Subject: GU: We are simple people who want to go home'

The Guardian (London)

August 25, 2000

Guardian Foreign Pages, Pg. 15

We are simple people who want to go home'; Jakarta-backed Militias Continue To Terrorise East Timorese, Holding Refugees Hostage

John Aglionby in Atambua

Marietta Soares did not have to speak to show that she was afraid of being caught talking to a white man. Continually glancing around, she was shaking as she described her family's plight, effectively held hostage for the past 11 months in a squalid refugee camp just inside Indonesian West Timor.

My three children and I get enough food for three helpings of rice each a day,' she said. Occasionally we get a few vegetables or some dried fish, but they don't allow us go out to find our own food. We can only do what they let us and we rarely get any news except what they tell us.

We really want to go home to East Timor, but it is impossible. They will beat us or maybe even kill us if we try. Even talking to you risks punishment.'

They' are the militia, ', a mixture of East Timorese paramilitaries who support the Indonesian government in Jakarta, West Timorese thugs, and current and former members of the Indonesian armed forces. Feeling angry and betrayed by East Timor's overwhelming vote for independence last August after 25 years of Indonesian occupation, they are fighting a desperate campaign to try to reverse their defeat.

Their aim is to win the right to create an Indonesian region in western East Timor. There is a political wing, the Heroes of Timorese Unity, which denies the militia existence and stresses that its campaign is a purely peaceful one.

Their strategy is two pronged. The first is to use the remaining 130,000 of the refugees who fled militia violence in East Timor last year as a bargaining chip by preventing them returning to East Timor or - as tens of thousands wish to -building a new life in Indonesia.

This is done by brute force and a skillful disinformation campaign, telling them that East Timor is so unsafe that people are flooding back to West Timor. While the forces of law and order in East Timor are far from complete, the territory is calm.

The second part of the strategy involves fighting a guerrilla war in western East Timor against the international peacekeeping force. UN officials attacked

It took about six months for the militia and their army backers to regroup and plan a new strategy,' said one of the few international aid workers still in Atambua, the town about five miles from the border where most of the refugee camps are located.

During this time about 150,000 refugees returned to East Timor. But since April the militia have been escalating their campaign of terror and intimidation against both the refugees and the United Nations.'

This reached a new peak on Tuesday when, during a visit to what was considered to be one of the safest camps in West Timor, representatives of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) were deliberately attacked for the first time. All three were beaten so badly that they needed hospital treatment and one, a local man called Gotlief, was lucky to escape with his life.

At one point a group of about a dozen were hitting me with sticks and throwing stones at me as I was lying on the ground,' he said.

Then I heard one of them speaking my own local language so I shouted back that I am from the same small island as him and he ordered them to stop attacking me. If he had not done so, I would have been killed.'

As a result of the attack, the UNHCR has decided to suspend its operations in West Timor. We've been pushing for improved security since October but none of our demands have been met,' said Jake Morland, the UNHCR spokesman in West Timor.

The actions of the army and police amount to peanuts. They allow the militia to act with impunity and have not bothered to disarm the militias or arrest those responsible for the terror, intimidation and beatings.'

Two recent incidents exemplify the Indonesian army's attitude to the militia and the UNHCR. A day after seizing about a dozen semi-automatic rifles in a sweep of refugee camps around Atambua earlier this month, the army returned the weapons. The commander said he was afraid there would be a riot if he did not give them back.

His counterpart in Kefamenanu, a town 55 miles west of Atambua, said this week that the UNHCR would only be allowed to keep vehicles on his base, as a security precaution, if they paid him rent for the parking spaces.

The armed forces have made no concerted effort to stop the militiamen blocking the main road from Atambua to the East Timorese border.

These barricades have been erected not only to stop the refugees sneaking back home, but also to starve the East Timorese into yielding to the militia's demands, according to a militiaman armed with a machete on one roadblock.

(East Timorese leader) Xanana (Gusmao) said he would be happy to be independent even if he has to eat stones,' he said. Well, let's see how they feel when we force them to really eat stones and drink their own piss.'

The militia's guerrilla war in East Timor began in April with short, sharp hit-and-run raids on communities just across the border. Now their its involve sending squads of well-armed and well-trained fighters deeper into the territory. At least eight are known to be operating at the moment, some as far as 60 miles into East Timor. Bitter fruit of darkness

The ones in our area are like Japanese ninjas,' UN soldier in East Timor said. They are dressed all in black with white neckscarves. They carry modern weapons and lots of ammunition.'

So far the militia squads have not singled out civilians, except for food, and have killed only two international peacekeepers. But they have caused fear in many communities.

It is unclear who is leading the militia. Diplomatic sources in Jakarta say they have accumulated conclusive evidence that several elements of the Indonesian army,particularly the special forces, are the driving force behind the campaign.

The UN administrator in East Timor, Sergio Vieria de Mello, says he is confident that the threat will not last long. They are and will be made ever more irrelevant here and in Indonesia,' he told local politicians this week. They belong to the past when irrational violence and force of weapons, not arguments, prevailed. They were the bitter fruit of darkness, and they shall return to it.'

But feelings in West Timor are more sombre. Unless the Indonesian government shows serious political will, the refugees could be stuck here for at least another year,' Mr Morland said.

The Indonesian deputy foreign minister, Hassan Wirajuda, admits there is a crisis but says it is very difficult to solve. This is not just a simple case of dealing with a few thugs,' he said during a tour of East and West Timor this week. It is a complex problem involving many social issues, so what we need is a comprehensive solution.'

He proposes to greatly increase the number of Indonesian security troops in the border region to deal with the militia threat,close the camps, and put the refugees into transit centres for eventual return to East Timor or settlement in in Indonesia, according to their wishes.

Our problem is that we do not have enough resources and so we are appealing to the international community for help,' he said.

But the international community is not backing the plan as it stands. If they close the camps forcibly, against the wishes of the refugees, it could be catastrophic,' Mr Morland said.

Meanwhile tens of thousands of innocent victims like Marietta Soares continue to suffer.

We aren't politicians,' she said. We are just simple people who want to go home.'

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