Subject: IPS: East Timor 'Ghost Town' Raises Disturbing Questions

RIGHTS-EAST TIMOR: 'Ghost Town' Raises Disturbing Questions

By Sonny Inbaraj

SAME, East Timor, Oct 18 (IPS) - An eerie silence engulfed this town, 110 km south of East Timor's capital Dili, as the first international aid convoy made its way here after journeying seven hours through a tortuous mountain trail.

The convoy of aid workers, bringing rice, blankets and medicine, found only a handful of people out of a population of 23,000 when it arrived here last week.

The town at the foot of Mount Kabulaki and once the seat of government of chief Dom Boaventura, who rebelled against the Portuguese in the late nineteenth century, is now almost totally destroyed by retreating militias controlled by Indonesian military.

The few remaining houses, now occupied by East Timorese refugees, are those that belonged to Indonesian transmigrants or militia members.

That's about the only human life in the town. Even the stray dogs seem to have fled.

''This seems like a ghost town,'' said convoy leader Rob Wesley- Smith, an agriculture consultant with the Irish aid group Oikos. ''I've gone on other convoys, but this is the worst so far.''

A question that rankles the mind is: Where is the rest of Same's population?

''I used to have about 800 people taking communion every Sunday,'' said Father Gelasio de Silva, parish priest. ''Last Sunday there were only 50.''

Father Gelasio, a Catholic priest who returned to his homeland after 10 years in Australia, said the bulk of the population were still hiding in the hills.

''They're just too afraid to come down. They think the militia are still around and will only feel safe if Interfet (International Force in East Timor) troops are here,'' he explained.

However, Interfet troops have yet to make their way to Same in East Timor's Manufahi region. Armed escort to the convoy that arrived here toward midnight Thursday -- a joint Oikos-Timor Aid operation -- was provided by resistance Falintil Region 3 fighters under Commander ''Quito''.

On the way here, there were fears of an ambush by the Abalai militia group believed to be still operating in small numbers around Betano port -- 50 km from the town.

In Dili on Friday, Interfet commander Major General Peter Cosgrove admitted that hundreds of pro-Indonesia armed militia remained active in East Timor.

''We actually want them to lay down their arms and if they feel they can't do that, well, don't come into East Timor,'' he told reporters in response to the spotting of 150 militia members in Liquica, about 60 km west of Dili.

A number of clashes have been reported between UN troops and militia, including one Saturday near Marko, some 5 km from Indonesian- controlled West Timor, that resulted in the deaths of three militiamen. That was the fourth clash in 10 days.

Interfet forces, most of them Australian, arrived in East Timor on Sept 20, but only recently moved outside the main cities of Dili and Baucau toward the western frontier.

Reinforcements from South Korea and Thailand are expected this week, to enable Australian troops to reach the southern and eastern districts of East Timor.

Aid agencies have complained the multinational forces are moving too slow through the troubled territory.

The scale of slaughter in East Timor, after the East Timorese voted for independence in the UN-supported Aug 30 referendum, is still unknown. Rights groups say the territory-wide purge was well-planned, with refugees recounting Indonesian military-backed militias working from lists as they singled out victims.

Ross Mountain, the UN humanitarian coordinator for East Timor, said as many as 300,000 refugees are still unaccounted for, in a territory with an estimated population of 850,000.

''The missing refugees are a question we are very concerned to find the answer to. There are presumably tens of thousands still in the mountains, but we are certainly not seeing the numbers add up,'' he added.

Father Gelasio said large numbers of the population, in Same, were also taken away to neighbouring West Timor by the militias.

''I know of many Same people who were forced at gunpoint by the militias to board trucks heading toward Atambua across the border on Sept 4,'' he said. ''Many were also taken to Betano port and shipped to Kupang port in West Timor.''

Father Gelasio said he believed many could have gone missing on their way to Kupang and feared they might be dead.

Amnesty International, in a recent report, cited an incident on Sept 11 where East Timorese were killed when being forcibly transported by ship from Dili to Kupang. The bodies, said Amnesty, were then dumped overboard.

The Catholic priest himself was threatened by five militia members. ''They wanted me to leave the church but I stayed put. Then they started to fire shots at the church building to frighten me,'' Father Gelasio said, pointing to the bullet-riddled walls of his church.

Guilermo Marcal, who just returned from hiding in the hills, recalled seeing 30 trucks taking away people. ''The Abalai militias just turned up with these trucks and forced everyone in my village to get into them. They said we were taken to Atambua for our own safety.''

Marcal and his family managed to slip away and under the cover of darkness made the steep trek up the hills. ''There's no food in the hills and we were surviving on just leaves and roots. Hunger forced us to make our way down to Same town,'' he said.

''There're still lots and lots of frightened hungry people up there,'' said the old farmer, pointing to Mount Kabulaki. ''Please don't let the outside world forget us.''

But Mount Kabulaki, too, has an interesting tale.

Dom Boaventura, who managed to unite the island's tribes against the Portuguese in a bloody 16-year campaign, had his base in Mount Kabulaki. He was finally subdued by Mozambican troops drafted into the Portuguese army in August 1912. In the ensuing battle, thousands died and 3,000 rebel troops taken prisoner.

''The spirit of Dom Boaventura is still very much alive. He will protect our people in Kabulaki,'' said Lorenzo da Costa, who is in his early seventies. He had seen the Japanese land in East Timor during World War II and helped Australian troops sent to fight them.

''Interfet is like the Australian troops during the Japanese time. Please ask them to come to Same fast to save us,'' he added.

Father Gelasio was more down-to-earth. ''As you can see, everything here is in ruins. But for 24 years we had survived a brutal occupation. The Indonesians are gone and we are happy to rebuild from zero,'' he said.

Added the priest: ''But Interfet has to come soon to give the people, who are hiding, confidence to face the future.'' (END/IPS/ap-ip- hd/si/js/99)

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