Subject: Age feature/E Timor: A New, But Devastated Beginning

The Age [Melbourne] Saturday 11 December 1999


The tale of how one devastated district in East Timor is trying to rebuild.

A new, but devastated beginning


THE QUESTION was disarmingly simple but it stopped the United Nations policeman in his tracks. "What happens if you are arrested but you have not done any crime," the villager had asked. Looking puzzled, the American civilian police officer spoke to another seated UN official who replied that this would not happen under the UN's East Timor administration.

Seemingly satisfied with the answer, the villager conferred among his friends who, puffing on clove cigarettes, nodded approvingly.

After 24 years of Indonesian occupation and the period of militia rule, "we've got a whole mindset to change up here", said one Australian Federal Police officer serving with the UN.

In Ermera, the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) might just have passed its first assessment test. Old Ermera town, a former Portuguese district capital, lies in a valley high up in mist-shrouded mountains about 50 kilometres south-west of Dili. In 1983, Indonesia created a regional capital, Gleno, but Ermera remains the real cultural and social hub for the district of the same name.

Ermera is typical of many of East Timor's rural centres. The peasant population live barely above subsistence level, harvesting coffee between June and August. Small household plots produce small quantities of maize, rice, cassava and sweet potato, but food security remains a niggling concern. Livestock plays an important role in most peasant families' finances.

Sturdy Timor ponies provide reliable transport in a region where roads are routinely washed away. Coffee is the district's main income earner - about 37 per cent of Ermera's cultivated land is dedicated to coffee growing while only 7per cent is used to produce food.

Before the violence that followed the 30 August referendum, the population of Ermera was about 90,000, or 10 per cent of East Timor's population. Last week, a UN team visited the old town, which, like most in East Timor, was devastated by Indonesian security forces and militias. The team wanted to meet local people, Falintil guerrillas, and the leadership of the National Council of Timorese Resistance, or CRNT, East Timor's biggest pro-independence coalition. It hoped to explain how the UN planned to administer the territory in the lead-up to full independence within two or three years.

On Wednesday, about 120 residents of old Ermera gathered in a community barn, one of the few buildings still standing with a tin roof. They formed a cross-section of local society; nuns and teachers seated at the front along with mothers and babies. Men stood at the back, many wearing their distinctive cowboy hats, puffing on clove cigarettes or the odd pipe, collars on their tattered shirts pulled up to protect them from the chill outside.

A heavy mist lay across the valley and rain fell constantly, at times drowning out the noise of the speakers. But interest was keen. For these villagers, it was the first time they had been given a chance to participate in their future of their country.

A man from the World Bank was among the first to speak. "The World Bank and Asia Development Bank are going to make new projects. We want to make these projects appropriate to the needs of the people. Money will be given to the sub-districts and the people can decide how it is used. For example, on roads, bridges, water, schools - it is your choice. Maybe you would like buy tractors, goats, cows - it is your choice."

This last promise of reconstruction funds prompted murmurs of surprise. Captain Jeremy Gillman-Wells, of a mechanised battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment, explained that Interfet's role was mainly to provide security to the district but his men were also working extensively on community aid projects, especially road repairs. His attempt to explain the army's role in faltering Tetun, the local language, drew applause.

Local concerns during question time centred on the provision of adequate education, health services and roads. "I am aware that it is my duty as a mother to teach my children but what do we use for equipment?" asked one mother, a question supported by Father Sancho, one of two priests who remained in Ermera through the violence.

A UN administrator called Dianne appealed for patience and promised that UNICEF would provide equipment in the new year. She said the UN would work closely with the church, one of the few institutions in East Timor providing education.

For many of the villagers, the meeting was the first sign in seven months that their lives might return to normal. The arrival in East Timor in May of UNAMET (the UN Assistance Mission in East Timor) coincided with the first outbreaks of army-backed militia violence in Ermera district, including a bloody massacre of suspected pro-independence worshippers in the hamlet of Atara.

Eurico Guterres, leader of the Dili-based Aitarak militia, was a frequent visitor to the district. He held noisy pro-integration rallies in Gleno, once threatening pro-independence civil servants. Intimidation against suspected independence supporters was common.

Dating back to the 1975 Indonesian invasion, Ermera district had a reputation as a pro-independence loyalist stronghold and centre of resistance. The main militia group in Ermera, Darah Integrasi, backed by a shadowy network of Indonesian intelligence and Special Forces personnel, had scores to settle.

On voting day, disorder erupted at Gleno polling booth. The militia fired shots to intimidate voters. By the close of polling, two UNAMET staff were killed at Baboe Leten polling centre and the first houses in Gleno were burning.

By 4 September, much of the urban population had fled to the mountains. Falintil guerrillas reported militia attacks against their cantonment sites near Estado, with casualties on both sides.

Leaders of the National Council of Timorese Resistance say that 36 to 40 civilians were murdered in Ermera district between 30 August and 20 September. A UN report on Ermera, a copy of which has been seen by The Age, found that most of the killings were committed by the militias, although some Indonesian soldiers are alleged to have been involved.

Throughout the district there were forced deportations to Indonesian West Timor, but it followed an uneven pattern. About half the deaths occurred in Gleno but the sub-district of Atsabe suffered the biggest proportion of mass deportations, probably because it lies near the militia stronghold of Bobanaro.

"The fact that militias were able to make several trips to Atambua (West Timor) and back, refuel their vehicles, suggests that forced relocation of East Timorese population was planned in advance and that the militias had substantial financial backing," the UN report says.

More than 50 per cent of Atasabe sub-district's population was deported, compared with an average 15 per cent across the rest of Ermera. A total of 8237 people from Atsabe, 3000 from Ermera, 2700 from Hatolia, 1000 from Letefoho and 1700 from Railako are still missing.

Returnees are few. "It seems Ermera militias inside the West Timorese camps are particularly active in intimidating the refugees from the district. This might explain why refugees are returning very slowly to this district," says the report.

Gleno, the provincial capital, was almost completely destroyed. All public buildings, including the court, schools and clinics, have been partially or completely destroyed, along with 90 per cent of private dwellings. Atsabe and Hatolia were similarly devastated. All electric power stations were vandalised and damaged. The central power station in Glen, which services outlying Railako, Ermera and Letefeho has suffered much damage. Extensive repair and connection works to install cables are required.

The communications centre, the only one outside Dili with a modern satellite facility, was completely destroyed. The militias did not blow up bridges and roads, probably because they needed them to ensure their safe evacuation. Yet their condition is extremely poor due to the wet season and two sub-districts are now isolated.

A huge task lies ahead. At the village meeting on Wednesday, Professor Jarat Chopra, the UN's head of district administration, spoke of the importance of mutual reliance between the UN and the National Council of Timorese Resistance "given the reality of CNRT organisation on the ground and the willingness of the UN to provide resources". The months ahead will prove the depth of that commitment to the people of Ermera and East Timor.

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