Subject: IPS: What Happened to the Timorese?

EAST TIMOR: What Happened to the Timorese?

By Farhan Haq

UNITED NATIONS, Oct 15 (IPS) - International troops and UN officials, striving to restore order to East Timor, faced the disturbing problem Friday of where were the hundreds of thousands of Timorese, missing since last month.

Prior to the Aug. 30 vote in which the East Timorese overwhelmingly opted for independence from Indonesia, the population of the territory was estimated to be as high as 890,000.

When pro-Indonesia militias - supported by the Indonesian military - responded to the pro-independence vote with burning, looting and massacres, the East Timorese fled in their thousands.

Now that Australian-led troops are in control of the territory, many East Timorese have returned from hiding places in the forests and mountains and the 200,000, who were expelled to the Indonesian province of West Timor, slowly are being returned.

Even so, say UN officials, thousands of East Timorese - perhaps as many as 300,000 - remain missing.

Whether they are still in hiding, or whether many were killed during last month's violence, is now the subject of controversy at the United nations.

On the one hand, the disappearance of so many Timorese has sparked concern here that Indonesian forces may have massacred them.

Some human rights groups have mentioned reports that, besides the approximately 230,000 East Timorese who were forced into West Timor last month, thousands more may have been shipped to other islands in Indonesia, or even killed and dumped into the Pacific Ocean.

One South American diplomat told the UN Security Council last week about reports of the ''harassment, even killing, of 6000 Timorese in Java and other Indonesian islands.''

A former UN official in East Timor cited reports that Indonesian boats which had ferried East Timorese to West Timor's capital, Kupang, returned in less time than it would take to travel to Kupang and back.

Such reports have led to accusations by Timorese leaders like Nobel laureate Jose Ramos Horta, who said of the Indonesians, ''They threw people off helicopters into the ocean.''

On the other hand, only a few bodies have been uncovered by the International Force in East Timor (Interfet), leading Indonesia to deny angrily that there was ''any shred of evidence'' of massacres.

In a statement this week, the Indonesian Foreign Ministry argued that there had been no evidence to support claims either of mass killings on land or of bodies dumped offshore.

Indonesia's supporters have argued that there is no truth in the ''myths'' of wide-scale massacres.

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohammed said several reports of killings - such as the rumoured murder of the father of East Timor's independence leader, Xanana Gusmao - later proved to be false.

''Indonesia has been vilified,'' Mahathir contended.

Yet UN officials argued privately that the September violence clearly was organised by Indonesian officials. One UN official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that officials from both the Indonesian military and the civilian government had been witnessed coordinating militia activity during the worst phase of the violence.

That wave of violence clearly included killings, as Interfet has shown as it has discovered bodies in several suspected massacre sites - although not as many bodies as previously believed.

And even the 4,000 East Timorese who worked as local staffers for the UN Mission in East Timor (UNAMET) have not been fully accounted for, admitted Ian Martin, head of UNAMET.

''It is going to be a long time before we are able to know the fate of all of those people, as distinct from the core staff who worked at the headquarters in Dili and at the (UN) regional offices on a longer-term basis,'' Martin said Thursday.

''We are extremely anxious to do that (find out where they are), and obviously we have the kind of records to enable us to do that, but it is going to be part of the general process of discovering who have come back from the hills, who comes back from Kupang or Atambua (in West Timor),'' he added.

UN officials have organised flights for hundreds of East Timorese who want to return home from West Timor, but more than 200,000 remain in camps there - many of which are under the control of the militias, according to the UN High Commission for Refugees. (END/IPS/fah/mk/99)

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