Dozens killed as gangs roam Timor saying: `Vote for Jakarta or you die'

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The Independent Online
TWENTY MILES west of East Timor's capital, Dili, where the UN people drive through the streets in white Toyota Land Cruisers, is a town called Liquisa where everybody is afraid. The people walking down the main street are afraid, and so are the staff in the little restaurant where they refused to serve us lunch. At the Catholic church, a young man, bolder than the rest, invited us inside to talk away from public gaze. Then a nun arrived, and the sight of us - two foreigners with notebooks and cameras - appalled her.

There were spies everywhere, she said, and they would see us here and report it, and there would be terrible trouble after we left. "We can speak to you in Dili, in the city there is no problem," she said. "But if we talk here, and afterwards the militia come, then you are responsible." We hurried out, past the refugee children with their swollen tummies, and the mothers in the kitchen, doing their best to prepare a meal.

There are hundreds of refugees in Liquisa and, since they were driven from their villages two months ago, they have no proper food.

Later, on the edge of the forest, we saw a woman and three children foraging among the ruins of a burned-out house for jungle greens and cassava roots. We smiled and waved, and tried to talk to them. But they, too, were afraid.

What is wrong in Liquisa? In theory, this should be a moment of euphoria in East Timor, a place ruled for long enough by hunger and fear. Twenty- four years after the tiny Portuguese colony was brutally invaded and annexed by Indonesia, huge changes are in the offing.

Five months ago, in a sudden about-face, President B J Habibie announced that East Timor could, if its people so wished, have its independence. In early August, so the plan goes, a referendum will be held in which East Timorese will choose between full independence and a so-called "autonomy package". The latter would set up a local parliament and local police force, although defence, finance and foreign policy would still be controlled by Jakarta. Few foreigners who have spent time in East Timor are under any doubt that the overwhelming majority of East Timorese want unconditional freedom.

Last month the United Nations arrived to start up the UN Assistance Mission in East Timor (Unamet), which will set up, publicise and monitor the "popular consultation", as it is officially known, in the name of the international community. But somewhere along the line, while the attention of the world was on Kosovo, it has gone terribly wrong.

In the bars and restaurants where journalists and UN personnel gather, it is an open secret that the August poll is in grave doubt. Freedom should be just weeks away for East Timor, one of the last colonial injustices on the conscience of the West. But as the end has come in sight, the undertaking has been thrown into jeopardy.

The reasons become clear a few hundred yards outside Liquisa where finally we find someone who is willing to talk. He is scared like all the rest, but behind the darkened windows of our Jeep he is eager to tell his story.

He is a 35-year-old coffee farmer from a village inland of here. It is on the edge of the mountains where Falintil, the East Timorese guerrillas, still operate, and asa with every ordinary East Timorese I have ever met, its inhabitants are instinctive believers in their territory's independence.

Two months ago, a large number of men came to their village, including Indonesian policemen, soldiers and members of an organisation called the "Red and White Iron" after the colours of the Indonesian flag.

"They told us to leave," he says. "They said that if we didn't go, they would kill us." The villagers fled to Liquisa, where they eke out an existence gathering food, while the coffee crop in their villages rots in the fields. By night, they suffer the intimidation of the Red and White, aided by the Indonesian armed forces. "They say that we must choose autonomy, and that if we choose independence they will kill all of us," says the coffee farmer. All along the road to Liquisa, in every town in this part of the territory, the militia men sheltering from the sun under palm thatch.

The sleepy faces are deceptive. On April 5, 25 people - refugees and supporters of independence - were killed with machetes and guns in Liquisa church, where the bullet holes are still visible on the wall. Two weeks later, militia members burst into the Dili home of Manuel Carrascalao, a prominent independence campaigner, and murdered his son and 14 other young activists.

The Irish Foreign Minister, David Andrews, who was in Dili then, said: "There are groups in East Timor supported by elements within the military. These groups are intent on derailing the peace process."

The militias appear to be a rabble of local hoodlums, paid conscripts and immigrants from Indonesia, supported by educated East Timorese members of the civil service. A few may be genuinely persuaded of the benefits of affiliation with Indonesia; others fear the loss of professional status that independence would bring. What alarms the UN is not the existence of pro-Indonesian sentiment, but the active support of the Indonesian government, in violation of UN rules.

In Maubara, half an hour beyond Liquisa, a group of Reds and Whites admit openly the Indonesian military supplied them with guns, which were later taken back. According to Ian Martin, the British UN official who heads Unamet, his officers have witnessed pro- integration rallies at which civil servants have campaigned openly for autonomy, rather than independence. On Saturday, an Indonesian police officer stood beside the leader of the militia leader, Eurico Guterrez, and patted him on the back as he denounced Falintil for the alleged murder of one of his men.

In the most astonishing move of all, Mr Guterrez was last week named as head of an official civilian organisation that will, among other duties, be responsible for law and order during the referendum. As a foreign official in Dili puts it: "It's like putting the fox in charge of the chickens."

Since the UN's arrival, the number of obvious outrages has fallen - but the militias now control one-third to half of the territory, and the fear is already established. Even after the arrival of 270 UN police officers, Unamet is powerless. Under its mandate, its duties do not extend beyond the referendum itself: security is solely the responsibility of the Indonesian police, and the UN officers will serve only as "advisers".

What happens next is unclear. Some foreign officials in Dili believe that, having established a UN base in the territory, the momentum is unstoppable and the referendum will go ahead, even if there is a delay.

But, short of mass arrests, the militias are not going to go away. The only hope may lie with the fearful people of Liquisa, like the hungry coffee farmer in the back of our car. "We will still vote," he says, "and we will vote for independence." Perhaps, after all this long time, one more act of courage is not too much to expect from the people of East Timor.