Subject: Newsweek: A New Kind of Hell
Date: Sat, 29 May 1999 11:42:18 -0400
From: "John M. Miller" <>

Newsweek May 31, 1999, Atlantic Edition

A New Kind of Hell By Ron Moreau

A U.N. team will work for a fair vote in East Timor, but political thugs and killers also have a voice

I'm free, reads some of the graffiti in a poor neighborhood in Dili, East Timor's capital. Not yet. Early this month progovernment militiamen showed up with AK-47s to silence all calls for the province's independence from Indonesia. When Elizia dos Reis, a 17-year-old high-school student, rushed out to help a wounded friend, he took a round in the back and another in the chest--and finally a knife in the back of the head. The next day Elizia's body lay on a table in his parents' concrete-block house, his face streaked with dried blood, a rosary draped around his crossed hands. As his mother and sisters wailed, neighbors took turns digging his grave in the rocky soil of his own front yard. Elizia's family would have preferred the Roman Catholic cemetery--but they were too afraid of ambushes to take him there.

Just about everybody in East Timor lives in such fear. Late last year more than a dozen militia groups sprang up to defend the status quo in the former Portuguese colony occupied by Indonesia since 1975. At first they were enraged by President B. J. Habibie's plan to give the province its autonomy. Then in January, Habibie further pledged to grant East Timor its full independence if the province rejects autonomy in a U.N.-sponsored referendum scheduled for August. That is when the militias, with firm backing from the Indonesian Army, turned from agitation to violence. As the vote nears, many East Timorese worry, the blood may flow even more freely. I feel the ballot will throw us into a new hell, says Domingos Saldanha, editor of Dili's only daily newspaper.

The present hell is bad enough. Militiamen have driven thousands of coffee growers and other peasants into makeshift refugee camps. There they must pledge allegiance to the Indonesian flag and are told they may support autonomy but not full nationhood for East Timor. In addition, able-bodied men often are forced to join the pro-Indonesian diehards and thugs who form the militias--and long have cooperated with the Army's war against pro-independence Falintil guerrillas. The militias themselves rarely fight guerrillas, however; they prefer soft civilian targets. In April, they hacked to death 25 worshipers in a Catholic church. Days later they killed 15 people at the home of independence leader Manuel Carrascalo, including his son. Surviving activists have gone into hiding, leaving the militias to romp at will.

East Timorese have little faith in the coming U.N. referendum. Moral leaders like Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo, the Nobel peace laureate, have tried to set the tone. I pray that God will illuminate our leaders to sit down and talk and end the violence, Bishop Belo told NEWSWEEK. But heaven's instruments will include only about 1,000 U.N. election administrators, monitors and police advisers (who may be allowed to carry sidearms). As symbols of world interest, the U.N. monitors may ensure a peaceful process--or at least some Western diplomats in Jakarta hope so. But in Dili, militia leaders are still swaggering. We expect the U.N. to be neutral, says Basilio Araujo, the militias' spokesman. If we think they are taking sides, we will fight them.

The one way to ensure a peaceful election is to disarm the militias; if that happens, Western diplomats believe the Falintil guerrillas would also put down their arms. The Indonesian Army, of course, could relieve the militias of their automatic weapons in short order. But East Timor's 15,000-strong Army garrison is widely suspected of giving the militiamen money, arms and advice--all in an attempt to keep the Army's hard-won territorial prize. Entrusting the Indonesian Army to keep security is like hiring a thief to guard your house when you go on vacation, says independence leader David Ximenes, who spoke to NEWSWEEK by phone from hiding.

The national armed-forces commander, General Wiranto, continues to have it both ways: he supports Habibie's referendum on autonomy, but he also has allowed the militias to go on with their dirty work. After the April massacre at Carrascalo's house, Wiranto rushed to Dili to broker a temporary truce among the militias and two independence leaders. Within days, both independence leaders had to flee for their lives. Once again, the men with the guns are vowing to dictate peace in East Timor--no matter that they have failed to keep that promise for nearly a quarter century.

GRAPHIC: PHOTO: War cries: A Dili youth killed in a battle over independence

Back to May Menu
Human Rights Violations in East Timor
Main Postings Menu
June '98 through February '99