The 'underground railroad' in Timor

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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."

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.

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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.

"We have to see in the people who are in the militias ... that there is divine Providence. And we have to develop our faith and sensitivity enough to see it," one of them says.

In Kupang, flights to safety

In Kupang, the clergyman, other church workers, and still others sympathetic to the East Timorese are helping certain refugees flee the city, where anti-independence militia members operate with near impunity.

The fear is that the militia groups are seeking to detain and perhaps murder pro-independence activists and other prominent East Timorese now on the run. Those working with the refugees in organized camps say militia members are looking for such people, some of whom have disappeared or been killed.

So the clergyman and his colleagues are organizing safe houses, putting up refugees in their homes, and trying to avoid detection by the militia groups and the Indonesian authorities. Like US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, they accuse the Indonesian military of colluding with the militias.

They are also using e-mail to publicize the plight of the refugees in Kupang and other parts of West Timor.

Until recently, the clergyman says, he has been able to buy airplane tickets on behalf of refugees in hiding, meet them at the airport just before their flight, and see them off to parts of Indonesia where there is less danger.

The problem is that the airlines have begun asking to see national identity cards when the clergyman attempts to buy tickets. That means he has to give away the identity of the people he is trying to protect.

But he says he hopes he can use his personal connections within the airlines' local offices to circumvent this new requirement, which appears to have come out of nowhere.

His motivation is straightforward: "I feel like I'm doing the right thing." He says he doesn't care about the political ideas of those whose lives seem to be in danger, as long as they are not militia members.

But he concedes that just about everyone trying to flee is a supporter of East Timorese independence.

In Jakarta, kind strangers

Terus Nain, the nom de guerre of a low-ranking East Timorese independence activist, has money in his pockets today because a World Bank economist in Jakarta recently gave him about $120.

The World Bank is not aiding East Timorese refugees. But some of its employees in Jakarta are using their personal connections and e-mail lists to raise money for the East Timorese from colleagues and acquaintances around the globe.

"These are heart-to-heart networks," says Scott Guggenheim, an anthropologist who works at the World Bank's Jakarta office. "There's no institutional involvement," he emphasizes.

Over the last three weeks, he and an economist in the Jakarta office have raised 11 million rupiah ($1,375) from local colleagues and $10,000 to $15,000 from contacts elsewhere. "It's interesting where you get contributions from," Mr. Guggenheim adds, citing a Chinese student group and a Boston woman who works with disadvantaged children.

Guggenheim says he can put funds directly in the hands of local groups who need help immediately and in some cases, like Mr. Nain's, give cash to the individuals themselves.

"People who are ... on site and can see people starve," he explains, "find ways to support them."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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