after house was looted and burned in the most amazing logistical exercise the T.N.I. has ever accomplished, or maybe any other military for that matter," a United Nations official said, using the initials for the Indonesian military.

The men who return find that there is not even a jailhouse left standing to hold more than a few dozen of them. Most of the rest end up on a sort of parole among their former neighbors and victims, hoping for the best.

About 40 are living here in Liquiça, a 45-minute drive from the capital, Dili. Another 100 or so are in the neighboring town of Maubara, a local official said.

Indeed, no matter what crimes they committed, most of the returnees so far are underlings who have a realistic hope of forgiveness. Some of their leaders are still active in small groups along the border, terrorizing other evacuees and threatening further harm.

With no formal court system in place, the returnees face a slapdash form of justice that varies from place to place, from moment to moment. None can be sure if they will be met with a tearful embrace of reconciliation or -- like one man here in Liquiça recently -- be beaten to death.

A crude processing procedure has taken form in East Timor in which returnees are first placed under the protection of unarmed United Nations police officers or the local vigilantes who have become the de facto gendarmes of many towns.

Residents then offer their evidence or opinions on what the returnees have done and whether they can now be accepted back into the community -- perhaps after a good beating.

"Only a saint wouldn't be angry," said Amadio Dias Albino dos Santos, 45, a local leader who is a longtime friend and ideological opponent of Mr. da Luz.

"People come up to them," he said, "and say: 'Hey, you destroyed my house. You said you would kill my husband and rape me. Well, go ahead! Rape me now. You used to think you were so powerful. You could do whatever you wanted to us. And now you can't do anything.' "

As for the militia members, "They never apologize," he said. "They just say: 'We had no choice. We were just following orders.' "

Under the guidance of East Timor's independence leaders, a remarkable mood of reconciliation has softened the welcome for many members of the militia like Mr. da Luz.

"At first it was rough," he said. "People were angry and said a lot of things. But now they don't pay attention to me any more."

He is glad of that, he said, but distressed that his neighbors misunderstand him.

"We were just doing what we were told," he insisted, sitting in the sparely furnished little house he has been given to live in. "If they told us, do this bad thing, we had no choice, we had to do it. But no matter what they made us do, in our hearts we were pro-independence."

A former government clerk, he has lost his job along with almost everybody else in this devastated country and he now works as a fisherman. Somebody has spray painted "C.N.R.T." on the wall of his home -- the initials of the victorious pro-independence movement.

Mr. dos Santos, who is the leader of the movement in Liquiça, once worked with Mr. da Luz in the local government office and -- when Mr. do Santos was not in prison for his underground activities -- they debated the future of their country.

Both men had strong pro-independence credentials. They fled into the hills when Indonesia invaded the former Portuguese colony in 1975 and for about four years fought as guerrillas.

But somewhere along the way, Mr. da Luz lost his commitment to the cause.

"The problem was a thing called money," Mr. dos Santos said. "There was a lot of money coming in from Indonesia and it was up to each person to decide: do you want to keep the money and prosper or suffer and fight for what you believe? It goes back to your humanity. Some people hold on to their principles and some are happy if you just give them some money."

Mr. da Luz had a lot to do with money, his friend said. He was the local paymaster for the militia.

At this point, no one is accusing him of taking part in the worst of the atrocities here in Liquiça, a massacre of more than 50 people in April 1999 at the local church.

That is when Mr. dos Santos fled into the hills along with other pro-independence activists.

Another local official, Grigório Madeira, 42, recounted what was known of Mr. da Luz during the worst days of destruction last September, when the sky turned dark across East Timor from the smoke of burning buildings.

"He was with the Red and White Iron militia group and he was always heading off to Dili and other places with the other members," Mr. Madeira said. "Those were bad times. Nobody knows what he was up to."

Since he survived the dangerous moment of his return without being beaten to death, Mr. da Luz may never face trial or punishment.

But the United Nations is in the process of setting up East Timor's first court in Dili, and the first trials of militia members are expected in June. Young prosecutors and defenders are gathering evidence in the cases of a few of the toughest returnees, even as they receive training in the workings of a court system.

With extraordinary faith in this new process, many people in East Timor say they are waiting for the courts to produce the closure they crave.

"We must trust the courts to bring us justice," Mr. dos Santos said. "These people must stand up in court and tell the truth about what they have done, and we must believe them."

And what if -- once the process is complete -- members of the militia are acquitted and freed?

"That," he said, "is something we cannot accept."

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