East Timor's deserted outpost

On Friday Australian troops entered Oecussi. Only 2,500 of the area's 57,000 people have been found.

The town below is utterly empty, almost all its buildings destroyed. Nothing moves on the streets. The United Nations helicopter circles several times, but the only people in sight are a few shadowy figures who appear to take cover under some trees.

A handful of others come into view on a hill overlooking the town. Jumping up and down, they wave wildly and hold up a blue-and-white sign that says "UN." But the helicopter does not land, because the area is considered too dangerous for civilians.

This is Oecussi, the last part of East Timor to be entered by the Australian-led forces restoring order here. Bordered on one side by the sea and on all others by West Timor, the enclave is cut off from the rest of East Timor.

Australian troops entered Oecussi on Friday, and yesterday this reporter was the first journalist to see the enclave since militia members angry over East Timor's vote for independence began a destructive rampage in early September.

"It's one of the worst areas," said a UN worker on the flight. "There's no sign of life at all." During the five weeks that the international force has been in East Timor, towns like Oecussi have raised a disturbing question: Where are all the people?

In the early days of the operation, humanitarian workers worried aloud about the possibility of mass killing. Out of a population of 850,000, about one-half remained unaccounted for earlier this month, according to a UN spokesman. But nowadays officials here are much more willing to believe that the missing East Timorese are simply in hiding or in refugee camps.

"While a number of nasty things have certainly happened here, we are not suggesting that people are missing because there has been a genocide or anything of that dimension," says Ross Mountain, the UN's director of humanitarian assistance here.

A number of recent events are making it easier for East Timorese to believe that it is safe enough to return to their homes, or what is left of them. For one thing, independence leader Jos Alexandre "Xanana" Gusmo returned to the territory late last week, just after Indonesia's People's Consultative Assembly revoked its 1976 annexation of East Timor.

The international forces are gradually extending their reach throughout the territory as are humanitarian agencies. In some cases, Indonesian officials and troops in West Timor are aiding the return of East Timorese.

Emboldened by these events, people are reappearing in Dili and some other towns in ever greater numbers, each day dispelling worries about mass killings.

There is also a shortage of evidence to substantiate such fears. For more than a month, troops, aid workers, and journalists have attempted to find evidence of large-scale killings - without much success. Yesterday Col. Mark Kelly, chief of staff for the Australian-led forces here, said international troops so far had recovered a total of 95 bodies that are under investigation.

Local human rights workers report finding additional bodies, but the discoveries do not yet indicate that the militias set out to murder a large number of East Timorese.

To be sure, the militias and their backers in the Indonesian military destroyed property and moved people out of homes with considerable efficiency. In Oecussi town, the hub of the enclave, a hundred or so buildings are in ruins, including the administrative offices, the police station, the electric utility, and several schools. Only a handful of buildings - the church, a government guest house, and a hotel - remain standing.

Despite being surrounded by West Timor, the enclave remains a part of East Timor because the Portuguese colonizers initially landed in the enclave's town of Lifau. When Indonesia's Dutch colonizers and the Portuguese decided on a border dividing Timor island in the early 1900s, the Portuguese demanded that their historical landing spot and the area around it be part of East Timor.

The Australian-led forces that arrived last week have reported finding 2,500 people - a far cry from the enclave's earlier population of some 57,000. The town of Oecussi itself was home to 8,000 to 10,000 people.

Because it is the last place to see the international cavalry come over hill, the militias have had more time to pursue their campaign of deprivation. Members of East Timor's pro-independence Falintil guerrillas report that as many as 70 people have been killed in the enclave in recent days, but such figures are impossible to confirm.

Some reports indicate the militia groups, now based in West Timor, may attack the enclave and claim that it should be made part of Indonesia. They may also consider the enclave the best place to attack the better-equipped Australian-led troops, who would be somewhat cut off from their main forces.

Mr. Mountain says he expects humanitarian workers will be allowed to land in the territory "very soon." The international force has erred on the side of caution in preparing for aid workers.

A UN official yesterday said he believed the militias and the Indonesian military had forced the enclave's residents into surrounding West Timor. Still he was disturbed at the emptiness of the place. "There were a lot of children, a lot of kids," the official said, recalling earlier visits to Oecussi and requesting anonymity. "Now there is nothing."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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