Crisis In East Timor: City of hopes and horrors

It is easy to look on the bright side in Dili, but it could just be a lull before the next storm of violence, warns Richard Lloyd Parry
Click to follow
The Independent Online
ON THE street in front of the former militia house in Dili, a boy and a girl in T-shirts and dirty shorts were eating mangos and playing in the sunshine with a yellow tennis ball.

With their skinny limbs and the worn grey of their clothes, they looked like refugees just returned from hiding in the hills. The boy grinned as he sucked on the plump mango and the juice ran down his chin. After a while, he took his little sister by the hand and led her into the garden where people had gathered, pointing down at something with hands held over their mouths and noses. During their fortnight as fugitives in the jungle, the two children must have seen many awful things, but nothing like this.

At the centre of the huddle was the mouth of a well, from which arose an indescribable smell. A few feet below its rim, the water was moving in a twitching froth of grey maggots. They were feeding on something, a lumpy, indistinct shape which resolved itself into a recognisable form - shoulders, torso, a patch of brown skin - the ragged remains of a decomposing body. The girl clutched her face and began to cry.

Such is the atmosphere in Dili these days, a town of mingled relief and fear, sweetness and horror, in which it seems that almost anything could happen. Last Monday, in a thunder of Hercules transporter planes and Blackhawk helicopters, the International Force East (Interfet) arrived from the Australian city of Darwin. Almost 3,000 Australian, British and Filipino troops are already on the ground, with 4,500 more from several other nations on the way. Groups of refugees, like the two children by the well, have begun returning from the hills. But whether East Timor is really on the mend, or whether this is a deceptive lull before another bout of violence, it is far too early to say.

It is easy enough to look on the bright side and, in their official statements, spokesmen for Interfet do. "When we landed the streets were empty," said Major Chip Henriss-Andersen, of the Australian 3rd Brigade. "Now, look around you - people are walking about freely, coming up to us, shaking our hands, and rebuilding their lives." During the week, the Indonesian armed forces (TNI) have continued a mass withdrawal by land, sea and air, which will leave an official total of 4,500 troops from an estimated peak of 26,000. Every day, tonnes of high-protein biscuits and humanitarian rations have been air-dropped over seven remote mountain areas where refugees have gathered in tens of thousands. Yesterday, the first humanitarian convoy made it through to the second city of Baucau.

The body in the well, in a house allegedly used as a torture centre by the Aitarak militia, is one of a number of corpses found around Dili. But so far at least, none of the stories of gross atrocity which circulated during the height of the violence have been substantiated. Militiamen are intermittently visible, but in small numbers, and yesterday Australian soldiers continued a noisy, theatrical "sweeping operation" against those still hiding out in Dili. More than 250 weapons have been seized and numerous arrests made, including that of Caetano da Silva, an Aitarak "platoon commander". As Colonel Mark Kelly, the Interfet chief of staff put it: "The message is: you cannot run, you cannot hide, justice is here."

But it is a phoney peace, a dim illumination cast across a few areas of central Dili and liable even there to be snuffed out in a moment. Beyond Baucau, and the mountains adjoining Dili, Interfet's impressive armoured cars have failed to penetrate. Reconnaissance helicopters sent to the western cities of Los Palos and Viqueque report deserted streets, with as many as 90 per cent of houses burned out. Even in the capital, true security is confined to those areas within sight of the nearest Interfet soldier.

The unpredictability of the situation was brutally illustrated last Tuesday with the death of Sander Thoenes, a Financial Times journalist shot and killed by motorbike riders dressed in Indonesian military uniforms as he drove through the Dili suburb of Becora. A few moments earlier, the same gang had attacked another car of foreign journalists, blinding their driver and kidnapping their interpreter. The next day, another journalist riding a motorbike through the centre of Dili heard a crack and felt a bullet whizz past her ear.

As Interfet is conducting its impressive sweeping operations, and encouraging refugees to come down from the hills, its own behaviour suggests a less confident assessment of the situation. Whenever the soldiers step out of the compound they do so in full body armour, and never in convoys of fewer than two vehicles. Dili is not safe, and Interfet knows it.

The key, as it has been throughout this conflict, is the Indonesian military, and what the TNI is planning nobody seems to know. Interfet commanders speak of "workmanlike" relations with their TNI counterparts - the intention seems to be to avoid alienating the Indonesians and to allow them a certain amount of dignity in making their withdrawal in their own time.

But any impression of cordiality is dispelled by the manner of the TNI pullout, burning barracks and headquarters behind them in a bitter parting gift. Outside the inner intelligence circles of Interfet, there are only rumours - rumours of a militia build-up on the border with Indonesian West Timor, or of members of Kopassus, the Indonesian special forces, forming guerrilla units in the hills.

If there is one organisation that knows the TNI better than anyone, it is Falintil, the East Timorese guerrilla army which has resisted Indonesia ever since the invasion of 1975. Last week, UN and Interfet officials flew to the camp of Taur Matan Ruak, acting commander of Falintil. His assessment was that the TNI will give Interfet an easy time for a few weeks, and will wait until a new force of blue-helmeted UN peacekeepers arrives, consisting of soldiers from a large number of nations, including south-east Asian countries traditionally deferential to Indonesia. At that point, the theory goes, the TNI will strike, creating disorder and discord, and engineering a justification for its own return to East Timor.

All we know is that a month ago there were similar conspiracy theories about imminent violence following a vote for independence in last month's referendum. They were pooh-poohed, they all came true. The children may finally be returning to Dili, but beneath the surface East Timor still stinks.