Subject: Guardian: Militia Get Taste of East Timor Exiles' Hunger

The Guardian [UK] Saturday November 18, 2000

Militia get taste of East Timor exiles' hunger

Exit of aid agencies hits refugees - and the thugs who prey on them

John Aglionby in Atambua, West Timor

Agus Rodriguez cannot remember when last he had a half-decent meal. For more than a year he and his family - refugees from East Timor - have been in a squalid camp in Naikasa village, in Indonesian West Timor. For the last 10 weeks they have received only four kilos of rice each.

"In normal circumstances this would last less than seven days," he said. "We managed to make it last a lot longer, but we have had practically nothing for the last three weeks."

The impact of the food shortage is clearly visible. Babies are whining, toddlers are looking glum and emaciated and a general listlessness afflicts the adults. Medicine is equally scarce, Mr Rodriguez says, resulting in rampant diarrhoea and conjunctivitis.

The camp's woeful state was brought about by a mob of rampaging pro-Jakarta militiamen who murdered three staff members of the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR in the nearby town of Atambua on September 6.

These thugs had been terrorising the refugees and intimidating the aid workers ever since driving almost 300,000 people out of East Timor and over the border into West Timor after the easterners voted in August last year for independence from Indonesia.

Since the murder of the UN workers 10 weeks ago, almost all the international organisations in the area which had been providing most of the aid for the 120,000 or so refugees still stranded in West Timor have pulled out. Neither Jakarta nor the local administration is willing to pick up the cost of refugee care.

In another camp, near Atambua's small airfield, people have received only two kilograms of rice each since the UN left, according to a refugee leader, Jaffar Ghani. "People are now selling their clothes and other possessions to buy food. We are already half dead and in a month or so the situation will be much worse."

But why do the refugees stay, when East Timor is only a couple of hours' walk from Atambua? While tens of thousands are expected to choose to stay on the Indonesian side of the divide, there are many would-be returnees who are holding back because they remain frightened of political and militia bosses opposed to an independent East Timor.

Without the refugees and the camps, these figures would have no exiles to prey on, or the crucial aid supplies they attract.

Mr Rodriguez is one of those who wants to go home but feels himself trapped: "We have to wait for the word from above before we move."

There are devious games afoot, and "above" means different things in different areas. For some people it is the militia leadership in the neighbourhood who, carrying radios with a military look, conspicuously ride around Atambua on motorbikes keeping an eye on refugee activity.

Others are waiting for word from the pro-Jakarta political leadership in Kupang, the main city in West Timor. This is unlikely to come any time soon: these politicians still refuse to recognise the results of the independence referendum in East Timor.

"The ballot was not carried out in accordance with the agreements reached between Indonesia, Portugal and the UN," said a pro-Jakarta spokesman, Mario Vieria. "So therefore it's not valid. What we need now is a proper reconciliation process through extensive dialogue to find out what is really the best way forward for East Timor."

He insists that he and his colleagues reject the use of violence. That is not the case for all their supporters in Atambua. "We will continue to struggle to get East Timor returned to Indonesia until we die, and our children will do the same if necessary," said Domingos Soares, a militia leader. "Of course we prefer the diplomatic approach, but if that fails we will be forced to think again."

Hardliners like Mr Domin gos are now in a tiny minority, according to John Mangeng, who runs one of the few relief agencies still in Atambua.

"The situation with the militia is completely different now to what it was in September. Most have given up intimidating people because they are so hungry," he said. "Their political leaders have not delivered on promises to deliver food and money and they are now realising that without the international aid agencies here they will starve to death."

New, tougher, army and police commanders have also made a difference, but they admit that the militias will never be entirely eliminated, and that a recent drive did not recover all their weapons.

"There will always be opportunists who want to take advantage of the refugees," said Major-General Kiki Syahnakri, the regional military commander. "But we believe it is safe enough for the UNHCR to return."

The UN is not so sure. While seven security council ambassadors on a tour of West Timor this week declined to comment officially on what they would recommend, members of their delegation indicated that there was extreme reluctance to resume the relief programme.

"We've had so many hollow security guarantees in the past, it's going to take a lot more than what we have seen already before the programme restarts," one person said.

Misinformation is also holding many refugees back. "We hear nothing about what's going on in East Timor," said Elisabeth Nalak, who lives with her husband and four children in a room 2 metre square in Noelbaki camp, just outside Kupang. "We know our homes have been destroyed and we are told there is nothing left for us to go back to. So what's the point?"

On the camp noticeboard, the most recent update on developments in East Timor is dated March 1. The refugees have received no post from friends and family in East Timor since the UNHCR left.

Mr Mangeng believes that the UN, which administers East Timor, and the Indonesian government should launch a big publicity campaign and arrange "see-for-yourself" visits. But the floodgates will not open until a proper registration of refugees can be carried out, and this will not happen until foreigners feel comfortable enough to return to monitor it.

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