Early this month Mariano, a little boy with round eyes and a blank, worried expression, watched from his hiding place in a tree as a man took a "big knife" from his belt and struck one of his older brothers.
Soon afterward Mariano and another brother fled East Timor. Now the two boys - Joo is 9 and Mariano is 7 - are staying with dozens of other refugees in a hurriedly built shack on church property in Kupang, the capital of West Timor.
But these people are safe only because nuns are hiding them from the same kind of men who attacked the boys' brother. As an international force prepares to restore order to East Timor, a second humanitarian and human-rights crisis is emerging in the neighboring province.
Approximately 150,000 refugees in West Timor remain under threat from militias backed by Indonesia's military. These groups attempted to sway East Timor's Aug. 30 referendum on independence through intimidation and violence. And once the overwhelming vote in favor of breaking away from Indonesia was announced, they began driving East Timorese from their homes, killing those suspected of favoring freedom, and razed the capital, Dili.
The Australian commander of the UN-authorized international force, Maj. Gen. Peter Cosgrove, visited Dili yesterday as part of an advance planning team. His troops were expected to arrive in Dili today. "My main task is to protect those people of East Timor who, because of their status, are unable to look after themselves," he said.
Terror campaign continues
In West Timor, however, the militias' government-backed campaign of terror continues. Militia members are patrolling refugee camps looking for certain individuals, some of whom have subsequently disappeared or been killed, according to local clergy members and international relief workers. One militia leader has been living in a military compound in Kupang and using a vehicle with license plates reserved for official use.
Indonesian authorities have promised to disarm the militias in West Timor, but it seems that little is being done to stop them.
"Everyone is going around with guns, big guns," says one nun, who requested anonymity. "It's terrible. We live in fear now."
This nun and other clergy in Kupang are sheltering refugees, providing them with air tickets to other parts of Indonesia and trying to reunite separated family members. But the refugees in the care of religious institutions are fortunate; most are in huge camps where militia members operate with seeming impunity and where conditions are grim.
At one camp, refugees said the government was providing each person with 2.2 pounds of rice and 3,000 rupiah (about 50 cents) every five days, along with water and some shelter. But some families were living on open ground, with almost no possessions with only a blanket rigged up to shield them from the sun.
There are eight portable toilets for 12,000 people at Noelbaki, the largest camp in Kupang, according to local aid workers. Because of militia threats and attacks against foreigners, the camp is off limits to international visitors - particularly whites.
Several international aid agencies are helping the refugees, along with the Indonesian government. But some relief workers here say conditions are among the worst they've seen. "Thousands of families are now destitute," says an official from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) who asked for anonymity. "When people sleep under the trees that means they are in their last days."
Relief workers here are concerned that with the media attention focused on the international force entering Dili, the situation in West Timor may be overlooked. And the presence of General Cosgrove's troops in East Timor may force additional militia members across the border.
Last week in Atambua, a border town with more than 75,000 refugees, three East Timorese working for the ICRC were detained by militia members. Two of them got away, but not the third. "We are sure he was killed," the official says.
A protestant minister in Kupang says he is aware of five instances where militia members have taken people from refugee camps here. And a United Nations official says he is aware of two cases where people removed from the camps have been shot.
There is some speculation that a mass deportation of East Timorese is part of a plan to disrupt the transition to independence.
Hendro Priyono, Indonesia's minister for transmigration, says there are plans to "resettle" the Timorese refugees away from East Timor. UN reports say that thousands of refugees already have been shipped from Kupang, heading for such far-flung destinations as Ambon, Surabaya, and Irian Jaya.
Families are separated
As if fear and deprivation weren't enough, the refugees are receiving sad news from home. One East Timorese high school student, hiding in Kupang with his teachers, heard from a friend on Friday about how his father died during the chaos of early September. With a direct gaze and slight pauses, the young man relates what he has just learned.
On Sept. 4 or 5, soldiers arrested his father, a schoolteacher in Metinaro, a town several miles outside of Dili, and detained him in the local military compound.
At 11 a.m. on Sept. 6, he says, "they called my father to stand in the middle of the street." The man was in full view of many people, including the friend who says he watched a soldier shoot the schoolteacher three times.
"Why I don't know," the student says. "I think they were angry with my father. My father is for independence." The friend provided the student with the name of the soldier and said he wore a uniform with two red stripes across the sleeve.
Now the young man is leaving Kupang for Atambua, where he hopes to find his mother and sisters among the thousands of refugees there.
Meanwhile, in the shack on church property in Kupang, Mariano and Joao are in the care of the nuns. They miss their mother, who was separated from the boys during the East Timor exodus.
One of the sisters explains how they are handling these children, who are without their parents and who have seen terrible things. "We let them know that we love them, and that they are being loved," she says.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society