Putting a face on Timor's militias

Militia members involved in a massacre of 10 people, including twonuns, talk about their roles in Team Alpha.

Seventeen men being held in this small town admit they were part of a militia called Team Alpha that terrorized East Timorese after they voted for independence. If they did anything wrong, they add, it was only because their militia superiors or members of the Indonesian Army forced them to do so.

One of the men says he witnessed Team Alpha members kill a group of 10 people, including two nuns, one week ago near here. Amelio da Costa denies participating in the violence, but says he went along for the ride. What he saw was "the action of devils."

Yesterday, the men sat meekly on the floor of a cramped room in a convent here and answered a reporter's questions in their first interview with a US newspaper. Nuns are protecting them from retribution, while members of East Timor's Falintil guerrillas are preventing them from escaping.

They said they joined the militia group because their families were being held hostage.

But Maj. Paul Boquest, an Australian soldier who is part of the international force restoring order in East Timor, told the 17 men yesterday that some of them had "stuff they'd have to answer for." Later he explained to the Monitor why he is confident that investigators will be able to find the guilty. "The communities generally know who has done what," he said.

As East Timor becomes more secure, people are beginning to wrestle with knowing who did what. Some of the guiltiest will likely be punished by whatever justice system emerges here.

But others - small-timers who say they were forced to kill or terrorize their countrymen - may want to return to the communities they once terrorized. As with the 17 men in Fuiloro, many will blame the Indonesian Army, which created the militias as a proxy force to fight the movement for independence.

Although East Timor is a divided society, the split is not as bad as it could be.

According to the results of a United Nations-sponsored referendum held Aug. 30, nearly 80 percent of East Timorese want the independence that will soon be theirs.

That still leaves a fifth of the population who favor remaining part of Indonesia, which invaded East Timor in 1975 and annexed it the following year. The militias led the drive to remain with Indonesia and, when the referendum result was announced in early September, began destroying buildings and homes, forcing people out of East Timor, and killing those who sought independence.

Revenge attacks

This vengeful, destructive campaign has embittered many East Timorese. In recent days some supporters of independence have beaten or attacked militia members or others who favored remaining with Indonesia.

"If we are not able to do this reconciliation it will be very difficult, so we have to try," says the Rev. Basilio do Nascimento, a Roman Catholic bishop responsible for this part of East Timor.

And yet even the bishop, one of the most respected figures in East Timor today, was at a loss when asked for his reaction after he met briefly with the 17 men.

"It cannot be published," Bishop Nascimento said.

That may be because one of the men is Mr. da Costa, who admits he took part in the massacre of two nuns, three seminarians, an Indonesian journalist, two other lay people, and two children on Sept. 25.

Along for the ride

A young man with a mustache and long sideburns, Da Costa says he went along because his brother was driving a car for the militia members.

They told him and others to set up a roadblock outside the town of Lautem, which is on the coast several miles from Fuiloro. They waited - out of sight - for a short while, he says, until the church workers' vehicle approached and was forced to stop at the roadblock.

Immediately one of the militia members shot and killed the seminarian at the wheel, and others set the vehicle on fire. When those inside fled the flames, says Da Costa, militia members killed them with guns and machetes.

He describes how a militia member used a machete to kill one nun as she prayed by the side of the road. Then the militia members dumped the bodies and the vehicle into a river, where they have since been discovered. The massacre victims are buried in a cemetery at Fuiloro.

Coming to grips with events like these - and their perpetrators - will be a major task for the East Timorese and their international helpers. Already the UN mission here has been urging East Timorese not to engage in recrimination.

Referring to one recent beating, UN spokesman David Wimhurst said, "This sort of incident is against the spirit of what we are trying to do here and in the rest of East Timor."

Human rights investigations

That is why the UN is rushing to bring in specialists in the investigation of human-rights abuses, who are expected to arrive in East Timor this week.

These investigators will begin surveying the abuses that have occurred here recently in order to increase the sense that those responsible will be held accountable.

The Australian-led international force also is working on expanding its ability to detain and investigate those who may be responsible for crimes or human rights abuses. That work will become easier when Indonesia cedes formal sovereignty over the territory; a legislative body meeting in Jakarta should decide the timing of a transition within the next few weeks.

As it is, East Timor exists in a legal vacuum. Indonesia is nominally in charge, but in reality there is no justice system in place. And it has fallen to the international force to apprehend those responsible for crimes and human-rights abuses.

Major Boquest, who met with the militia members yesterday, told them they would be fairly treated, but warned them that their accounts would be compared with those of other militia members already in custody.

Militiamen captured

The militia members came into custody through two operations of the international force. On Sept. 27, a helicopter-borne force of Australians flew into the port of Com and apprehended a group of militia and their weapons - the first seizure of military-style weapons in militia hands.

Later in the week, British Gurkha soldiers accompanied an aid convoy to the town of Los Palos, where they heard about a large group of refugees being held under militia control in Com.

The Gurkhas investigated, discovered the refugees, and pursued their captors. They fired warning shots in pursuit - the first shots of the international intervention in East Timor - but failed to catch the militia members immediately.

The Gurkha commander, Maj. Tim Warrington, then negotiated through the militia members' relatives to get the militia members to surrender. After protracted talks, it was clear that militia members had divided into two camps and had begun fighting over whether to give themselves up. The Gurkhas then moved in and arrested four unarmed militia members.

But the local priest told Major Warrington that the other members would hand themselves in to the church or to Falintil guerrillas - and that is what the militia members have done.

Now they protest their relative innocence as the field outside their small detention room fills up with refugees who were once under their control.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.