Subject: Reuters: Fear returns to haunt the villages of East Timor

Fear returns to haunt the villages of East Timor

By Terry Friel

BOBONARO, East Timor, Sept 3 (Reuters) - For a month and a half last year, Maria Soares sheltered in deep limestone caves in remote mountains in the western part of East Timor, hiding from rampaging pro-Jakarta militiamen.

Now, a year later, the militias are defying U.N. peacekeepers and sneaking in from camps across the nearby border in Indonesian West Timor. And Maria Soares is afraid again.

``We have information the militia have returned and are in our area,'' she said, standing in the ragged main street of this remote mountain town. ``We are afraid to go out at night. The people in the villages are even more scared.''

A year after the militias razed East Timor when it voted to end more than 23 years of Indonesian military rule -- never recognised by most foreign governments -- about 120 militiamen have crossed back into the territory.

At Mount Leolaco, not far from Bobonaro, Australian troops have encircled a small group of militiamen and are trying to flush them out.

Company commander Major David Thomae is confident the almost 8,000 U.N. peacekeepers across the eastern half of Timor island can guarantee security as East Timorese struggle to rebuild.

``We have restricted the militia to difficult terrain,'' he said at his base in the border town of Maliana. He said there was no sign the militiamen planned to attack villagers.

``The security situation is very good.''


But local people, priests and aid workers say they are increasingly anxious the militiamen will soon turn on them.

``I am worried, the people are worried,'' said Bobonaro priest Father Cyrus Banque, outside his half-built home being put up to replace the one the militias torched last September.

``There is fear the militiamen will again harm the people,'' he said, adding he believed the militias, backed by elements of the Indonesian military, still wanted to grab part of the territory as an Indonesian province or pro-Indonesian zone.

Father Cyrus said militiamen were already stealing cows for food and predicted an increase in such foraging raids.

In Maliana, Father Efren Guzman, from the Jesuit Refugee Service, said militiamen had recently forced villagers to hand over food at gunpoint.

``The priority here is security,'' he said. ``Without security, there can be no development.''

Bobonaro still bears the scars of the militia rampage that killed hundreds across East Timor. Many buildings lie in ruins, others are patched up with materials from relief agencies.

At night, there is no power. Just a few candles flicker in some huts and homes.

The small market is offering almost the same sparse range of vegetables, noodles, fruit and dried fish that it did before last year's violence. But very few people can afford to buy much.

The farming the town relies on has lost a season of planting and much of the latest harvest is being lost because there is almost no transport to get it to market. The militias destroyed the water supply network and seed stores.

``Food is still short because the militias destroyed everything,'' said farmer Domingos Pacheco. ``And the militia have come back. People are afraid to go out at night... afraid if they go into the jungle or the fields to work.''


Father Efren said East Timorese had opted for freedom after centuries of colonial rule when they cast their ballots on August 30, 1999, well aware of the price they would pay.

``The people knew the price of freedom,'' he said. ``It was very clear that tears and blood would flow.''

After being driven out of East Timor last year by a U.N.-mandated force that preceded the peacekeeping operation, the militias have established a reign of terror in the refugee camps in West Timor, unchecked by Indonesian police or soldiers.

About 300,000 people fled to West Timor or were forced there by the militias. Some 120,000 remain in camps, providing cover and bases for the militias. The international community is pressing Indonesia to close the camps to rob the militias of their havens, a key step in wiping them out as a threat.

But despite the fears, there is increasing optimism in East Timor, even in the volatile border area. The economy is picking up, aid is pouring in and elections are due by the end of 2001 to choose a government to lead the territory to independence.

The United Nations and foreign governments have indicated peacekeeping troops will stay on to ensure security when the U.N. administration pulls out after independence.

``There's an air of freedom,'' said Father Cyrus. ``People are a little more hopeful that they have at last attained freedom.''

Said Soares: ``We hope the future will be even better. In the Indonesian time we didn't feel free. Now we are free.''

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