Subject: Timor communities coping with complexities of reconciliation

The Australian 30 August 2000

Militia seek a peaceful road home

Timor communities are coping in their own ways with the complexities of reconciliation, reports Don Greenlees in Suai

ON the night of July 4, the people of Zumalai must have had a chilling sense of deja vu. As they were finishing their evening meal, shots rang out on the fringes of the town.

Panicked residents ran to escape the return of a band of 25 armed and five unarmed militiamen, seeking shelter in a neighbourhood away from the firing.

Then, the town's elders decided to send out a small party to negotiate. It resulted in a two-hour dialogue. The militiamen, from the group known as Mahidi (Life or Death Integration), wanted food and information about the location of the peacekeeping forces.

But most importantly, they wanted to know about the welfare of relatives and if it were safe to return. Stories circulating in the refugee camps in West Timor suggested some returnees had been murdered.

"They wanted to surrender," says Santiago Barreto, a town leader. "We told them to come back. Timor is already free."

The Mahidi militiamen accepted that the local people had only enough food for themselves – rations from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees – and left peacefully. They are yet to take up the offer to return.

But the incident illustrates how communities across East Timor are independently coping with the complexities of reconciliation without the hands-on participation of national leaders or foreign agencies.

A year after East Timor's historic vote for independence triggered an orgy of killing, looting and destruction, hundreds of former soldiers, police and militiamen have managed to reintegrate into what were bitterly divided communities.

In Zumalai, surrounded by the mountains and dense forest of the south-west, Mr Barreto says 200 Mahidi militiamen have already resettled. After early tensions – in which peacekeepers suspect two militiamen were killed – the situation is now calm.

There are also signs that many of the lower-ranking militia, who face less risk of prosecution or communal retribution, are growing tired of life in the West Timor camps and are ready to take their chances back in the east.

Further to the east of Zumalai, near the town of Alas, as many as 50 militiamen are in protracted negotiations with a Catholic priest on surrendering to Portuguese peacekeepers.

Father Renee Manubag, a Filipino pastor at the Suai cathedral, says: "If I see it right, the militia is tired of killings and they have guilty feelings. If they have a fear, it's the whites or the peacekeeping force."

Father Renee, who took over after the murder of three priests at the Suai church on September 6, believes villagers are gradually losing their anxiety about the militia because they have not been targeted in the numerous cross-border incursions.

"They (the militia) need the support of the masses," he says. "If they kill, they lose that."

Despite the presence of 2000 UN troops along the rugged 180km border, the difficult terrain allows the militia on most occasions to evade hostile contact on what often appear to be reconnaissance missions.

Two peacekeepers have been killed while searching for militia in the past, but UN commanders say there have been no planned militia assaults since several Australian troops were lucky to escape a grenade attack on June 21.

The commander of the Australian and New Zealand battalions in the western sector, Brigadier Duncan Lewis, describes the two combat fatalities as "chance contacts".

But he remains wary about militia intentions. Notwithstanding evidence that the purpose of many militia incursions may be to assess the options for a return home, peacekeepers have run into militia groups that show a fierce determination to fight and a high level of military skill.

During one firefight two weeks ago, a militiaman was hit in the stomach by two bullets, yet he managed to move 200m up a sharp incline. When Australian troops later found his body, they discovered he had laid out ammunition ready to maintain fire on his pursuers.

"I am still concerned about assaults on our positions; I think that is a possibility," says Brigadier Lewis. "We have certainly made absolutely sure our positions are watertight in terms of security . . . We do anticipate there could be further attacks."

There are also concerns that a small, well-trained hard core have the will and resources to keep the fight going indefinitely. Western diplomats and Indonesian military sources have claimed that serving and retired generals are continuing to sponsor militia with money and uniforms.

Even with the precautions, there is a high risk of further peacekeeping fatalities. At the Nepalese company in Suai, soldiers are mourning the death of 25-year-old Private Devi Ram Jaisi, who leaves behind two children, one just nine days old.

Referring to the militiamen who shot the soldier in the chest, Lieutenant Roj Rana says: "They were using fire and move tactics. I think they are very professional."

The sacrifice of the soldiers is, however, bringing hope to communities that have had little reason for joy over the years. Manuel Gomez da Costa, chief of the seaside village of Suai Loro, remembers how his neighbour Joao Amaral hit him and threatened him with an SKS assault rifle on September 10.

Amaral, who had joined the Laksaur Merah Putih, later returned from a West Timor camp to live 100m from da Costa's wooden hut. Last Saturday, da Costa proved his goodwill by joining Amaral in his spartan living room.

"I have already forgiven him," says da Costa. "I can sit here and I don't threaten him."

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