East Timorese seek reunions, face homes in ruins

Refugees returning yesterday begin task of putting the territory back

Maria Catarina Napam cried when she saw Dili.

She returned to East Timor from a makeshift camp in neighboring West Timor yesterday, flying in on a plane full of refugees and riding into the capital on a French military truck. She saw charred buildings, shattered windows, and people milling around with little to do.

"I'm really sad to see all the destruction," explains Ms. Napam, a recently graduated high school student. "I never thought it would be this bad."

At Dili's port a day earlier, Manuel da Costa Pinto could hardly hold his son Ernaldo tight enough. More than six weeks ago Mr. Pinto fled into the hills of East Timor while his wife and two boys left for West Timor.

He found his family in a crowd of hundreds of people who had disembarked from a refugee ferry. "I'm very happy to see him," Pinto said, kissing the younger of the two boys.

In Dili and a few other places in East Timor, these scenes are daily occurrences as people locate their loved ones and begin to reckon with a nation in ruins. Returning refugees say they are delighted to be back in their soon-to-be-independent homeland, but they are stunned at the task ahead.

"I hope to rebuild East Timor," Napam said, "even though we have to start from scratch."

Aid groups in place

International organizations and the East Timorese are just beginning to reckon with what must be done to establish an independent and free-standing country here. The members of a World Bank mission, who are expected here today, will consider how to restart the educational system, replenish the ranks of the civil service, and develop the agricultural industry. They will reckon with who should finance East Timor, what currency the new country should use, and other issues.

As if to reinforce the ruinous state of East Timor's economy and infrastructure, the World Bank team will sleep on cots at a tent camp at the UN compound here - not the usual accommodation for the pin-striped set.

The UN, which this week will initiate a transitional authority here that is expected to last two to three years, finds itself "with full legal capacity and zero practical capacity," says one official who complains about the lack of personnel and resources available on the ground. In due course, the UN will assign nearly 11,000 peacekeeping troops and police to East Timor and bring in the experts and administrators necessary to build civic institutions and run the country.

Meanwhile, the National Council of Timorese Resistance (CNRT), a coalition of political groups, is working on establishing the prerequisites of human coexistence - order and stability. Although it is not an elected body, the CNRT is a sort of government-in-waiting. There is every expectation that its leader, Jos Alexandre "Xanana" Gusmo, will become East Timor's first president when elections are held at the end of the UN's authority.

Help the neighbors

On Oct. 20, the CNRT posted a notice in Dili appealing for people to help one another, share food with the less fortunate, and maintain discipline. The notice also encouraged people not to loot, appropriate found property, or engage in vigilante justice.

The East Timorese and their leader, Mr. Gusmo, often sound forgiving and inclined to reconciliation, but there is evident anger over what this territory has experienced in recent months. Militia groups backed by the Indonesian military campaigned against independence, and after the East Timorese voted to split from Indonesia on Aug. 30, they responded with arson, looting, and widespread destruction.

Exiles return

They also forced hundreds of thousands from their homes, roughly 200,000 of whom entered West Timor. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees says more than 18,000 had returned as of yesterday, most on ferries and flights organized by the UN.

Tensions surge if someone in a crowd in Dili, for example, is identified as a militia member. Yesterday UN agencies and private aid groups processed those who had arrived on Napam's flight at Dili's stadium - a sports ground turned refugee camp. Just outside the scene turned nasty when one man accused a newly arrived refugee of being a militia member, drawing a crowd that surrounded his car.

Lt. Matt Shea and other Australian soldiers calmed the crowd and sent the accused, his wife and daughter, and the accuser away for questioning. Without the troops' intervention, it's hard to know what would have happened. "They obviously wanted to go in and give him a bit of a touch-up," said Cpl. Marcus Hovington.

The UN and other agencies have been concentrating on meeting basic needs - such as feeding the hungry and bringing home the displaced - while the Australian-led multinational force restores peace and security. There are still concerns that the anti-independence militia groups, which wreaked such havoc here after East Timorese voted to split from Indonesia, may again resort to violence.

"The militia told me not to return to East Timor," says Paulinha Mousaco, dabbing sweat from her face under a shady tree near the port. "They told me there will be another war."

But Ms. Mousaco took her two young daughters and left West Timor anyway, boarding the same ferry that brought home Pinto's family. Mousaco said she already felt safer in Dili, since militia members patrolled the Noelbaki camp in Kupang, West Timor, where she spent six weeks.

"Hopefully they will have a better life than I have right now," the woman says of her children, somehow cheerful despite the stress of fetching her bags, keeping an eye on the kids, and moving around while five months pregnant. She was planning to find her husband and begin repairing their home, which she said had been looted of their possessions but not destroyed.

Better than camping

All of this work seemed to be an improvement over life in the camp, where she spent many weeks without knowing whether her husband was well. "We didn't do anything," she says. "We just sat around and slept."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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