Refugees Magazine Issue 117 (IDPs) - Independence deferred

Refugees Magazine, 1 December 1999

East Timor's agony sees out the twentieth century and ushers in the new ...

By Fernando del Mundo

John Maubere remembers the first time he fled his home in East Timor as dawn broke on December 7, 1975. Indonesian paratroopers fluttered down from the sky to annex the territory Portugal had just given up after nearly four centuries of colonial rule and Maubere fled with his family of 10 into the forests where he later lost a brother and a cousin in a decades-long fight for an independent homeland.

But just when that appeared imminent after an overwhelming number of East Timorese voted for independence on August 30, 1999 Maubere again found himself on the run. Rampaging militias opposed to separation from Indonesia sacked the East Timor capital of Dili and warned civilians like Maubere to run for their lives.

Several hundred thousand people did. Maubere ended up in a refugee camp in Kupang, the steamy capital of Indonesian-controlled West Timor where he was to reflect that if the original 1975 Indonesian invasion had been a brutal awakening of innocent civilians to the world of realpolitik, the events of 1999 were a far worse personal nightmare.

On the very eve of a new millennium the world was called to witness another massive exodus of refugees within a matter of months. Early in the year, nearly 850,000 Kosovars fled and were then escorted home by NATO troops in the latest Balkan flareup. Now, the world's newest country was literally in flames.

There had been indications of trouble brewing. As polling day approached militias began a campaign of terror, enlisting youths into their paramilitary operations, abducting those who refused and confiscating voter registration cards. Many men fled to the forests. Women filed into the churches. "Every night they brought with them their registration cards, along with their mats and blankets," recalled Father Andrew Wong of the Salesian-run Don Bosco School in Dili.

Race against time

Indonesia's government asked UNHCR to help an increasing number of displaced persons and had started convoys for 25,000 people by July. But as Christian Koch, head of the organization's Dili team said, "It was a race against time" which the aid agencies lost. As he tried to build up supplies, especially in the countryside, the results of the independence vote were announced ahead of schedule, violence erupted and the aid deliveries were stopped.

For a time, the world was powerless to prevent an orgy of looting, destruction, killings and deportations. Father Wong's school overflowed with 10,000 petrified civilians until a Molotov cocktail was hurled into the courtyard.

"We prayed together. I gave a general absolution," he said. "There was no time for individual confession. Then we opened the gates. We felt helpless, so we just decided they could all come and do their worst." Salesian priests in white frocks then led the evacuees to police headquarters, through neighbourhoods engulfed in flames and to the constant crackle of gunfire.

Many people were put on planes and ships and transported to West Timor. Some refugees said later they had been forced by militias and Indonesian troops to leave at gunpoint in an apparent move to discredit the results of the referendum. Others said they had simply been told they had to go or they would be killed in an expected bloodbath in Dili. Many tens of thousands of civilians took to the nearby hills.

Several thousand Dili residents headed for the headquarters of the U.N. Assessment Mission in East Timor (UNAMET) where UNHCR's Terence Pike saw babies being thrown over the compound's barbed wire fence in the mad rush to seek safety with people who had urged them to vote. "Everyone knew what the outcome would be after 24 years of intimidation," Pike says now. "And yet, when the results were announced, it seemed that responsible people were stunned. They did not seem to know what to do."

Picking up the pieces

As a semblance of order was gradually restored aid efforts also restarted, first to provide civilians with emergency supplies and then to begin coaxing people out of the mountains and returning refugees to East Timor.

Unlike in the Balkans, however, civilian repatriation has been slow and hazardous. In one early visit to assess the situation, UNHCR's Asia Director Fran├žois Fouinat and legal officer Ruvendrini Menikdiwela were stoned by young men chanting anti-U.N. slogans in Noelbaki camp outside Kupang. When they sought shelter in a parked van, the mob stomped on the vehicle, smashed its windshields and set it ablaze.

High Commissioner Sadako Ogata toured the region, visiting the border town of Atambua which had been declared a "white free zone" by militias who vowed to make it a staging area to regain control of East Timor.

She received assurances from the Indonesian government that aid workers would have unimpeded access to refugees and would be able to work in safety. West Timor Governor Piet Talla also announced that civilians wanting to return to East Timor would be free to do so, but when a UNHCR field team arrived, the signs were not encouraging.

"There were times that I thought we probably would have to withdraw because we wouldn't be allowed to work," said team leader Craig Sanders. Late in the year humanitarian groups enjoyed only limited access to camps in West Timor, still largely controlled by the militias. "Go away you whites, we don't need you here," western visitors to Atambua were told recently.

But high-level meetings have begun to yield some results. By October the first refugees were en route home by air, land and sea and within a month an estimated 24,000 people had returned to East Timor.

UNHCR's Alvin Gonzaga watched the first group of returnees step off a Transall C-160 aircraft in Dili. "The atmosphere is upbeat," he said. "There was one man who stared at the ruins of his home and said 'If this is the price of freedom, so be it.'"

The repatriation of refugees will probably continue well into the new millennium but John Maubere, who first fled in 1975, is also upbeat. "If there is a beginning, there will also be an end," he said. "I believe life will be better here than before."

Source: Refugees Magazine issue 117 (1999)