Subject: NYTimes: Shattered Lives in Timor: Now, to Try to Rebuild

The New York Times October 27, 2000


Shattered Lives in Timor: Now, to Try to Rebuild


MALIBAKA, East Timor — "Ready?" said the Australian officer in the pale blue United Nations cap, surveying the small crowd waiting on the far side of the shallow Malibaka River. "Give the signal!"

Just behind him, two armored vehicles stood guard at a barbed wire corral. Several soldiers lay with their rifles behind a dune of black sand. Only the rushing of the water and the distant bark of a dog broke the silence.

At his signal, the Indonesian soldiers on the far bank moved aside and the small crowd waded into the water, stepping carefully from stone to stone, carrying with them everything they owned.

Thirteen months ago, when they fled the other way across this same river, the sky was black with the smoke of burning buildings and the air was filled with shouts and gunshots, violence that erupted after East Timor voted for independence from Indonesia.

Among the first to cross back the other day were Fernando Noronho, his wife, Francisca, and his five small daughters, along with a bag of rice, four blue plastic chairs, a plastic table, two cooking pots, a washtub, a thermos, an umbrella, a piglet in a sack, a chicken and a small dog on a leash.

His oldest daughter, Madelena, 10, carried in her pocket a jump-rope made of braided rubber bands.

"Hello and welcome," said the Australian, a major named John McCaffrey, in a mixture of the local languages, Tetun and Indonesian.

It was the end of a terrifying journey, from the destruction of East Timor to the squalor and harassment of an internment camp in West Timor and back again now to a shattered land of poverty, bereavement and the roofless shells of burned and abandoned homes.

The Noronho family, like the others who came with them, were greeted with a welcome but also with suspicion. Inside the barbed wire corral, United Nations soldiers inspected their belongings with a metal detector, peered into their bag of rice, poked at their pig and hefted their rolled umbrella.

Mr. Noronho, the only man in the group, was taken aside for a brief interrogation by the side of a tree.

You never know, the major said, when one of the returning refugees might be a member of the militias that caused the destruction and are now trying to filter back to do more harm.

"Sometimes," he said, "one of the refugees pretends to be sick so they can talk to us privately and point to someone: `That man, he's militia.' "

When the militias, backed by the Indonesian military, carried out their campaign of destruction after East Timor voted for independence on Aug. 30, 1999, perhaps 250,000 people fled or were forced across the border into West Timor, which remains part of Indonesia.

In the year since then, some 100,000 people have remained hostages of the militias in an archipelago of squalid camps where rapes, beatings and killings have continued.

"They threatened us and beat us," said Mr. Noronho, a farmer who does not know his age but appears to be about 50. "And whenever we bought some supplies they stole them from us."

For most of the trapped refugees, life appears to have grown harsher since all foreign aid workers were withdrawn after the killings of three United Nations officials inside a camp on Sept. 6.

But for a few thousand refugees in three camps close to the border here, escape is suddenly a possibility. The militia leaders who control them have withdrawn in recent days, apparently to evade a military-run sweep for weapons.

"They are afraid of the army because they have not only abused us refugees but also some of the soldiers," Mr. Noronho said. In a sign of the breakdown of government control in West Timor, the militias now rule the camps and some of the towns, intimidating even the military and the police.

Although some military units appear to be supplying and supporting the armed gangs, United Nations officials say other soldiers have expressed their frustration at their commanders' inability to control and disarm the militias.

At this crossing point, one of six along the 100-mile border, Major McCaffrey said there was cooperation between the United Nations troops on one side and the Indonesian troops on the other.

Two United Nations military observers — a Malaysian and a Thai — are billeted with the Indonesians on the western side of the river. A formal procedure has been put in place for the evacuations of the escaping refugees.

The atmosphere at the river is so relaxed that each group of evacuees, with their household goods, is helped across by fellow refugees who then return to the west, not quite ready yet, for whatever reasons, to head home to East Timor.

Mr. Noronho's four grown sons had preceded him to their village near the border town of Maliana and were waiting for him. With the help of other newly returned villagers, they had scavenged tin roofing and prepared a tiny cinder-block house for their arrival.

Heading there now in the back of a white truck belonging to the International Organization for Migration, Mr. Noronho and his wife sat stolidly, looking nowhere, as they and their children bumped over the unpaved roads.

Like East Timor itself, they will be starting a new life with virtually nothing, creating a home in what was recently a ghost town and scrabbling to feed themselves and their family.

There is always, at the return, a moment of suspense, said Stijn Schrooten, a United Nations volunteer from Belgium who has accompanied scores of refugees on this last leg of their journey.

"We are looking around all the time at the reception," he said. "We can see right away if it will be a warm reception or a cool reception." Sometimes the returnees are former members of the militia or their families, and occasionally, he said, the local residents get angry.

As the Noronho family entered its village, dozens of children emerged from half-ruined buildings, running alongside the truck and shouting: "Refugees! Refugees!"

Mrs. Noronho, her smallest child at her breast, looked out at the welcoming crowd, at the fragile new plots of flowers and vegetables and at the glowing green fields beyond. Her face softened, then broke into a radiant smile.

Her eldest daughter was the first to jump from the truck, and the village children began to shout again: "Madelena! Madelena!"

Mrs. Noronho handed her smaller children down to her friends. She walked into the little cinder-block house and hung her umbrella on a nail in the wall. Someone had lit a fire in the tiny hearth.

Outside in the sunshine, Madelena showed the children her jump-rope made of rubber bands. One of them gave her a marble.

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