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East Timor moves forward and struggles with bloody past

Cox News Service - October 7, 2001

Julie Chao, Dili – After Salvador Ferrera cast his ballot two years ago for independence for East Timor, he fled into the hills. When he came back a few weeks later, his hometown of Suai had been burned to the ground by militia groups. "All of Suai was totally destroyed," he said. "Three priests were killed. Until today, we don't know where their bones are."

Still bitter and angry at the militia members who beat and intimidated him and set fire to hundreds of homes, Ferrera said he's not ready to go back home. "I came to Dili because I don't want to see the people who used to threaten me," he said, sitting next to the roadside tent that serves as home for him and his wife and young son. "They're coming back through reconciliation and I don't want to see their faces."

The talk of East Timor these days is of reconciliation. Former militia members are being welcomed back. The United Nations has established a commission for truth and reconciliation. East Timorese political leaders are calling for rapprochement and even amnesty.

But some East Timorese wonder if their new nation is ready. Much of East Timor still lies in ruins and the main perpetrators have yet to be brought to justice. People here wonder if true reconciliation can come with emotions running so deep and psychological scars still raw from 24 years of brutal occupation by Indonesia.

East Timor is a traumatized land with hundreds of thousands of people like Ferrera. The UN estimates 40,000 to 50,000 crimes were committed in September 1999 after 78.5 percent of voters chose independence from Indonesia.

Within hours after the election results were announced, pro-Jakarta militia groups went on a violent rampage, burning, looting and intimidating. More than one-third of the population was uprooted, churches were attacked, women were raped, three-quarters of buildings and houses were burned and about 1,000 people were killed.

Those who weren't quick enough to flee to the hills were systematically herded by the militia to Indonesian-controlled West Timor. Two years later, an estimated 80,000 still have not returned home, including many militia members.

"This moment is way too soon to speak about reconciliation," said Father Jovito Araujo of the Dili Catholic diocese. "People lost their lives, their loved ones, their livelihood, their houses. It was total destruction. They need to get a life that's sustainable again – a house, a job, maybe a living that's better than before. Maybe in 10 years people will be ready. It's easy rhetoric but very difficult to make real."

Although the militias were armed and organized by the Indonesian military, their members were largely ordinary East Timorese people, known by their neighbors.

The Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation was set up by the UN partly to facilitate their peaceful reintegration. It will also investigate human rights abuses starting from 1974, when Portugal withdrew from its former colony, leading to the bloody invasion by Indonesia the following year.

The commission will refer more serious crimes for prosecution while less serious crimes will be resolved using traditional Timorese village mediation. Traditional methods involve all parties meeting to decide upon a solution, such as an exchange of livestock, or the perpetrator performing some community service. It is then sealed with a ceremony in which the offender is welcomed back into the community.

It is a novel approach for the international body, but comes loaded with its own pitfalls. An Amnesty International report on East Timor's new justice system warns that women and children are especially vulnerable to being coerced to accept a resolution they might not like.

Constantino Pinto started learning mediation from his father when he was in the sixth grade. He's helped resolve countless land and marital disputes in his village and a few murders as well. He says the traditional Timorese justice system works well for communities if they want it, but he is skeptical reconciliation can be imposed by an outside body.

"If it's some program that's funded from outside, and it has to produce results, then it's set up for failure," he said. "Why spend all this money on these commissions when the mechanism is already there and people would do that anyway if that's what they wanted?"

Many people say they are ready to welcome militia members back home, but they also want to see justice served. Elsa Alves DaCosta and her family were surrounded by men armed with guns and homemade explosives and forced to board a ship to West Timor two years ago. Most of the men were people she knew. "I have a wound in my heart and I'm angry," said DaCosta, 16. "If there's no justice, it could cause fistfights because the anger will still be there. But if there is justice, then it will heal."

Zito Fernandes, 25, lived in the hills above Dili for three weeks during the militia-led carnage. "They're Timorese – they have just as much right to live on this land as I do," he said. "But if there's proof they committed crimes, they should be held accountable under the law. If they're not processed, it gives an example that anyone can do anything at any time."

East Timor's nascent court system began trials in July for the violence of 1999. So far, more than 40 people have been indicted and 10 people convicted. "At the trials, the defendants all admit what they did, but they ask, 'when are you going to arrest the big guys?'" said Christian Ranheim, whose Judicial System Monitoring Program observes all the trials.

The "big guys," which include a few Indonesian generals, are in Indonesia. Some have already been indicted, but international observers are doubtful Indonesia will extradite them for trial in East Timor

Political leaders, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Jose Ramos Horta, now East Timor's foreign minister, have called for an international tribunal if Indonesian courts do not bring the accused to justice, saying the credibility of the UN Security Council is at stake if genocide goes unpunished.

But an international tribunal may not be the best answer either. Ranheim estimates it could cost $100 million a year, money arguably better spent on development. Although the UN has found widespread and systematic human rights violations in the 1999 post-election period, there has been little international will to hold a tribunal. Western powers, including the United States, are believed to have given at least tacit approval for Indonesia's annexation of East Timor.

As East Timor prepares to form its own government, it ranks as one of the region's poorest countries. Gil Guterres, a journalist who started East Timor's first newspaper in the indigenous language Tetun, said the priority should be on economic development, not reconciliation. "That will minimize the emotions," he said. "Otherwise, if there's no medicine, if there's no money for kids to go to school, the anger and hatred will increase. When the government provides basic needs, people will think, well, it's the past. They'll consider those losses as what they had to pay for their freedom."