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 | |
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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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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