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.
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.
Mr. Therik says the referendum's violent aftermath "has created a very deep gap in the society," which will take time to repair. "Don't push the people to go home. They'll see the ruins of their houses and then the feeling of disappointment will break the society again."
"The two factions, pro-independence and pro-integration, should sit together with a mediator so they can explain their needs, not only their positions," says Judo Poerwowidagdo, director of the Center for the Study and Promotion of Peace in the Java city of Yogyakarta. He urges the East Timorese to create an institution similar to South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission in an effort to promote forgiveness.
Refugees as pawns But some relief workers in West Timor worry that militias intend to keep the refugees here in order to claim that the border between the province and the soon-to-be-independent territory should be redrawn. Or they may cite the hundreds of thousands of displaced East Timorese as a justification for armed attacks against East Timor.
Indonesia has long maintained that its annexation of East Timor in 1976, which followed an invasion of the former Portuguese colony the previous year, has prevented civil war.
Apart from questions over what the militias will do now, there is the matter of how to bring them to justice, along with their backers in Indonesia's military. East Timorese spokesman Jose Ramos-Horta has called for an international tribunal. The UN Commission on Human Rights will hold a special session in Geneva Sept. 23 to discuss the possibility of a war crimes tribunal. But Indonesian military leaders resist the idea.
"There is an intention in certain countries to put Indonesia into a corner by raising such issues," Lt. Gen. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono told Kompas, Indonesia's dominant newspaper, encouraging the media not to compare what has happened in East Timor with upheavals in Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia, or Kosovo. Gen. Wiranto, the head of Indonesia's military (who uses only one name), disputes reports that hundreds or thousands died in the referendum's violent aftermath. "The number of victims that we have recorded ... is roughly in the 90s," he told Indonesia's parliament Sept. 20.
Nonetheless, a former high-ranking Indonesian diplomat says that many Indonesians "agree that the military got out of hand and some suspect that some elements of the Army have joined the militias." Aside from military opposition, there are jurisdictional problems. It appears that many perpetrators of human rights abuses in East Timor have left the territory or could easily do so. The government is in the process of withdrawing troops and police from the province as the international force takes over.
"Those people have to be brought to justice," says Therik, referring to those responsible for the violence after the referendum. "The Indonesian government has to show its commitment that justice has to be done." Mr. Poerwowidagdo says that the East Timorese - those on both sides of the independence question - should decide if a tribunal is necessary, not outside parties, such as the UN.
In West Timor reconciliation and accountability are getting little attention. The regional police chief, Col. Jusuf Sudradjat, says his officers are screening incoming refugees and militia members and sending back those responsible for killings and other human-rights abuses in East Timor. "We don't allow weapons," he said.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society