Subject: GU: Militias prowl in Oecussi enclave's eerie wasteland

Received from Joyo Indonesian News:

The Guardian Thursday November 4, 1999

Militias prowl in enclave's eerie wasteland

Oecussi is part of East Timor but lies in West Timor, and Indonesians still hold sway

John Aglionby in Oecussi

Agostinho Poto appeared like a ghost out of the sticky, tropical air. Behind him, down the remote mountain track in the Oecussi enclave of East Timor, straggled 25 relatives with everything they owned; a few pots and pans, bundles of grubby clothes and an emaciated pony bearing the weight of several sacks of food.

Fear was etched across every face. "We are fleeing from the Indonesian army and their militia who are still terrorising in the border area," Mr Poto told Lieutenant Jody Peike, the commander of the Gurkha patrol that stumbled across him and his family. "Two militiamen told my parents yesterday that they would launch an operation either tomorrow, or at the latest the day after that. They plan to burn every house that they did not destroy in September and October."

If the northern half of the enclave, on the northern coast of Timor island 40 miles west of the main border between East Timor and Indonesian West Timor, is anything to go by, the militia do not have much left to do. More than 99% of the buildings in the enclave were either burned to the ground or destroyed beyond repair in the six weeks of systematic terror that followed the territory's overwhelming vote for independence in the referendum on August 30, which was sponsored by the United Nations.

Only a handful of churches and, for some unknown reason, one tiny hamlet survived intact. No one stayed to try to resurrect their livelihoods from the ashes because practically all their livestock and crops were also looted. Like Mr Poto and his family, everyone fled to the safety of the island's mountainous interior.

Much of the enclave is now an eerily deserted wasteland, only occasionally broken up by a brilliant red or pink bourgainvillea.

"These people used to be subsistence farmers thriving on almost nothing," explained the Gurkha commander, Colonel Mark Illingston-Price. "Now they have even less."

Of the approximately 58,000 people who lived in Oecussi before the referendum only 10,000 have been accounted for. With no way to repair their homes, these people are now mostly packed in two makeshift camps in Oecussi's main town, also called Oecussi, surviving from handouts from the international forces deployed to restore order and the few non-governmental organisations that have started relief work in the enclave.

Fears that they are not safe from continuing militia attacks from West Timor are also stopping them returning home. Sporadic cross-border raids have continued all this week, although their exact nature is hard to assess accurately because the details change as the news passes down the grapevine from the border area to Oecussi. "Foreign troops are great but they are moving too slowly," said Ramiro Bano, who is in charge of security at the main refugee camp in Oecussi. "The militia are only able to terrorise the people because the soldiers are not in the countryside."

Major General Peter Cosgrove, the Australian commander of the International Force East Timor (Interfet), says he cannot move fast. "We have to maintain an impermeable presence that the militia cannot circumvent," he said. "It would be all very well to rush off but it would not be sound and sensible.

"In guerrilla warfare you don't get a warning that you are going to be attacked." His commander on the ground in Oecussi, Lieutenant Colonel Mick Crane, who is also Australian, is following the go-slow orders, even though he admits that the threat is nowhere near as serious as the general makes out.

"We are confronted by a number of gangsters and hoodlums trying to get what they can out of the carnage and we have to act accordingly," he said.

However, the Gurkha officers spearheading the operation strongly disagree with their Australian superiors. They made it clear that with the 200-odd Gurkhas at his disposal, Col Crane, an artillery officer with little experience of infantry tactics, could have secured the 250 square mile enclave in a few days.

Past experience inclines one to believe them. Wherever the Gurkhas have gone in East Timor, militia activity has dried up almost immediately.

As it is, it was 10 days before the hardy Nepalese soldiers were allowed to venture beyond Oecussi town, even though they are equipped with modern machine guns, armoured personnel carriers and helicopters, compared to the militia's rudimentary firearms and machetes.

In that time there were several militia raids that destroyed numerous houses and sparked a further exodus of refugees.

The Australian reluctance to risk casualties is resulting in a humanitarian crisis in Oecussi, according to one of the few aid workers in the enclave. "Hundreds of refugees are arriving here every day. They have enough food and water but their homes have been destroyed, there is no electricity, the rainy season is beginning and they do not feel safe in rural areas.

"This means they are staying next to the soldiers, crowded into the camps where there is not enough shelter and the sanitation conditions are becoming very bad."

Reversing the human tide blowing towards Oecussi town will be very difficult because once one member of a family has reached the main camp in the grounds of the town's largest church, all their relatives want to join them there.

Mr Poto said he would rather walk for another 10 hours to Oecussi town to keep his family together than stay in the rugged interior that the Gurkhas are starting to patrol.

"Maybe I will return in a few weeks," he said, "but while the militia are still active I am not going to risk my life. Any camp is better than being killed."

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