East Timor in turmoil: Scores die as militias raze the last place of sanctuary

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE CLATTERING blades of the Indonesian military helicopter would have covered the 80 odd miles between Dili and Baucau in little more than half-an-hour.

But the journey yesterday morning that took Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo, the Bishop of Dili, from the capital to East Timor's second city marks a watershed in the former colony's chaotic history.

It will be remembered as the day the blood-soaked militias broke the final taboo. "For them to attack the house of the bishop marks a new development," Basilo Nascimento, the Bishop of Baucau, told The Independent yesterday afternoon. "I don't know what it means but it is a new moment in our lives and the history of the church."

Bishop Belo was flown out of Dili yesterday morning as gangs of militia ransacked and then set fire to his home on the capital's seafront as the Indonesian police stood by.

Reports said dozens of people were killed as the mob rolled in, shooting and terrorising up to 5,000 refugees who had sought sanctuary in the grounds of the bishop's house. Near by the headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross were also stormed and hundreds of people were marched off. "The attack on Bishop Belo's residence left at least 39 people dead," said the pro-independence leader Manuel Carrascalao.

But that is just a tiny fraction of the hundreds being killed as the militias, almost without doubt supplied and organised by elements within the military, set about destroying Dili and forcing out its inhabitants who are crossing into Indonesian West Timor at the rate of 1,000 an hour.

Until now, one of the last places the terrorised population has felt any sort of safety has been in the buildings and grounds of the Roman Catholic church. While the Indonesian authorities have been able to control the majority of the institutions of East Timor, it has been unable to suppress the church, a leftover of the Portuguese rule.

On the contrary, the Catholic church - long the focus of the pro-independence movement - now claims that up to 90 per cent of the population are now followers, compared with less than 50 per cent before Indonesia's invasion in 1975.

If such figures are true, much of the credit for such a following must go to Bishop Belo, the quietly spoken man who left East Timor in 1969 to study abroad before returning to his home.

The 51-year-old was appointed Bishop of Dili in 1983, taking over from the previous incumbent, Martinho da Costa Lopes, a popular and staunch nationalist.

Perhaps less outspoken that his predecessor, Bishop Belo immediately pursued a policy of non-violent protest, persistently criticising the Indonesian military and those who supplied it - and as a consequence the militias who yesterday forced him from his home - with weapons and hardware. "Do not sustain any longer a conflict which without these sales could not have been pursued in the first place," he pleaded with the British Government and the arms industry while speaking on a rare visit to Britain two years ago.

While his talk of a "special status" for East Timor rather than full autonomy angered some pro-independence campaigners, his efforts to secure peace have been recognised, most clearly when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996.

Sharing the prize with Jose Ramos-Horta, international spokesman for the resistance movement, Bishop Belo was praised for his "work towards a just and peaceful solution to the conflict in East Timor".

The Norwegian Committee said of both men: "In 1975 Indonesia took control of East Timor and began systematically oppressing the people.

"It is estimated that one-third of the population of East Timor lost their lives due to starvation, epidemics, war and terror ... the Norwegian Nobel Committee wants to honour their sustained and self- sacrificing contributions for a small but oppressed people."

To that small but oppressed people, Bishop Belo is known as Ramelau - nicknamed after a peak that looms from a local mountain range.

And yesterday in his enforced exile in Baucau, overlooking the crystal waters of the Strait of Wetar, it was again to these people that his thoughts apparently turned.

"He arrived here this morning. He told me his house had been attacked by the militia and that his house was burnt," said Bishop Nascimento, at whose house he was staying and where he had gone to bed within an hour of arriving under military escort.

"As you will understand he is despairing. He looks well physically but he is angry and he is sad. It is his people he is worried about."

The bishop said the two men had shared lunch before his guest had retired to his quarters, exhausted.

"I don't know how long the bishop is planning on staying here. He told me he may stay a week - he very much wants to return to Dili but at the moment that it is not possible. It depends on how the situation develops and whether he is allowed to return.

"He was sad to leave the people. Until now he has been the only assurance (of safety) the people have had."

He did not need to add that for the people still trapped in the horror of East Timor, such an assurance has now disappeared.