Subject: SMH: Burnt by the fire of political cleansing
Date: Sat, 17 Jul 1999 09:25:04 -0400
From: "John M. Miller" <>

Received from Joyo Indonesian News:

Sydney Morning Herald Thursday, July 15, 1999


Burnt by the fire of political cleansing

By MARK DODD, Herald Correspondent in Falaura village

It is the dry season in East Timor, a time of heat and dust.

After leaving the coast, the narrow, bitumen road to Falaura winds its way about 20 kilometres up a picturesque river valley, crossing dried-out river beds and cutting through woodlands studded with ghost gums.

The road passes a small village, its houses eerily deserted.

Along the road are more traditional thatch and iron-roof homes, also deserted, then suddenly the first blackened ruin, and then another and another.

It is as though an awful inferno swept through.

But this destruction was no bushfire. It was deliberate, criminal and deadly - "political cleansing" by pro-Indonesian militias and their army allies.

More than 150 houses were torched or ransacked by pro-Jakarta militias Refugee columns comprising thousands of people have been driven out of their homes and up into the rugged mountains to fend for themselves.

Halfway to Falaura, at Guico village, scores of children's school books lie scattered outside a ransacked classroom.

The local government office has been burnt to the ground, and a small church ppears to be one of few buildings standing.

Survivors of the violence are trickling down from the mountains in small family groups. Most are hungry and exhausted - mothers with babies, desperate for food and medicine.

At Falaura, about 45 kilometres south-west of Dili and three hours away by four-wheel drive, 3,500 refugees have gathered. Another 4,200 refugees are concentrated around nearby Asulao.

"We couldn't last if we stayed in the forest any longer. We don't have enough to eat. I've no milk for my baby," said 28-year-old Akalina, who gave birth to Adana the forest one month ago after being driven from her home by the militias.

Near exhaustion after trudging down from the mountains, Akalina stopped in Falaura for a short rest, her infant wrapped in a blue polyester quilt jacket and cradled across her breast.

"If we're attacked again, we'll run into the mountains again," she said, but her physical condition suggested otherwise.

Laurindo Da Costa, 28, dressed in tattered shorts and shirt and wearing a pair of rubber sandals, said malaria, dysentery and skin disease caused by malnutrition was rife among the refugees in Falaura.

"During February and until recently, the Besi Merah Putih [Red and White Iron] were accompanied by soldiers. That's how they were able to come up here without problems," he said of the militia gang which takes its name from the colours of the Indonesian flag.

"The Besi Merah Putih came here and said: 'You must all become Besi Merah Putih or you die.' Some people joined, some managed to run away and some were killed."

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) estimates that between 40,000 and 60,000 people are displaced as a result of militia violence and in urgent need of humanitarian aid.

But the refugees' plight also is political. The UN could hardly endorse a free and fair voting environment if it is unable to reach thousands of displaced people and ensure they understand their rights in the referendum.

One group said it was unaware of the timetable for the UN-organised ballot on self-determination scheduled for next month.

They had heard of voter registration, and at great personal risk gathered down the road waiting on Monday for UN teams which never arrived.

They had not been told that, due to security concerns, registration had been postponed until Friday.

The UN spokesman for East Timor, Mr David Wimhurst, said yesterday: "We're aware there are large pockets of internally displaced people in this area. It is consistent with reports we have had. Obviously, we have to be able to contact them."

Senior UN officials said a relief convoy was being organised to deliver food and medicine to the refugees on Saturday.

With no police, no army and no UN to protect them, the refugees have established their own security and have guards posted along the road to Falaura.

Near a dried-out river bed on the northern edge of Guico village, two men silently and suddenly emerge from the bush armed with deadly, curved-blade machetes.

"If we see the Besi Merah Putih coming, we'll contact our friends in Falintil," said one man who identified himself as Santiago.

Dressed in a filthy black T-shirt, grubby polyester trousers cut below the knee and rubber thongs, he rolls up his sleeve and, with a grin, shows off the scar of a bullet wound on his right shoulder, a legacy of a clash with Indonesian soldiers in 1995.

Pointing to Indonesian graffiti on the concrete bridge, challenging Falintil to "show how brave you are", Santiago says, smiling: "Ignore that - we live or die for independence."

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