Subject: Last of E. Timor refugees set sail for destination of peace and freedom

Sydney Morning Herald Monday, July 30, 2001

Last of East Timor refugees set sail for destination of peace and freedom

Refuge gives a new beginning to oppressed of new nation, writes Mark Dodd in Kupang, West Timor.

In what will probably be the last repatriation voyage for a former Australian Navy ship turned refugee carrier, 179 East Timorese were checked aboard last week from the sleepy Indonesian port of Kupang, bound for Dili and a fresh start at life.

The Patricia Anne Hotung has plodded up and down the coast for more than 18 months, helping almost 10,000 East Timorese escape the squalor and oppression of militia-controlled camps in West Timor. Perhaps 85,000 East Timorese remain in West Timor, but nobody really knows. Senior United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees officials said they believed the number was closer to 60,000.

But on one critical issue there is agreement: the East Timor refugee crisis is heading for resolution, and the losers will be the hardline militia leaders who created the situation after the independence referendum in 1999.

The UNHCR and its partner agency, the International Organisation for Migration, say the Indonesian Government will soon offer the East Timorese a choice: go home or resettle on other islands. The UNHCR and the UN Development Program are already involved in a planning mission with Jakarta to resettle East Timorese refugees on Sumba, part of Indonesia's eastern islands.

"The message of the Indonesian Government to the refugees is, 'You cannot stay in West Timor. You can be Indonesian, and we love you for that, but you cannot stay in West Timor'," said Iain Hall, UNHCR's senior field officer in Dili.

The local government in West Timor had made it clear it could not absorb the East Timor refugee population, except for about 6,000 people, he said.

Indonesian authorities are also tired of paying to look after their often ungrateful guests. In January East Timorese refugees at Salamu, just outside Kupang, began burning down their homes in protest at poor living conditions provided by the host government.

The UNHCR says the Indonesian Government taskforce in charge of refugees often complains about the East Timorese. From the governor, Piet Tallo, down to senior army and police officers, Indonesians, are "getting fed up with the refugees", said the Bishop of Atambua.

There is strong evidence of a change in attitude towards the pro-autonomy militias. Senior Indonesian police sources confirmed the arrest of the leader of the Laksaur militia, Igidio Mnanek. Mnanek, who kidnapped an East Timorese girl as a war prize in 1999, had been brought to Kupang, they said.

There are other small but encouraging signs that local security forces are being more assertive in taking control of the refugees. Gone are the militia goons who once used to enter Fatululi refugee transit centre outside Kupang with impunity.

Much of the credit for improved security goes to the new Indonesian commander for the eastern islands, Major-General Willem da Costa, whose father was born in East Timor.

Reconciliation talks between the East Timor independence leader Xanana Gusmao and the Mahidi militia chief, Cancio Lopes de Carvalho, could result in Carvalho's return along with 10,000 supporters, Mr Hall said.

But Carvalho would almost certainly face arrest on war crimes charges for bloody mob violence committed after the vote that ended Indonesian rule.

With aid supplies drying up, a steady trickle of refugees returning home, and resettlement on a remote island as the only reward for carrying the lost cause of integration, there seems to be a new willingness by militia to negotiate.

"Hardliners are becoming more moderate, and the moderates are now talking about returning," Mr Hall said.


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