As I walked into the Noelbaki refugee camp in West Timor, the Indonesian police assigned an East Timorese refugee named Dede to be my "escort." As soon as we left sight of the police, he whispered, "I have been forced here to West Timor. I want to go back to East Timor, but I'm scared."
There are roughly 200,000 East Timorese refugees in West Timor. The United Nations estimates that 60 to 70 percent want to return to their country. But anti-independence militia - who torched East Timor in early September after citizens voted for independence from Indonesia - control many of the camps.
The refugees haven't returned because the militias don't want to let them go. But they will have to. With pressure from Indonesia and the UN, the refugees are already being returned. The questions now are, how long it will take, and at what cost.
The militias do not want international attention focused on the camps and harass journalists and UN workers trying to visit. I was fortunate not to be harassed, when, with the help of a police escort, I visited two camps in the first week of November as a human rights worker.
The Indonesian National Commission on Human Rights, an official government agency, visited West Timor early this month and documented militia violations in refugee camps, including rape, abduction, and forced militia service. Refugees who express any desire to return home become targets. One man told me he saw militia members stab to death two men on a West Timor road who were on their way to cross back into East Timor.
Until recently the UN played a passive role in repatriating refugees. Those who could make it on their own to major UN transit points got a free ride to East Timor. But the flow of refugees from West to East Timor had slowed. So early this month the UN launched "extraction operations" to rescue refugees from militia-run camps. The UN quietly takes a count of how many people want to leave, then, usually with Indonesian Army escorts, brings in enough trucks to take everyone out at once. By the time the militia knows who is leaving, the theory goes, it's too late to harm the refugees. The effort is paying off. According to the UN, in one three-day period last week, 8,000 refugees returned.
The militias, which have fled their homeland of East Timor and now are without a mission from Indonesia, aren't thrilled to see their last trump card - the refugees - slip away. Four days after my visit, a UN convoy trying to repatriate refugees from Noelbaki was driven off by a militia group. Last week, the UN tried again to "extract" refugees from Noelbaki, but was harassed and left with just 16 people - out of 7,000 refugees.
A militia group closed one border crossing last week and abducted two men. The Indonesian Army was there, but apparently decided that forcing the militia to reopen the border would be inappropriate. The border crossing stayed closed .
"The problem isn't in East Timor anymore, it's here," a top UNICEF official in West Timor told me. "Embassies need to pressure the new Indonesian government to tell the militia to stop playing around."
On Nov. 12, the newly elected, reform-minded president of Indonesia, Abdurrahman Wahid, met with President Clinton and promised refugees would be allowed to return. He even ordered Army planes to help the effort. Mr. Wahid should be commended for his stance, but he needs to make his word stick with the military. It won't be easy. In Indonesia, the president often orders one thing and the military does another. In order to truly guarantee the safety of returning refugees, the military needs to be willing to disarm and even fight the militias. That will be difficult. Indonesia's military would be cutting off and selling out a force it created. And pro-Indonesian forces in other wannabe break-away provinces would surely take notice.
The militias are going to lose in the end. The UN will eventually repatriate everybody who wants to return. How long will it take? How many will be killed in the meantime?
*Eric Umansky is the former editor of Mother Jones Interactive. He interviewed refugees in West Timor on behalf of Tapol, a London-based human rights organization that focuses on Indonesia.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society