Subject: Newsweek: Peace Unrequited

Newsweek September 4, 2000, Atlantic Edition

Peace Unrequited By Ron Moreau

East Timor is, literally, rising from the ashes. But the demons of the past--the militiamen--still haunt the fledgling country.

BODY: Maria de Fatima Ximenes Diaz is not easily defeated. A year ago Indonesian soldiers and East Timorese militiamen burned her home and destroyed her clinic in an orgy of killing, looting and arson. She camped out under a tree on the waterfront of the East Timorese capital of Dili--one of the hundreds of thousands of East Timorese who had been driven from their homes following East Timor's vote for independence from Indonesia. Today the 12-bed clinic where Ximenes used to secretly treat wounded pro-independence guerrillas has been repaired. A dozen Kenyan soldiers, who are part of the United Nations' 8,000-man Peacekeeping Force, are installing a new roof, doors and windows on a nearby house in order to turn it into a surgical theater. Dozens of patients wait on plastic chairs in the clinic's dirt yard to see a doctor. "It's a miracle," enthuses Ximenes. "We had courage to resist the Indonesians, and now we have the courage to rebuild."

But the demons are still haunting East Timor. For three weeks last September, Indonesian soldiers and militiamen killed as many as 2,000 East Timorese, burning the place to the ground. United Nations-backed Australian troops reimposed order, scaring the militias across the border to Indonesian West Timor. The United Nations now runs the country through a transitional authority that will guide it toward elections next summer and independence by the end of next year. But East Timor was occupied by Indonesia for 25 years, and hard-line elements in the Indonesian Defense Forces, called the TNI, and the militias haven't abandoned their goal of aborting the birth of the new country. From West Timor border camps Indonesian officers, allegedly operating beyond the control of Jakarta, are directing 200 to 300 militiamen. U.N. officials believe they are planning an attack on Aug. 30, the first anniversary of the independence vote, to prove they can disrupt the country. Says Jose Ramos-Horta, the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize laureate and East Timor's top diplomat: "They will continue trying to make life difficult for us because we humiliated them at the ballot box."

As they struggle to rebuild their country, the new leaders have decided to welcome the demons home. They have made national reconciliation their top priority. Given that the militias are continuing their violence, it is a risky strategy. Over the past two months the militiamen have killed two U.N. peacekeepers and wounded three more in an escalating guerrilla campaign. Last week the United Nations withdrew aid in West Timor after militiamen severely beat up two U.N. workers in a refugee camp on the border. Nonetheless, the National Council of Timorese Resistance (CNRT)--an umbrella organization of independence parties that is helping the U.N. authority govern the country until independence--has decided not to arrest or prosecute the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of militiamen who are suspected of arson and murder. The council is actually trying to persuade most of the murderous militiamen to return to East Timor. If they don't abandon their guerrilla activities, "then we should strike back and destroy them," said Jose Alexandre (Xanana) Gusmo, East Timor's charismatic former guerrilla who resigned as leader of the council over the weekend.

Hundreds of militiamen and their families have returned with the 170,000-odd East Timorese who have come back voluntarily. A hundred thousand more, perhaps half of them militia sympathizers, remain in the militia-controlled West Timorese camps. The militiamen who have returned--largely without incident--are living again in the communities they terrorized. Armindo Florindo, a former pro-independence guerrilla fighter, escaped a militia manhunt after last year's vote by disguising himself in a militia hat and jacket. "We must be tolerant and forgiving, even though they destroyed our land," he says. Florindo is in charge of helping militiamen--31 so far--settle back into his hometown of Becora. Ramos-Horta, who lost three brothers and a sister during the anti-Indonesian resistance, believes prosecutions of militia murderers could be counterproductive. "The country could be paralyzed," he told NEWSWEEK. "At some point someone will have to have the courage to step forward and say, 'Let's start anew; let's try to bury the past and look to the future'."

Remarkably, there are encouraging signs of normalcy in Dili. Most of the city is still in ruins, but the Australian Army patrols of tanks and infantry are gone. On streets where dazed refugees wandered not long ago, searching for their homes and relatives, minibuses jammed with passengers and goods now rumble by. Open-air vegetable markets are springing up, selling used clothes and cheap Indonesian consumer goods, too. A restaurant, which caters mostly to U.N. personnel, has opened in a hotel courtyard that served as the headquarters of militia leader Eurico Guterrez's Aitarak force, which is believed to be responsible for most of last September's violence in Dili. Small shops are reopening. Across the country, water and electricity services have been restored for at least several hours a day. Foreign contractors are repairing the country's washed-out roads. In every neighborhood, people are repairing their burned houses.

The farmers are back in the fields, too. Coffee farmers hope to plant more trees now that the militias don't steal all their income. Experts predict that better farming techniques can help boost coffee-export income from some $10 million to four times that in three to five years. The rice and corn crops may reach 75 percent of their pre-independence-vote level this year. Local priests say the numbers of baptisms and marriages in the predominantly Roman Catholic country, which was colonized by the Portuguese for 450 years, have returned to normal levels. Every Sunday East Timor's other Nobel Peace Prize winner, Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo, celebrates a sunrise mass in the yard beside his burned-out residence as hundreds of worshipers kneel on the ground.

The longer-term hope is that natural gas and oil may help the country, which this year received $500 million in international aid, to become self-supporting. Experts think there may be large reserves below the deep seabed of the Timor Gap between East Timor and Australia. East Timor's share of Shell Oil's current production in the Timor Gap amounts to only $4 million annually in royalties and taxes. But if Philips Petroleum's $1.4 billion natural-gas and oil-exploration project in the Timor Gap strikes it rich, the country could earn as much as $100 million a year in natural-gas revenues. "It's not out of the question that this country may not have to rely on external budget support in four to five years," says Sergio de Mello, the head of the U.N. Transitional Authority.

Exiled East Timorese and ethnic-Chinese businessmen who fled last September's violence are starting to trickle back. Americo Ferrajota Simo, 44, an East Timorese businessman who was arrested in 1992 and imprisoned for three years for aiding pro-independence guerrillas, has returned from exile in Australia. He put together some capital with the help of friends in Singapore and has just opened a store selling construction materials in Dili. "This is our big opportunity to be our own boss," he says. "We are going to make something of ourselves."

But big-time investors are staying away. A handful of foreigners, mainly Australians, have invested in short-term projects like restaurants, small hotels and car-rental agencies to cash in on the international-aid presence. Most local ethnic Chinese are still wary. "We're going to wait and see," says Ian Jape, who has a small dry-goods store. "We won't be making any new investments any time soon." Perhaps 70 to 80 percent of Dili's working-age residents are jobless--a legacy of long-term neglect and economic exploitation by Portugal and Indonesia. The annual per capita income is somewhere between $100 and $250. Illiteracy stands at 70 percent, and labor skills are non-existent. "I have a new country, but I don't have a new life," says Domingos de Araujo, 45, sitting under a shade tree next to the Santa Cruz cemetery. "I'm still jobless." Street gangs are cropping up. Some foreigners have been robbed at machete point. The United Nations has issued a warning, cautioning foreigners against going to remote beaches alone.

Making peace with the enemies next door is painful. Francisco Amaral, 48, a tough-looking former commander of some 100 Aitarak militiamen in the Dili suburb of Becora, moved back home in June with his wife and six children. His militia group is suspected of murdering scores of people. Amaral's house, not surprisingly, is one of the few that wasn't burned in his neighborhood. In an interview with NEWSWEEK he claims he is innocent. "I didn't kill or hurt anyone," he says. The Indonesian military, he says, "ordered the militia to burn and kill." Another militiaman, Amindo da Silva, 27, who returned from West Timor last July, also protests his innocence. "I was working in my garden when the houses were burned," he says. "I don't know what happened." The nearby neighbors, displaying more than a hint of fear, say that they know who the men are but don't know if they were involved in last year's violence. Many fear future reprisals from former miltiamen. But Luis Soares Muniz, 42, a neighborhood CNRT leader, is more confident and direct. He says he thinks both Amaral and da Silva are lying. "I don't believe them," he says.

How will the five young widows dressed in black, working at Chinese-made Butterfly sewing machines, make peace with neighbors like that? Only a few hours after the referendum's results were announced last Sept. 4, militiamen barged into their houses with machetes, pistols and automatic weapons and--backed by Indonesian soldiers--grabbed their husbands. In nearby foothills they hacked the five to death. At nightfall the women collected their husbands' remains and buried them in their front yards. The widows survive on handouts from relatives and neighbors now. "We don't know why our husbands were killed," says Floriana Noniz, 32, a mother of eight. "But we want justice. We want those murderers put in jail for the suffering they've caused." The remarkable thing, though, is that the five women are moving on with their lives. They are learning to sew handicrafts in a program supported by an Australian-backed nongovernmental organization called Hotflima. "We hope to be able to support ourselves someday," says Inez da Costa, 27, who dreams of buying a sewing machine.

The militias have become "more arrogant and aggressive," according to U.N. official de Mello. In late July the small but well-armed militia force began an offensive from its West Timor bases. According to U.N. intelligence reports, up to five 30-man militia units have infiltrated across the rugged border and penetrated as far as 40 kilometers inside East Timor. During the day the guerrillas, dressed in military-style camouflage uniforms, break into five-man units; they regroup at night for guerrilla operations. In late July they killed one New Zealand soldier--the peacekeeping force's first combat death. Two days later the peacekeepers shot dead two militiamen, one of whom was carrying an Indonesian Special Forces, or Kopassus, insignia in his backpack. Early this month the guerrillas ambushed a group of Nepalese U.N. soldiers, killing one and wounding three.

U.N. officials, aid workers and some East Timorese fear that a future election could spark renewed violence. Ramos-Horta scoffs at such predictions. "A return to the political violence of the past is just about as likely as a Martian invasion of Earth tomorrow," he says. "Over the past few months East Timorese have shown incredible maturity and tolerance." That's true. Xanana, who is likely to be elected president, and Ramos-Horta are both popular, moderate leaders who may be able to reunite their people. De Mello is cautious about the chances for a smooth transition to independence. "It's doable," he says, "as long as the hotheads on the other side--and on this side--don't derail the process." Taming East Timor's demons won't be easy. But in a place with as little to lose as East Timor, hope can go a long way.

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