Subject: SMH/E.Timor: Chilling query on the missing

Sydney Morning Herald 30/10/99

Chilling query on the missing

By DAVID LAGUE in Maliana, East Timor

A small measure of laughter and fun has returned to ravaged East Timor as kids hooted and giggled yesterday in a game of soccer on the dirt community playing field at Maliana, close to the territory's border with West Timor.

As peacekeepers tighten their grip over the territory that Indonesia has vacated, and refugees trickle back to their towns and villages, life is gradually returning to normal for some - but something is not quite right.

Nearly seven weeks after the Australian-led Interfet multi-national force landed at the capital, Dili, and began expanding throughout the territory, there is a troubling and perhaps chilling shortfall in people if the original estimates of East Timor's population at 850,000 are accurate.

United Nations officials in Dili say that about 75 per cent of the people of East Timor were displaced in the chaos after the overwhelming support for independence at the August 30 ballot.

They believe 240,000 East Timorese remain in camps in West Timor, where they fled or were driven, and that hundreds of thousands still hide in the hills and remote valleys of this rugged land - which would explain why many villages and towns remain virtually empty.

This week, teenagers Justino Los Santos and Francisco Siqueira were part of a foraging party combing through the empty villages west of Dili, past the town of Liquica, in search of food.

Not a soul challenged them as they picked through the abandoned huts until, with whoops of delight, they ran out of the banana trees around one burnt-out hamlet, leading a goat and a chicken they had caught.

Where are the inhabitants of these villages? Can they all be in West Timor? Each time peacekeepers penetrate further into the rugged mountains that run up the spine of East Timor, they find no more than a scattering of people.

The operations officer of the Third Battalion, the Royal Australian Regiment, Major Brad Orchard, and his fellow peacekeepers kept expecting to be overwhelmed in a rush of refugees from the hills as they moved through the country. But it doesn't happen.

"I don't think they exist," he said. "If they do, they are very good at hiding."

The sinister explanation is that East Timor has been the site of a huge crime against humanity: that there was a genocidal killing rampage by pro-Jakarta militias and the Indonesian military, and thousands might have been dumped at sea as Indonesia tried to shift the entire East Timorese population to West Timor. But where are the bodies?

So far, Interfet has confirmed finding about 95 bodies in several sites. A small number of corpses have washed up on beaches. Reports indicate that hundreds of other bodies will be found when specialists begin exhumations and forensic work. But this still falls far short of genocide.

It is possible that up to 100,000 East Timorese were pro-Jakarta or trans-migrants from other parts of Indonesia and may feel they have no future in an independent East Timor.

The UN's humanitarian co-ordinator in Dili, Mr Ross Mountain, expects this to account for some of the shortfall. "There will be a significant number of people who do not want to come back immediately, or may not wish to come back at all," he said.

Interfet forces will today mount Operation Paluma, a sweep back from the border with West Timor through the mountains towards the east, which should finally answer questions about refugees hiding in the hills. The Australian commander of Interfet, Major-General Peter Cosgrove, said yesterday big numbers had been killed, but the most likely explanation for the missing people was that the initial population statistics were unreliable and estimates of refugees outside East Timor were inaccurate.

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