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The 'underground railroad' in Timor

By Cameron W. BarrStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 29, 1999


The Indonesian clergyman has reason to be circumspect. "This is a tense and sus-picious situation," he says in a low voice. "Everyone suspects everybody else."

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In Kupang, a city filled with refugees who have fled the destruction of East Timor, church workers and others have quietly organized what amounts to an underground travel agency.

More than two dozen people who might be personally targeted have been spirited from safe houses in Kupang to relative safety this month, the clergyman says, asking that he not be further identified.

In many parts of Indonesia and around the globe, individuals are responding to the East Timor crisis with donations of time and money, sometimes at personal risk.

In contrast to the international peacekeeping force now in East Timor and the relief agencies in Kupang and other parts of West Timor, these individuals don't have media officers. Their work takes place quietly, transacted through e-mail messages, cellular phone calls, and plain old conversation.

In Dili, freedom from fear

Sister Margarita, the head of a Canossian convent in East Timor's shattered capital, Dili, brushes off suggestions that she should have been afraid as armed militia groups emptied the city at gunpoint early this month.

"If you have a big heart, people will be nice to you," she says, smiling benevolently and holding hands apart, palms upward.

After militia groups opposed to East Timor's independence burned the home of Bishop Carlos Belo on Sept. 6, the sisters spent a day at the police station. Then Margarita and three of her colleagues decided to return to the convent, rather than flee, as many of their sisters chose to do.

Four times soldiers visited their convent in the ensuing days, looting anything of value, say two Canossian sisters who stayed in Dili with Margarita but decline to give their names.

Now the four are back at work, visiting refugees around the city and assisting in religious services they say are intended to restore hope, as the peacekeepers and the United Nations try to restore order. "We assist in any way we can, but there are so many people," says one of the Canossians.

For the past several days refugees have been returning to Dili from the hills, walking past burned stores and demolished homes. After trickling in one by one, now families and groups are returning, evidently more confident of the security provided by the Australian-led peacekeeping force.

In a city with little food and water and where almost everything else doesn't exist, there is a lot to be done. But the most pressing need for many refugees is to reconnect with their loved ones.

Yesterday Margarita took time to take care of Justino Ximenes, a onetime employee of Bishop Belo's who had just walked into Dili from his hiding place in the hills. Mr. Ximenes was looking for his family, who were staying in the Bishop's compound when the militias forced them all to flee.

The sister took him to the local representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross, but there was no word. "They told me to come back in five days," Ximenes says, sitting on a couch set under a large mango tree in the compound.

The sisters sitting with him concede that recent weeks have tested their faith, particularly because nuns and priests have been killed. Most East Timorese are Roman Catholic and the militias have attacked the church because it is seen as pro-independence.