Can East Timor Avoid a Civil War?

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ERIC ELLIS DiliA mangy goat draped in a crude Indonesian flag saved an East Timorese family of six from a grisly death last week. When the militiamen of the Besi Merah Putih--Red and White Iron--came to the home of a goatherd in the village of Liquica, they offered him an ultimatum: he and his wife would be beheaded and his four children disemboweled if he didn't display loyalty to Jakarta. The goatherd wasted no time. My wife quickly made this bandeira [flag] from two old shirts, he recalls. The bloodthirsty mob was mollified, for the moment at least.Intimidation has been a tragic fact of life in East Timor since its forcible 1975 annexation by Indonesia, but the sharp escalation of brutality this month has even battle-weary locals reeling in horror. Since April 1, as many as 200 people have been slaughtered on both sides of a worsening conflict between pro-independence groups and a dozen ragtag pro-Indonesia militias, like Besi Merah Putih and Aitarak (Thorn). The militias--gangs of unemployed laborers allegedly backed by the Indonesian military's weapons, money and food--aim to derail an integration-or-independence ballot promised by Jakarta for the restive province in July.

As East Timor teetered on the verge of a full-blown civil war last week, Indonesian President B.J. Habibie came up with a plan that might represent the province's last chance for peace. After some prompting from United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Habibie promised to create an administrative commission, including detained independence leader Xanana Gusmao, to restore law and order to the former Portuguese colony before the July poll. Under house arrest in Jakarta, Gusmao seemed conciliatory, qualifying his earlier cry to pro-independence supporters to arm against the militias. I am obliged to continue to ask that the defenseless people of East Timor refuse to allow themselves to be slaughtered like animals, he said. But I renew my appeal for peace, dialogue and reconciliation, he says.

Habibie hopes his proposed 67-member commission will provide the platform for peace: in addition to Gusmao, it will include representatives of the pro-integration forces, the Catholic Church, military and police, among others. Gusmao supports the idea but has not yet stated if he will participate, though he will be the one appointing pro-independence members. The commission is expected to set a date for both sides to put down their weapons. The warring parties have greeted the plan with skepticism. Domingos Policarpo, spokesman of the Forum for Unity, Democracy and Justice, a pro-integration lobby, says it will succeed only if the independence forces disarm first. If we see that the other side is willing to put down their arms, we will of course act accordingly, he says. Bonar Tigor, a close associate of Gusmao's, insists pro-independence forces are prepared to put down their arms. If rights violations continue after disarmament, then ABRI will be in the spotlight and have to take responsibility, he says, using the Indonesian acronym for the military.PAGE 1  |    |  
By week's end, a measure of calm--if not yet order--had returned to the province. But many East Timorese dismissed it as merely the lull before another storm. Thousands of villagers continue to flee their homes in anticipation of more violence, adding a refugee crisis to Habibie's many woes. Their urban cousins aren't feeling particularly secure, either. Even as the President was talking peace in Jakarta, 500 defiant militiamen rallied in a show of strength outside Government House in Dili, East Timor's capital. They then withdrew to strongholds outside the city, but their mood remained belligerent. Aitarak leader Eurico Guterres demanded that all civil servants in favor of self-rule resign and hand over their cars and homes to his forces. He called on ordinary people to help completely eradicate the pro-independence terrorists. Not surprisingly, Dili residents live in fear. This is the most dangerous place in the world, says Francisco Martinez, a primary school teacher.

Foreigners, who have also been harassed by the militias, are taking no chances. Dili's Komoro airport last week had a last-days-of-Saigon feel about it as the only three commercial flights were jammed by American and Australian aid workers, journalists, Dili's few foreign businessmen and Italian and Filipino Catholic nuns. We were told we were going to get our heads chopped off, says Gino Favaro, an Italian-Australian hotelier, after he fled by boat to Kupang in neighboring West Timor. Only last August Favaro had won a costly 23-year legal battle with the Indonesian military over the property his parents fled days before the 1975 invasion. Last week, Favaro was headed for Australia's Darwin, wondering whether he would ever see his hotel again.

East Timor's Father Teresa, Iowa-born volunteer physician Dan Murphy, has also received death threats, but the doughty medic is staying put. This place has descended into a living hell for these unfortunate people, says Murphy, who tends to many victims of violence from a rudimentary and overcrowded clinic in Dili. I worked in Mozambique during bad times, but I have never seen this degree of unprovoked brutality.

Few have any doubt about who's to blame for the violence. Nothing in this place happens without ABRI's hand in it, says Favaro. Observes Murphy: Habibie and [armed forces chief] Wiranto are probably sincere in what they say, but whatever happens in Jakarta means nothing here. This is a private fiefdom.

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The next few weeks will be a crucial test of Jakarta's authority in the province, and of the will and ability of local military commanders to rein in the militias. East Timor's Governor Abilio Soares worries that the military has become afraid of the militias. Anarchy is rising everywhere, he says, citing attacks like the April 6 massacre by Besi Merah Putih of as many as 60 villagers in a church near Dili. Each side accuses the other of instigating the violence. There won't be a ceasefire unless there is an end to putting the blame on each other, says Clementino dos Reis Amaral, secretary-general of the National Commission on Human Rights.

As the finger-pointing continues, violence is driving many East Timorese to desperation. Piet Tallo, governor of neighboring West Timor province claims that 26,000 people have fled their homes and farms in the western regions for mountain and jungle hideouts. The villages surrounding the rich coffee-growing center of Ermera, the hub of East Timor's economy, are deserted.

Travelers returning from the mountainous border-crossing into West Timor say the frontier is being periodically closed by Indonesian authorities, with a lengthening line of hungry refugees waiting to enter. We have at least 18,000 people up in the mountains who are starving to death, who cannot get food or proper water or sanitation, says Christina Curruscaloa, who runs a charity foundation in Dili.

Most refugees have fled the Liquica area, site of the April 6 church massacre, where red-and-white Indonesian flags have suddenly sprouted on makeshift flagpoles--and goats--in hamlets previously thought to be pro-independence strongholds. But for East Timorese like the frightened goatherd and his family, such an act is not about politics, it is about life and death.

With reporting by Jason Tedjasukmana/Jakarta
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