Subject: Deported East Timorese return with tales of terror

The Guardian [UK] Thursday October 14, 1999

Deported East Timorese return with tales of terror

Joanna Jolly in Dili

By 9am the crowd outside the stadium in East Timor's capital Dili has already begun to swell in anticipation of the arrival of the day's first refugees being flown back from Indonesian West Timor.

Half an hour later three trucks carrying about 60 refugees pull up. Australian soldiers hold back families straining to find relatives, and in the heated atmosphere many of the returning refugees begin to cry.

The man at my side is John Vincente, a pro-independence youth leader from Maliana who himself has just returned from West Timor. He writes down the names of 10 colleagues murdered by the militia and Indonesian army during the worst of the violence.

He says he was lucky, escaping their fate because after being taken to West Timor he was saved by the courage and generosity of Indonesian priests.

"It was very difficult for me because the militia and the military had my name and my photo," he says. "I was in Atambua for two days where young men are being killed at night by militia and intelligence soldiers. But I made it to Kupang where I felt safe because I was protected in the parish of a local priest."

Such stories are increasingly being heard, now that an estimated 260,000 East Timorese forcibly deported to West Timor by the militia and Indonesian military are being returned by the United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR.

Pedro, who was too afraid to give his full name, used to run a guesthouse in Dili popular with foreigners. He was forced to flee during the shooting and burning that followed the announcement of the result of the August 30 UN-organised ballot on independence.

As he and his family joined many others seeking protection at the local military base, they passed dead bodies on the road.

Pedro stayed outside the base for two nights before moving again, this time to police headquarters, where he was told to find a car to take him to the West Timorese town of Atambua.

"But there were no vehicles, and we were too afraid to go even 500 metres from the police station," he said.

Instead he and other East Timorese were flown by the Indonesian military to the West Timorese capital of Kupang.

When he arrived, the military took his group of 150 refugees to a camp 18 miles from the centre of town. But Pedro persuaded the commanders to return him to Kupang to the shelter of a Catholic organisation that had links in East Timor.

His previous activities in East Timor meant he was a target for the militias, but he was saved twice by a priest, who ordered militias out of the compound.

"I cannot praise that priest enough," he said. "We knew that if we left the compound the militia would get us. When my wife and children went out to buy food they told me the militia were stopping men on the streets, blindfolding them and tying their hands behind their backs before they took them away in their cars."

Pedro says it was not just the church sheltering East Timorese. "The ordinary people in West Timor are sick of the militia. They don't like the way they behave... All around Kupang in every house, people are taking in East Timorese."

Pedro, however, learnt that many refugees had not been lucky. His wife returned from shopping trips with information of camps where the women were too afraid to talk after the men had been taken at night by militias.

He fears for those in Atambua, where the UNHCR is still negotiating for safe access to some 200 refugee camps.

Pedro believes that refugees will be made to pay for each militiaman killed in East Timor by Interfet troops.

He said: "When the militia return from these attacks, they are very angry and they will take it out on those people."

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