Reconciliation may be tough in Timor
The problem of Timor now lies on the western side: Militiamen have followed the refugees.
One day about three weeks ago, Antonio knew it was time to get out of East Timor. Around his village, militias opposed to the territory's independence were burning houses, shooting guns, and attacking Roman Catholic clergy. Antonio - not his real name - had flown pro-independence flags from his home and campaigned for the cause. His peril was obvious. So he and his wife and three children fled to West Timor, the neighboring province, which now hosts nearly 200,000 refugees.Skip to next paragraph
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They left with nothing but their clothes and are living from day to day in this parched, dusty city located in the eastern half of the sprawling Indonesian archipelago. Despite the terrors experienced back home and the deprivations here, Antonio seems ready to forgive the militias. "Aitarak," he says, naming one group, "is being used by the Indonesian military in East Timor. When the military is no longer there, [Aitarak members] will be ordinary East Timorese ... and we will be united."
But reconciliation may not come so easily. As an international force restores order to East Timor and the Indonesian government and other nations wrestle with a flood of people displaced by turmoil, the complexity of putting East Timor back together again is growing clearer.
There is great uncertainty over what the militias will do and under what circumstances refugees will be able to go home. A newly independent East Timor will have to grapple with reconciling people on different sides of a political divide and with how to bring to justice those responsible for violence.
The militia factor "The problem of East Timor is lying in West Timor," says the Rev. Tom Therik, rector of the Christian University in Kupang, the capital of West Timor, referring to the militias and refugees. "East Timor can be fine in a minute, because the peacekeeping force is already there. But the tension is now in West Timor."
That tension derives from the militias - armed gangs initially created by Indonesia's military in order to fight pro-independence guerrillas in East Timor. Several months ago these groups were recast as political forces, using violence, intimidation, and softer tactics to encourage East Timorese to vote in favor of integration in an Aug. 30 referendum sponsored by the United Nations.
Nearly every registered voter turned out for the referendum - which East Timorese had demanded for years - and overwhelmingly favored breaking away from Indonesia. The result prompted vengeful reprisals from the militia members, who forced people from their homes, killed an unknown number of East Timorese, and began destroying the territory's infrastructure.
Now they are a menacing presence in Kupang and Atambua, a border town full of refugees. Openly carrying arms and driving around in trucks marked "police," the militia members wear military uniforms stripped of insignia, T-shirts emblazoned with their group's name, and red-and-white headbands - the colors of the Indonesian flag.
The leader of one truckload of militia members encountered in Kupang glowered at and ordered away foreign reporters who asked him questions. Clergy members and relief workers here and in Atambua say that the militias intimidate the refugees in the camps and may be abducting and killing refugees suspected of favoring independence.
In large, government-run camps where the militias are active, refugees uniformly tell visitors that they support integration with Indonesia. But refugees who are in the care of church groups in Kupang - such as Antonio and his family - say they want independence. "If you are in Indonesian territory you have to say you are pro-integration - it's a matter of survival," says one clergyman who asked that his name not be used.