Subject: SMH: 30,000 watching as former soldiers return to E. Timor

also: Mass grave found in Dili

Sydney Morning Herald November 23, 2000

30,000 watching as former soldiers return to East Timor

Photo: A mother holds her baby on board the Patricia Anne Hotung before it left Kupang for the return to East Timor. Photo: AFP

By Mark Dodd, Herald Correspondent on the Patricia Anne Hotung

As dawn broke yesterday scores of refugees scrambled up to the deck of this former Australian Navy survey ship for their first glimpse of Dili since the violence of September 1999 in East Timor.

While the children were excited, one group of middle-aged men was muted; there were a few smiles, but most exchanged pensive glances and talked in hushed tones, pointing to familiar landmarks, as the ship sailed east.

The men are former Indonesian soldiers returning with their families to their home villages in what is the most politically sensitive repatriation undertaken so far by the United Nations mission in East Timor.

A total of 410 men, women and children will land at Com and be taken by truck to the the villages of Viqueque, Los Palos and Lautem.

One man will be turned over to UN Civilian Police for suspected involvement in last year's violence. No details are being given about his case.

"It is the first major repatriation since August and it is a politically sensitive group whose safe return should send a positive message to those refugees still living in West Timor," Chris Lom, of the Geneva-based International Organisation for Migration (IOM), said.

The operation, which began in June, has been organised by the IOM, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor, East Timorese independence leaders and the Indonesian army and police.

It marks the first return of UN agencies to Indonesian West Timor since the murder on September6 of three foreign UNHCR staff in the border town of Atambua.

Security concerns were uppermost in the minds of senior UN officials during several tense days of negotiations in Kupang, the West Timorese capital, before the ship's arrival on Monday. The thorniest issue finally was payment of salaries and pensions to the former soldiers and public servants, many of whom were owed two or three years' arrears by Jakarta.

If this first repatriation of ex-soldiers is successful then up to 30,000 others, a number that includes family members, are likely to follow.

The UNHCR's senior Dili-based operations officer, Bernard Kerblatt, travelling with the refugees, said the organisation had noticed a change in the Indonesian attitude to refugee repatriation.

"It took the Atambua tragedy to get them to react," he said. "On [refugee] numbers they are delivering much more than before. We have to ensure what they are doing is sustainable."

He said the UNHCR sought a bigger role for Indonesian authorities, particularly the military, in helping refugees to return to East Timor, and so far the signs were encouraging.

"Let the international community give them some support. I think we must give the Indonesians a little time to do this in their own way."

Increased co-operation by Indonesia on refugee repatriation follows the recent replacement of several senior police and army officers, including that of the army's Eastern Region Commander, Major-General Kiki Syahnakri, with Major-General Willem da Costa, a native of nearby Flores.

"There is a completely different understanding of the situation now. Clearly the police are playing a stronger role in encouraging the refugees to decide for themselves whether they want to go home," Mr Kerblatt said.

The UNHCR estimates that 80,000 to 100,000 East Timorese refugees remain in West Timor, most of whom are considered to be likely returnees.

"Look, at the end of the day, these poor buggers don't have a choice. They can go back to their villages in East Timor, rot in a refugee camp or get involved in some shitty transmigration program. I would be taking my chances on returning to my village," said one aid official who asked not to be named.


Mass grave found in Dili

Lisbon: A grave containing at least 12 bodies has been discovered in the centre of the East Timorese capital, Dili, the Portuguese agency Lusa reported on Tuesday.

The grave was hidden beneath a concrete slab that workers uncovered as they were digging a hole for a septic tank, Lusa said.

The discovery - made near a building that was used as a prison by Indonesian authorities - was believed to date from Jakarta's 1975-1999 occupation of East Timor, the agency said.

A report by a United Nations Security Council mission has questioned the slow pace of reconstruction in East Timor.

"The overall state of ... infrastructure remains devastated," the report of the seven-member mission, which visited East Timor for two days last week, said. The report was tabled before the Security Council.

The mission was concerned about "the small amounts so far expended on reconstruction and the uneven rate of progress of the rest of the country compared with Dili". It highlighted slow progress in the reconstruction of roads, power supplies and buildings.

Agence France-Presse


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