Subject: NYTimes: Timorese Refugees Tell of Terror by Militias After Foreigners Left

The New York Times October 10, 2000

Timorese Refugees Tell of Terror by Militias After Foreigners Left


Photo: Hostages escaping from armed gangs in West Timor are giving the world its only view of the lawlessness there after the United Nations pullout. A refugee family by a United Nations tank near Maliana after escaping from their camp and wading through a shallow river to reach East Timor. Anastasia T. Vrachnos for The New York Times

MALIANA, East Timor, Oct. 5 — Across the river from this small border town, beyond the banana palms that glow in the early morning sunlight, lies Indonesia's latest scene of terror, where armed gangs have run wild, holding tens of thousands of refugees hostage in defiance of international condemnation.

There, in the Indonesian territory of West Timor, the defeated East Timorese militias have regrouped, rearmed and reasserted themselves, shaming the Jakarta government and its military and jeopardizing billions of dollars in international aid.

Almost every morning, small groups of frightened refugees emerge from behind the banana trees and ford the shallow river to safety, bringing with them accounts of intimidation, abuse and shrinking food supplies in a no man's land where power has been ceded to the lawless.

Since the killings of three United Nations workers a month ago and the subsequent withdrawal of all foreign workers from West Timor, the escapees are the main source of information about the fate of the refugees who fled or were forced from East Timor a year ago after its vote for independence from Indonesia.

"We now have 100,000-plus people in a hostagelike situation, in complete darkness where there is no international presence to monitor what is happening," said Bernard Kerblat, director of operations in East Timor for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Map: A few refugees in West Timor are escaping to the East near Maliana. The New York Times

Debriefed at the edge of the river, their feet still wet from their crossing, the escapees say that the militias have been tightening their grip in the absence of a foreign presence.

"They tell us there is a roll call every night," Mr. Kerblat said. "If they go to the market or to trade at the border they have to leave behind relatives in the camps. When they go to the fields there are militia on motorcycles watching them. What they are also telling us is that they are living on the edge of survival since the unplugging of United Nations aid."

The militias appear motivated by what seems to be the unrealistic hope of reversing the independence vote or chopping off a chunk of East Timorese territory. Or, as in their rampage there after the vote when they forced more than a quarter of the population across the border into the west, they may also be acting now out of sheer hatred and revenge.

Despite pleas and pressure from abroad, the Indonesian government has failed to disarm and disband the militias and free the hostage refugees. In response, the United States and others have threatened to postpone a meeting this month in Tokyo at which donors are to agree on the disbursement of $5.6 billion in aid to the struggling Indonesian economy.

Indonesian officials have reacted with a now-familiar mixture of promises, prevarications and angry nationalistic language. Some diplomats say the statements of President Abdurrahman Wahid suggest that he is not being fully informed on the situation.

Humiliated by the militia killings of the United Nations workers on Sept. 6 — while he was visiting the United Nations in New York — Mr. Wahid sounded plaintive when he said: "I received a telephone call today saying we are in full control of the area."

For Indonesia, the militias are in some ways an attack dog that has turned against its trainer.

Recruited and armed by the military in a failed attempt to subvert East Timor's independence referendum last year, the militias, now numbering perhaps 2,000 men, have become a rogue force that highlights the government's weakening control of portions of its territory.

Still backed by elements of the military and by antigovernment spoilers, the militias are also a symptom of the fraying of the military chain of command, in which Jakarta's mandate in unstable areas like Aceh, Irian Jaya and the Maluku islands seems only a distant echo.

The issue will come before the United Nations Security Council again on Wednesday, when Foreign Minister Alwi Shihab is scheduled to present Indonesia's case.

"I've enough ammunition to convince the United Nations that what they have been saying about Indonesia being unable to control the situation is incorrect," he told reporters in Jakarta. "If there is someone saying that people are afraid to walk about in the refugee camps, I'll say that's incorrect."

West Timor has become an international issue both because of the attacks on United Nations workers and because the aggressive militias now threaten to destabilize both East Timor and Indonesia.

In East Timor, they appear bent on complicating the fragile birth of a nation that voted for independence from Indonesia on Aug. 30, 1999.

In the last two or three months, they have stepped up armed incursions across the 100-mile-long border, clashing several times with foreign peacekeepers and killing two of them. The peacekeepers report that the militias, operating in small units, are increasingly well armed and trained, with new boots and bullets to spare.

Speaking in New York a week ago, Sergio Vieira de Mello, the United Nations administrator for East Timor, noted that there had yet to be arrests in the Sept. 6 killings although a large crowd — including passive members of the Indonesian police and military — had witnessed them.

"There could hardly be a more eloquent demonstration of Indonesia's current inability to deal effectively with the problem," he said. "This is impunity running rampant."

It is an impunity that the militias learned last year in East Timor. Although they failed to stop the population from voting overwhelmingly for freedom, they did succeed in laying waste to much of the territory, killing more than 1,000 people and destroying about 70 percent of its buildings.

And in a breathtaking logistical exercise, they mobilized ferries and convoys of trucks to transport perhaps 250,000 people, out of East Timor's population of 800,000, into West Timor.

Although about half of those people have returned to East Timor, the others remain for a variety of reasons. Some stay voluntarily, others against their will.

Some are members of the militia or East Timorese members of the Indonesian military who, along with their families, do not wish to return home, or are afraid to. Some worked in the Indonesian civil service and would lose their government pensions and benefits if they returned to what is now a foreign country.

But officials estimate that 60 percent of the people in the camps would return if they were not prevented from doing so by force and by disinformation. Escapees say the militias have told them that United Nations peacekeepers have run amok in East Timor and will rape and kill them if they go home.

"The militias abuse us and they abuse the soldiers too," said one escapee, Fernando Noronha. "They walk around with machetes and knives and homemade pistols. They say, `If you want to go home, please do, but when the peacekeepers leave we will come and kill all of you.' "

The window for escapes may not last long. And if it closes, West Timor may become an even darker and more hidden place.

In the days leading up to the international donors' meeting in Tokyo, the Indonesian police and military have begun a high-profile sweep for weapons in the camps where the militia both control and blend in with the population.

Only a handful of guns have been recovered, which has led foreign officials to call the sweep "pathetic" and "lame in the extreme." In one instance, a group of militia members confronted the police and seized back a number of automatic rifles.

In some areas, though, the sweep appears to have pushed militia leaders into hiding, and their momentary departure has allowed the current trickle of escapes.

But whatever happens next inside the camps, the border itself will soon become impassable. The annual monsoon rains are about to begin, the river will swell and escape will become more difficult than ever.

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