Step Forward, With Caution

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Martino is desperate to move on. A tiny man dwarfed by a mushrooming Afro hairdo, he looks around fearfully at the pro-independence Falantil guerrillas who have brought him to this shack at the base of the mountains west of Dili. They have accused him of murdering a nun. Martino, who admits to being a member of the Aitarak militia that put Dili to the torch over the past three weeks, pleads an innocence--of sorts. I was given a shot of narcotics under my fingernail by Indonesian soldiers, he claims, thrusting out his ring finger. I was so drugged I could have killed my own parents. Dozens of others, he says, were similarly drugged at the beginning of this month and told to kill independence leaders and their supporters, including the clergy who have long brought succor to predominantly Roman Catholic East Timor.

Martino's captors are at least willing to hear him out. We will not allow the militias to remain in East Timor as Indonesians, says Kotomorok Tisi Lamidar, 29, Falantil's chief of political affairs and the man leading the interrogation. If they want to live among us as East Timorese, they can be forgiven.

A measure of calm returns to East Timor with the arrival of international troops. But the real challenge is not bringing peace but keeping it

East Timor, though, may not get off so easily. The week since Australian-led peacekeepers landed in Dili has proven an exercise in tempered hopes: the force has taken no casualties, yet it remains too vulnerable to spread out much beyond the capital; pro-independence refugees have given the troops a delirious welcome, yet many return to the hills each night in fear; the territory has won independence, yet remains trapped within a web of rumor and intimidation. Only one thing has become clear in the initial stages of its liberation: for East Timor to move forward, it must overcome more than simple military resistance.

Tactically, in fact, the deployment of the International Force for East Timor (INTERFET) has gone as smoothly as planners could have hoped. On Monday, troops from the Indonesian Air Force's special forces, the Paskhas, herded goats off the Dili tarmac and watched curiously as a C-130 Hercules transport plane brought in a unit of Australian commandos. This is really unfair, muttered one soldier. It was the Army that created all this mess, and now we also share the blame and face this humiliation. Within 48 hours nearly half of a projected 7,500-man INTERFET force had landed by air and sea. British Gurkhas occupied the abandoned United Nations compound; Australian troops patrolled the streets of the capital in fast armored personnel carriers and, by Thursday, controlled the big airport near the town of Baucau. By the end of the week the peacekeepers had seized more than 600 mostly crude weapons and arrested several dozen suspected militia members, including an Aitarak platoon commander. Once-boastful militia chiefs were reduced to wan bleating, threatening retribution from across the border in West Timor.

Jakarta, in fact, had become more of a battleground than Dili. Early in the week a rising chorus of voices blasted Australia for the supposedly high-handed way it has handled the East Timor crisis; on Monday an unidentified gunman shot out three windows in the Australian embassy. But anger quickly became directed at the Suharto-era parliament, which passed a draconian security bill favored by the military on Thursday. More than 10,000 student demonstrators took to the streets, clashing with riot police armed with tear gas and rubber bullets. After retreating overnight, a similar number returned to the massive Jalan Sudirman--Jakarta's Wall Street--on Friday. By the end of the day a policeman and five civilians had been killed--two of them shot randomly outside a hospital--and more than 100 people injured. The military retreated, announcing that the government would delay ratification of the bill--to save the nation from ruin, in the words of spokesman Maj.-General Sudrajat.

A similar pragmatism may have led to the relative calm in Dili. Even before foreign troops flooded into the city, Indonesian forces had begun to withdraw, removing what many thought would be the most likely--and dangerous--threat to the mission. (By the weekend at least 1,500 troops were expected to remain in the territory, and the Indonesians were to hand over formal responsibility for security to INTERFET this week.) At the same time, though, evidence of the Indonesian army's handiwork began to surface. The Tropical Hotel, once used as a military intelligence center before becoming Aitarak's headquarters earlier this year, turned up a trove of papers requesting funding, fuel and logistical support from the Indonesian military. One records donations of cars and rice from the Batara Indra Group, a military-controlled company operating in East Timor. Another, a 1995 document, notes a donation of rice from the army's Kopassus special forces to assist elements of resistance that have been nurtured by Kopassus troops.

Those elements have put up less resistance than might have been expected, yet enough to disrupt the INTERFET mission. On Tuesday night suspected militia members in army uniforms killed 30-year-old Sander Thoenes, Jakarta correspondent for the Financial Times, in the Dili suburb of Becora. His body was not discovered until the following morning, mutilated by machete blows. Relocated along with other top leaders to Kupang, the capital of West Timor, militia spokesman Basilio Araujo warns that his foot soldiers have not all fled the territory: We're encouraging our supporters to go back to their families, to go into the jungle, he says. By the end of the week, reports indicated that 500 militia members had gathered in the stronghold of Liquica, and that thousands more may have massed along the border with West Timor in preparation for an attack.

With such pinpricks alone the militias dispelled the euphoria that greeted the peacekeepers' arrival. Dili is still a dangerous place. This style of violence is difficult to stop immediately, said the INTERFET commander, Australian Maj.-General Peter Cosgrove, after Thoenes' body was found. On Thursday scattered gunfire in three separate locations threw much of the city into a panic. Cosgrove spoke of accelerating the deployment of nearly 4,500 remaining INTERFET troops, which had been meant to take place over the next three weeks. The commander of British troops in East Timor, Brig.-General David Richards, says the militias are probing our abilities and trying to undermine the trust of the local community and the world in our ability. They may have succeeded, at least temporarily: many of the refugees who had come down to search Dili for food--fruit, crates of soda pop, canned milk, crackers--have returned to the mountains, feeling more secure with Falantil fighters.

The continuing violence is causing more than psychological damage. Even before Dili grew tense at the end of the week, aid agencies had been blocked from flying in supplies by military commanders, who urged them to wait until troops controlled the capital. Transporting that food and medicine up into the hills will now prove even more challenging. (On Friday Indonesian troops stopped an aid convoy on the outskirts of Dili and seized two trucks laden with rice.) The only thing we have a lot of is water from the river, says John da Costa Freitas, a refugee. So far at least 20 East Timorese are thought to have starved to death, and thousands more lack proper sanitation and medical attention.

Even in such limited ways, then, the militias continue to hold East Timor hostage. According to some estimates, as many as 200,000 to 300,000 East Timorese may still be hiding out in the mountains and jungles of the territory, while an additional 140,000 may have fled to West Timor. That's nearly half the population, who must be resettled before the winter rainy season if they are to plant the single annual rice crop. No one yet knows how much time INTERFET will need to secure the entire territory. But given the shakiness of the forces' hold on Dili, the refugees may have to wait weeks, if not months, before returning to their homes. In many towns and villages they will find nothing awaiting them except rubble. In Dili the government offices for immigration, information, taxation, social affairs, environment and health have all been burned to the ground. Departing soldiers reportedly set fire to the radio station, and to their barracks. We are starting from zero, says Dili native Jose Tilman, as he surveys the ruined capital.

Until the peacekeepers can spread throughout East Timor, journalists and investigators won't be able to explore rumors of massacres and atrocities that are filtering out of the territory. One rotting corpse was discovered last week in a well near the former Dili home of pro-independence leader Manuel Carrascalao, and neighbors claim that perhaps 30 more lie beneath it. But the sites of the worst reported killings--Suai, Maliana, Liquica--all lie within the inaccessible western regions of the territory.

Without such evidence--without accountability and, perhaps, forgiveness--the territory will find it hard to move forward. Mother Margarida, an 82-year-old nun working with Nobel Peace Prize winner Bishop Carlos Belo, was at his house on Sept. 6 when militias backed by Indonesian troops attacked hundreds of refugees sheltering in the compound. I had to use holy water to put out the fire they set, she recalls bitterly. Now, though, she struggles to keep the church ready to hold services again. The people cannot be governed by blood and knives, she says. Sadly, that may be exactly what East Timor's enemies are counting on.

Reported by Eric Ellis/Jakarta, Zamira Loebis and Jason Tedjasukmana/Dili and Lisa Rose Weaver/Kupang