Subject: AU: Uneasy Calm on Timor Frontier

The Australian - February 23

Uneasy calm on island frontier

By Sian Powell Additional reporting by Sandra Nahdar

In East Timor's border badlands fears of militia violence are ever present, writes Sian Powell in Atambua, West Timor

THE son of one of East Timor's most feared militia leaders stares deadpan as he says he is a man of peace. "We don't intend to remain opposed to our brothers there (in East Timor)," explains Arnaldo da Silva Tavares, whose father, Joao Tavares, ruled the East Timorese border region like a particularly manic king through most of 1999.

The young Tavares, a long-time member of Suharto's Golkar party, has decided to stand for office in Indonesia's coming regional elections. Flashing an enormous ring with a glittering diamond-like stone, he says he has inherited his father's mantle and is now a liurai, or hereditary clan ruler: yet he and his followers want to garner power in a democratic way.

"As citizens of Indonesia, we just want to follow the elections in a good way," he says. "Most of us have already forgotten East Timor."

Only about 800 one-time militia members live in West Timor now, he says, and they are all men who want peace. The killing of a militia stalwart at the border last year shows the East Timorese "talk peace, but it's only in their mouths".

The man was shot dead by East Timorese police when he tried to cross the river into East Timor. He was armed with a bow and arrow, and an investigation in East Timor into his killing is continuing.

The half-island of West Timor has slowly come to terms with the influx of militias, the notoriously violent proxies of the Indonesian military. Five years ago, these gangs helped terrorise their homeland of East Timor, forcing 250,000 East Timorese to flee, laying waste to towns and killing as many as 1000 people.

Experts estimate there are still at least 100 militia leaders in West Timor. Yet tensions have eased considerably over the past year; not least because the militia kingpin, Joao Tavares, was moved out of the border regions last September.

A sleight-of-hand saw the Indonesian military (funded by the European Union) buy his Atambua house and get him to sign a two-year no-return guarantee. Tavares was behind the cross-border raids into East Timor early last year, asserting his power when his negotiations for an amnesty failed. Once able to marshall a force of hundreds of willing killers, he is now dandling grandchildren on his knee in a Yogyakarta suburb.

Yet his legacy remains. Agustina Hoar doesn't like the swaggering militia who dominate her new village, bossing everyone around. The 25-year-old East Timorese woman says Naimana resettlement village in West Timor has swarms of mosquitoes, a well that has gone to salt, and a problem with murderous thugs.

"Yes, they are here," the young mother-of-three says. "They order everything -- work, everything."

Still, like the other 28,000 East Timorese living over the border in Indonesia, she doesn't want to go home. "Life is better here," Hoar says, shrugging.

With her husband and young children, she now lives in a simple new shack, with split-timber walls and a corrugated iron roof. Her resettlement village of Naimana, near the East Timor border, is a small part of a big resettlement project run by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees bureau in Indonesia and funded by the EU.

Hoar is one of the few refugees willing to talk frankly about militias. "Don't know" and "no" are the usual answers to questions about their presence, accompanied by grimacing.

Carlino Santos, 24, is typical. Living in a resettlement house in Tubaki, in West Timor, Santos says he fled to Indonesia from his home in the East Timorese hill town of Ainaro because he rejected independence in the 1999 ballot. He says he and his family thought they would be killed by independence supporters.

Why did he choose autonomy? "Don't know". Was there any pressure on him from militias? "No. Don't know." Are there any militia members in West Timor now? In this very village? A great deal of grimacing follows these questions. "Don't know. No."

The potential for the much-feared and much-hated militia gangs to reform, rearm and start making cross-border raids into East Timor has raised questions in the highest circles.

The UN Security Council met last week to debate East Timor's future needs. The council will soon decide whether all peacekeepers should be pulled out of East Timor in May this year, as Australia wants, or whether a reduced number should stay on, as UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan recommends.

Australia still has about 400 peacekeepers in East Timor, mostly deployed along the border, close to the river. Belu district police commissioner Leonardus Wodo says the local government has already committed more security to the border on the West Timor side, in anticipation of a peacekeeper pullout.

He fears renewed violence in East Timor and says he intends to take every step possible to prevent another flood of refugees barrelling over the border. "I think we still don't have enough (police and troops) to guard the border," he says. "Maybe more should be added."

The West Timor militia issue grates sorely on the UNHCR staff working on the refugee resettlement project. In September 2000, rampaging militia gangs in Atambua, near the East Timor border, chopped three of their colleagues to death. Indonesian police stationed at the office vanished from the scene just before the militia arrived.

In the hours before he was killed, UNHCR officer Carlos Caceres-Collazo sent an email message to a friend in Macedonia. "We are waiting for this enemy. We sit here like bait."

Ever since those bloody murders, the UN has rated West Timor at its highest danger alert of phase five -- more dangerous than Baghdad, than Afghanistan, than Liberia. UN staff are not permitted to live in West Timor, and are allowed to visit only with permission from New York.

Indonesia's poorest province has writhed under savage reduction of aid, but negotiations to lift the alert have reached an impasse: neither Jakarta nor the UN is prepared to take the next step.

Yet nearly everyone agrees that much of the tension has dissipated over the past year, and the phase-five alert is verging on ridiculous. There has been no real violence for months. Many refugees have been rehoused.

As a physical symbol of changed times, the opulent house once owned by Joao Tavares, the site of massive militia meetings, has been transformed into a school. In some kind of parallel, Atambua's UNHCR office, site of the three militia murders, is now owned by Indonesia's notorious paramilitary police -- Brimob.

UNHCR regional representative Robert Ashe says that despite hiccups, the trend in the West Timor border regions is towards calm. The housing project has helped a lot. "I think overall, it's on the way to success, but I don't think you can call it successful yet," he says.

For instance, he says, a flood of East Timorese refugees swamped the Wemer Forest near Betun on the border, where they cut down swaths of trees, built themselves shacks, and planted fields of corn, much to the horror of local communities who regard the forest as sacred.

The refugees have since been moved to resettlement villages, but the corn continues to flourish: ready for the refugees' harvest -- a continuing irritation.

Having housed nearly 900 families, Ashe says the next stage is to consolidate -- ensure a clean water supply, schools, some kind of work projects.

"A lot of them are waiting to see what will happen when the UN finally pulls out of East Timor," he says. "They're waiting to see if (East Timor President) Xanana (Gusmao) will offer them an amnesty."

Some observers have questioned UNHCR's wisdom in housing so many once-violent refugees within handy reach of the border. The answer, Ashe says, is that they refused to move. They had smuggling interests, or they wanted to be close to family left in East Timor, or they just didn't want to be uprooted again.

The East Timorese newcomers lost their refugee status more than a year ago (having declined to return to East Timor). But as early as 2002, UNHCR staff could see trouble brewing and put the long-term housing projects in train. As well as militia members and their families, the exiles include former Indonesian government employees such as police officers who want to keep their pensions.

Between them, the Indonesian Government and the Indonesian office of the UNHCR have now rehoused about half the refugees.

That leaves a further 15,000 who need a "durable solution", as UNHCR would put it.

Belu police chief Agus Nugroho says he is sure life is improving for most of the refugees. "There are still ex-militias," he says, "but we have hold of the leaders, and they will help us maintain security in West Timor."

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