Subject: Guardian on UNHCR's efforts to defy militia in W Timor

The Guardian, 9 November 1999 TIMOR BORDER OPENS TO RETURNING REFUGEES

UN aid team's convoys defy desperate pro-Indonesia militiamen

John Aglionby in Atambua, West Timor

Simao Mowis could not stop grinning as he led his family across the border from In-donesian West Timor to inde-pendent East Timor yesterday morning. His joy and relief at leaving the refugee camps he had endured for two months was unmistakable.

He is not the first East Timorese to have reached safety; more than 30,000 of the 250,000 who fled or were forced into West Timor have made the trek in the past six weeks. But yesterday was the first time the land border had been officially open to refugees.

"This should be a big turning point in the repatriation process," said Alias bin Ah-mad, head of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees team on the western side of the border. "Hopefully the floodgates will now open and we w~ll be able to take convoys across every day."

Yesterday's convoy went across on the north coast, from Motaain to Batugade. Mr Bin Ahmad hopes to open two other crossings in the next week: one a footpath through the central highlands to Maliana and the other along the main south coast road.

Opposing this plan is the rump of the pro-Indonesia East Timorese militias who pillaged the territory after los-ing the independence referen-dum in August, then fled to West Timor.

Not only do the militiamen control many of the 140-odd camps around Atambua, the main town on the West Timor side of the border, they are al-lowed to roam with impunity in the border region, prevent-ing refugees from returning east.

"People are given three choices if they try to return alone," said one refugee, Gabrielle Kobok. "They can return, but have to hand over all their belongings in order to do so; they can settle in West Timor; or they can offer to move to another part of In-donesia. If they reject these they are just taken away."

The UNHCR reckons that about 90 per cent the refugees want to return although few are prepared to admit it for fear of militia retribution.

And as the militiamen's position becomes more desperate—the new Indonesian government has washed its hands of them—their leaders are resorting to increasingly violent tactics.

"Last Thursday three trucks full of militia drove into our camp at lunchtime," said Jose Givares, who crossed yester-day with Mr Mowis. "They— including three women — starting shooting automatic rifles into the air and at build-ings. They then stole 18 vehi-cles from us."

The militias also prevent food reaching the refugees. "We were given 4kg of rice twice in the last month," said Joao Soares, another of yester-day's returnees. "We have had no other food at all."

The Indonesian police and army have started to disarm the militias—no weapons are now seen in Atambua itself— but are doing nothing to stamp out the underlying threat they pose. This was demonstrated clearly yester-day when militiamen were allowed to intimidate UNHCR staff outside the Atambua police station, in full view of several officers.

The police chief, Lieutenant Colonel Mohammad Nasir, said he could not clamp down on the militia. "They are very well armed, with many auto-matic weapons," he said. "If we tried to arrest them all they would just start terrorising the local community as well. We have no choice but to take a softly-softly approach."

To counter the militia threat, the UNHCR and International Office of Migration, which organises transport for the repatriation, have started "extraction missions". "We go in to camps without warning, get as many refugees as we can and then leave as quickly as possible," Mr Bin Ahmad said.

But yesterday afternoon militiamen were ready and waiting at Haliwin, a camp four miles outside Atambua. "There were about 100 of them blocking us," said a UNHCR supervisor, Reza Husseini, who was trying to take refu-gees to the local ferry port for repatriation.

"There was a picture of a skeleton with UNHCR written underneath and they started shooting into the air with automatic weapons."

Police accompanying the UN team f~red back to try to dis-perse the crowd but the UNHCR decided to retreat.

"We will try to go back to-morrow," Mr Husseini said. "People are waiting for us and we're their only hope."

On the way back to the port, . Mr Husseini decided to stop the convoy of empty trucks at another camp, at Lakafehan. The refugees there were caught by surprise but within I minutes dozens were pouring out of their makeshift homes. Their desperation to leave was palpable. Old women barged past young men to climb on board, preferring to lose their flip-flops in the mud than risk being left behind.

Several families stood back I from the melee.-"We are not sure that it is safe yet," said I Alberto da Costa. "We are hearing that East Timor is still very dangerous."

This is not true. Mr Da Costa is one of thousands of victims of a determined militia propa-ganda campaign. Rumours abound that UNHCR person-nel are spies, that refugees are given no food on their return and that their possessions are confiscated.

"We are also preparing for a guerrilla, war with Interfet," (the international forces in East Timor) said a militia leader, Evatipa. "We are train-ing 7,000 soldiers to take on the foreigners*. They will not be able to handl¢ us."

Few people take such threats seriously. But local community leaders and international agency staff agree that Mr Evatina and his cohorts are not willing to concede defeat and that there will be much more suffering in the camps before all the refugees are able to return home.


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