Subject: LA Times/E.Timor: A Nation in Waiting Seeks Reconciliation

Los Angeles Times May 18, 2002

A Nation in Waiting Seeks Reconciliation

Asia: East Timor, after a bloody independence struggle, seeks unity as it prepares for statehood.


DILI, East Timor

The way Domingues da Costa tells it, the only bad thing he did was dump a body down a well. He swears that he didn't kill anybody or steal anything.

A member of the feared Aitarak militia that destroyed much of this capital in 1999, he returned home last week to face his neighbors for the first time in nearly three years. He hopes that they will forgive him for opposing independence for East Timor.

"I wanted to come back because this is my homeland," he said. "I'm ready to confess. I'm ready to account for what I did."

Da Costa's return to East Timor, and the return of thousands of anti-independence refugees like him, is a vital part of this former Indonesian province's drive to build a peaceful new nation from the rubble of 1999.

On Monday, the United Nations will hand power to a new civilian government, and East Timor will become the world's 192nd country.

President-elect Jose Alexandre Gusmao, a former guerrilla leader popularly known as Xanana, has made it one of his highest priorities to bring together opposing factions, curb popular demand for revenge and forgive those who committed lesser crimes.

"We need to have reconciliation for the Timorese to build national unity, to build peace in the hearts of their community," he said this week at a ceremony to swear in 30 members of a new regional truth and reconciliation commission. "If there is no reconciliation, there can be no justice."

A former Portuguese colony, East Timor was invaded by Indonesia in 1975 and forcibly annexed a year later with the tacit support of the United States. When the East Timorese voted overwhelmingly for independence in 1999, militias organized by the Indonesian army ran amok, killing about 1,000 people, destroying 70% of the territory's buildings and forcing 260,000 people--nearly one-third of the population--to flee across the border into the Indonesian province of West Timor.

"No departing colonial power ever wrecked so much of a country," said Nobel Peace Prize winner Jose Ramos-Horta, East Timor's foreign minister.

Since then, this land has been under the protection of the United Nations, which sent thousands of peacekeeping troops to secure the border with Indonesia and spent hundreds of millions of dollars to begin rebuilding.

In recent months, East Timor's transitional government has begun prosecuting some of the worst militia offenders and has sentenced 10 to prison, including one for 33 years. But without forgiveness, Gusmao says, the new nation will become mired in the quest for revenge.

"My priority is social justice," said Gusmao, who spent 17 years fighting in the jungle for East Timor's independence and seven years in an Indonesian prison. "We fought, we suffered, we died for what? To try other people or to receive benefits from independence?"

The obstacles facing East Timor are great. When it takes its place among the nations of the world, it will rank as the poorest country in Asia and one of the poorest in the world. Half the people are illiterate, and nearly half live below the poverty level of 55 cents a day.

For the U.N., whose record of aiding war-torn nations is mixed, the rebuilding of East Timor has been one of its greatest successes.

The territory has held two national elections, each with overwhelming turnout, as the East Timorese have embraced democracy. The new National Assembly has drafted a constitution and will become the country's parliament on Monday.

The transitional government, made up of U.N. and East Timorese officials, has begun building police and defense forces, a civil service, a judiciary and a banking system. It has constructed schools, set up television and radio stations and adopted the U.S. dollar as the national currency.

In Dili, hundreds of buildings have been rebuilt and others are under construction. Many small shops, restaurants and hotels have opened, in part to cater to the thousands of U.N. workers and peacekeepers here.

Under the leadership of U.N. administrator Sergio Vieira de Mello, the transitional government has signed an agreement with Australia that is expected to provide East Timor with $7 billion over 30 years from gas and oil deposits in the Timor Sea. The money, however, will not start rolling in until 2005 at the earliest, and East Timor will have to rely on foreign assistance for at least three more years.

The fledgling country's financial problems will be compounded by the departure of many U.N. staff members after independence is formally declared, although 5,000 U.N. peacekeepers and 1,250 international police officers will remain.

In anticipation of Independence Day, thousands of refugees have returned from camps in West Timor in recent weeks, bringing to 207,000 the number who have come home. Many were inspired by Gusmao, who visited the camps in April and urged the refugees to return, even if they took part in the militia rampage.

Despite his many years of hardship and imprisonment under Indonesian rule, Gusmao has been preaching forgiveness for months. Punishment, he says, is only one aspect of justice. Spending the new country's limited resources to lock up large numbers of militia members, he argues, will not improve the lives of the people.

In January, East Timor created the Reception, Truth and Reconciliation Commission to establish the facts of human rights violations that occurred between 1974 and 1999--including those committed by pro-independence rebels--and to try to reintegrate former combatants into their communities.

Under the commission's auspices, wrongdoers will be called upon to apologize to their victims. Lesser offenders may be required to atone for their crimes by performing community service, such as building houses to replace those they torched.

Some former militia members who return to East Timor, however, face the risk that their cases will end up in the hands of General Prosecutor Longuinhos Monteiro, who is investigating major human rights violations. So far, 101 suspects are in custody and 220 more have been identified in Indonesia.

The biggest offenders will face trial and imprisonment, Gusmao says, but first they should apologize to the community so their neighbors will accept them after they have served their time.

"What we want is to build a society in which people love each other, tolerate each other, accept each other," he explained to reporters Friday. "We should do our best to eradicate all sentiment of hatred, all feelings of revenge. It is our thinking about how to build the future of East Timor, as human beings, as dignified people."

Some question whether the reconciliation process will appease East Timorese who lost their loved ones, homes and possessions. They worry that there will be an explosion of violence after the international forces depart.

But so far, the public has been patient. Officials said the number of cases of retribution has been small--three slayings and about 30 assaults, most of them in 2000 before the transitional government was well-established.

U.N. administrator De Mello, a Brazilian who has worked for the world body in trouble spots around the globe, said the willingness of the East Timorese to forgive is remarkable.

"Contrary to my experience in many other places--Africa, the Balkans--I have found no hatred here," he said. "They have demonstrated in the past 21/2 years an incredible degree of patience, resilience and tolerance toward one another."

The reconciliation process began informally last year. One of the first to face his former neighbors was Joao Mendonca de Araujo, 47, a former top government official in the town of Suai and a leader of a pro- Indonesia political organization.

Prosecutors believe that he bears part of the responsibility for a militia's September 1999 massacre of at least 100 people who took refuge in a church in Suai. They contend that he must have known about the plan in advance because, as chief of the subdistrict, the militia reported to him.

De Araujo, however, says he learned of the attack only when he heard the shooting begin. He says that he was scared for his own life because the militia was "uncontrollable" and that he fled across the border the same day.

He and his family found life in the West Timor refugee camps difficult and decided to return home in March 2001. Five hours after he crossed the border, East Timor's police chief, Paulo Martins, personally arrested him. De Araujo spent more than a month in jail before he was released. He is living in Dili, but the investigation into his case continues.

In August, Gusmao convened a meeting of 500 people near Suai and called on De Araujo to speak. The former official said he cried as he repented for his role in the events. "I had to apologize for what happened in Suai," De Araujo recounted. "I told them I am ready to take responsibility by law for what I did."

Today, De Araujo cannot find work and is living off the generosity of relatives. But he is adjusting to the reality of an independent East Timor. On Monday, his teenage daughter will participate in the Independence Day ceremony by helping to form a giant human East Timorese flag.

"During the 1999 election, a lot of people voted for independence," he said. "We have to respect that."

Da Costa, 29, said he decided to return from West Timor after Gusmao visited his squalid refugee camp and spoke of reconciliation.

He said he is now sorry he opposed independence. He is surprised to see that Dili is a bustling city with roads full of traffic and buildings under construction.

"East Timor will be better than before," he said. "I feel bad, and I feel guilty."

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