They fled only to become refugees. Now they almost live here as inmates.
In the camps that dot the countryside of this impoverished Indonesian province, about 100,000 refugees now live alongside the same militias who went on a killing and burning rampage in East Timor last September following a referendum on independence.
United Nations officials say many of the displaced yearn to leave, but are intimidated into staying by armed gangs who are using them as bargaining chips in a desperate bid to hold on to their waning influence and power.
Last week, a senior UN official called the militias "bad elements" and said the UN was suspending work in three refugee camps. "We will not resume our activities in the camps without additional security guarantees," said Kris Janowski, spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva.
Meanwhile, the Indonesian government has set a June 30 deadline to end aid to the refugees, who must decide whether to stay or return to East Timor. Three months ago, the same ultimatum was pushed back under heavy international pressure.
The largest refugee camp, just outside West Timor's capital, Kupang, is called Tuapuakan - a temporary city of 12,000 with a disturbing air of permanence. Aid workers say disease is rampant, and hundreds of men, idle for months, stare emptily at outsiders passing through with an armed police escort. In the past few months, at least eight people have been killed here in sporadic fighting between rival groups.
There is also an open defiance of Indonesian authority.
"I have to be honest with you, maybe there are some people here who still have weapons," Cancio Lopes de Carvalho, leader of the Mahidi militia, recently told a gathering that included a US congressional group and journalists. "I've already instructed my people to turn over their weapons - but they say to me, if we continue to live in these very poor conditions, when our future is uncertain, we will have to keep fighting."
Some of the refugees have been militia members, or East Timorese members of the Indonesian Army, who fear reprisals if they return to their homes in East Timor. Others are still receiving government pensions and are afraid they may not continue to get them in East Timor. And many face an uncertain future in East Timor, with family members killed and homes destroyed.
But the main reason the camps still stand, say almost all local and international aid workers, comes down to one factor: militias. Aid workers say the militias intimidate the refugees into staying through various means, although they are technically free to leave.
"No, there are no militias in the camps," insisted West Timor Governor Piet Tallo, after a formal interview with an American delegation, under the watchful eyes of half a dozen Indonesian Army commanders.
"No militias in the camps," said Army commander Alex Logi, as he talked with reporters in Noelbaki camp, which shelters over 6,000 refugees. Meanwhile, a group of men wearing camouflage clothing, whom local aid workers identified as militias, stood listening. "If people want to leave, they are very welcome to go. They only have to register to go - they can leave whenever they want."
But Alberto Carceres, a farmer from Manatutu, who lived for six months in the Tuapukan camp and recently decided to return to East Timor with his family, says there is a lot of misinformation. According to aid workers, militias often tell refugees that the UN peacekeepers who patrol East Timor will brutalize them if they return. "When we first came to West Timor, we did not receive clear information about East Timor," he says. "Now we are going back because we've gotten news from our relatives."
"The majority of people want to go home, but they are afraid," says Pamela Sexton, an aid worker with Peace Brigades International. "They receive incredible disinformation about what's happening in East Timor, but also the high concentration of militias in the camps is a tremendous threat to people."
Meanwhile, under President Abdurrahman Wahid, the Army has come under heavy pressure to disassociate itself from the militias they once encouraged and supported. In response, locals say militias have been making public threats to the Army to continue supporting them - or face the possibility of the militias disclosing what they know about the Army's role in the rampage.
"My duty is to forbid certain people from making West Timor a base for trouble," says Col. Jurefar, the chief Army commander in the province, referring to the militias, "because we respect the results of the referendum in East Timor."
But Indonesia has yet to arrest any militia leader for crimes. Across the border in East Timor, however, many people are awaiting trial for last September's crimes.
The first trials are set to begin soon and analysts say could bring a measure of justice, peace, and reconciliation to this wounded half-island territory - and possibly encouraging tens of thousands of its citizens waiting uncertainly across the border to return home.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society