Subject: LAT: East Timorese Refugees Play Waiting Game

Foreign Desk

Fearful of Returning Home, East Timorese Refugees Play Waiting Game Asia: Pro-Indonesian militias continue fight against independence, intimidating those who fled to West Timor .


06/17/2000 Los Angeles Times

KUPANG, Indonesia -- They are the losers in the struggle for East Timor , where ballots ultimately proved more powerful than bullets. They are angry and bitter, betrayed, they believe, by "white-skin people"--the United Nations, Western journalists, Australian peacekeepers--who stole their homeland from under their very noses.

Now they sit and plan in a semi-furnished villa in the hills above Kupang, the forlorn capital of Indonesia's West Timor province. They are waiting for the day when, against the weight of all reality, the world realizes the injustice and returns East Timor to Indonesia, the brutal ruler backed by militias that burned the place to the ground in September.

"We are sitting here today only because of the white-skin people," said Daniel Baptista, who opposed independence. "They caused all the problems in East Timor . We've asked the U.N. and Indonesia to invalidate the elections. They haven't replied. But one day East Timor will come back to Indonesia. I'm very emotional about this. History will be righted."

That's not likely. The people of East Timor --a former Portuguese colony that Indonesia invaded in 1975 and annexed in 1976--were given the choice Aug. 30 of autonomy or independence. Freedom won by a 4-1 margin.

The next day pro-autonomy militias, backed by Indonesia's armed forces, ran amok. Within three weeks, hundreds of independence supporters had been killed, a quarter of the province's population had fled to West Timor , and most towns in the East lay in smoldering ruins.

The militias also ended up in West Timor , chased out of the eastern half of Timor island by an Australian-led U.N. peacekeeping force. The militia foot soldiers traveled steerage to Kupang in converted freighters; their leader took the first-class cabins. Then the militia chiefs slipped away to other parts of Indonesia and weren't heard from for months.

Now many are back. In January, they stitched together the tattered pro-autonomy groups under the banner of a new organization, the Union of Timorese Patriots, or UNTAS.

"According to the white-skin people you see, is East Timor really ready to be a country?" asked Baptista, a UNTAS official. He spoke in the hilltop villa where one of the most notorious militia leaders, Eurico Guterres, drifted in and out and a dozen or so men in casual civilian attire busied themselves reading reports and making phone calls. A group of young, unarmed men sat idly in the frontyard.

UNTAS' agenda is fuzzy, especially because the term "pro-autonomy" is irrelevant in a U.N.-administered territory making the transition to independence. The group's leaders say UNTAS is a political union and has done nothing to discourage the 125,000 East Timorese refugees still in West Timor from returning home under the auspices of the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. But clearly something is impeding their return.

"In my heart I want to go back," said Mario Amaral, a 24-year-old refugee, "but I'd be scared to right now. There are reports the militias are planning to return to East Timor . What if the people there think I was on the wrong side; how safe am I then? The thought of all the killing before is still very stressful. I'm confused."

Only about half the refugees who fled East Timor in the wake of last year's violence have been repatriated. This puzzles relief workers who thought the crisis would be over months ago and expected that the start of the dry season in April would result in an exodus from primitive camps scattered throughout West Timor . Instead, the outflow has slowed to a trickle.

"There are a lot of factors involved, but I think most who wanted to go back have already left," said Jose Meneses, operations director for the International Organization for Migration, a nonprofit relief agency that has an old Australian navy vessel on standby for the one-day trip to Dili, East Timor 's capital. "A lot of refugees are settling in for the long haul. They'd prefer to stay here."

One of the most significant factors is a volume of misinformation created by UNTAS and disseminated by unarmed militiamen who prowl the camps. Their message to the refugees is direct: If you were pro-autonomy and return, you will be beaten, killed, perhaps burned alive. If you were pro-independence, you will not find a job or food. Many of your relatives who returned already are dead.

"My family went back, and I haven't heard from them," said Antonio de Castro, a 25-year-old refugee. "Maybe if I knew they were safe, I'd go back too, but until then I don't dare. And the longer I stay here, the more people at home will suspect I supported the wrong side. They'll say, 'If Antonio wasn't guilty, why didn't he come home with the others in December?'"

The U.N. has tried to counter the misinformation with newspaper ads, radio announcements, even sending field workers to East Timor to photograph returnees, then giving the pictures to family members in the camps. Officials do not deny that some returning militiamen have been beaten, and one reportedly was killed, but generally the spirit in East Timor has been one of reconciliation and problems have been surprisingly few, relief workers say.

The militias' influence has been diluted since the days they ruled, first in East Timor and then the camps in West Timor . But the return of their leaders--something the Indonesian government should have prevented, relief officials say--has heightened tensions in the camps where anti-independence supporters intimidate, manipulate and instigate.

"The situation in the camps is very fragile, volatile," said Craig Sanders, who heads the U.N. refugee program in West Timor . "It's like skating on thin ice. It's rare that you can see you're on thin ice until it breaks, and when it does, you go down quickly."

Two weeks ago, five people died when West Timorese fought East Timorese in and around Tua Pukan camp here. The violence flared on rumors that a 16-year-old refugee girl had been impregnated by a West Timorese--a rumor that underscored the growing jealousy between the two groups, most of whose members are Christian, though Indonesia itself is predominantly Muslim.

"I love the East Timorese like brothers, but they are poor and we are just as poor," said Yeremiasa Pah, who has a vegetable stand near the camp. "Why should they get free rice, free blankets from the United Nations when we get nothing? The United Nations should take care of us too."

The Indonesian government, anxious to end the West Timor crisis, has set three deadlines for cutting off its refugee aid. Each passed uneventfully as international pressure mounted. But relief workers say most of the food, medicine and supplies come from international agencies and the impact of Indonesia ending assistance would be more symbolic than substantive.

PHOTO: East Timorese refugees Antonio de Castro, left, and Mario Amaral. Only about half those who fled last year have been repatriated.; ; PHOTOGRAPHER: DAVID LAMB / Los Angeles Times

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