East Timor: Dili comes to life again as refugees return from hills

EAST TIMOR Tens of thousands of residents come back as the international peace-keepers secure city and aid agencies bring in food supplies
TO THE commanders of the International Force East Timor - Interfet - counting from the day they landed in Dili, yesterday was D-Day plus eight. Everyone else will remember it as the day the people came down from the hills.

All week they have arrived in small groups, picking their way down the scrubby slopes. A UN worker estimated that 20,000 had come back by yesterday afternoon. Ross Mountain, the UN's humanitarian chief for East Timor, predicted 70,000 could soon be in town.

There is rice in the warehouses, and more on its way in a ship chartered by the World Food Programme. Supplies of clean water are still a worry, but there is no question of turning back any refugees. Eight days after D-day, Interfet and its UN allies needed this as much as any refugee - at last, tangible signs that normal life is returning to East Timor.

"It's a red-letter day for the people of East Timor," said Brigadier David Richards, the commander of the British contingent of Interfet. "We're ready, and the humanitarian agencies are ready. Dili is as safe now as it is ever going to be."

But the Dili many of its people remember is gone. Yesterday they returned to take possession of newly liberated ruins. In Vila Verde district, a woman named Didi Esposto wept among a group of uncles and cousins. Didi is 23, and on the day she was born in September 1975, Indonesian forces were already infiltrating East Timor in preparation for the full invasion two months later.

Until two weeks ago she lived where she was born, in an old wooden house with a verandah, built 35 years ago by the Portuguese colonists. Eight people lived there, including Didi, her parents and her brothers and sisters. Now it is like all the others around it, a pile of ash and bent corrugated iron.

As people return to Dili they also begin to talk and share tales of near-death and escape. I met Amandio da Conceicao Ribeiro, from the nearby village of Taibesi. On Saturday - five days after D-Day - he was visited by soldiers of the Indonesian armed forces (TNI). "They said, `Give us money or we will kill you.' I gave them 50,000 rupiah, but they wanted more. I gave them another 100,000, but they said they would kill me.

"I said, `I have no more, please give me time. They said they would come back tomorrow, but by then I had fled... They burnt the houses around, but my house was OK."

Suddenly Dili feels like a town again - walking or driving,you meet people you know. On his motorbike outside the football stadium - now a refugee camp - was Felice Berto de Araujo Duarte, a student who worked as my translator a year ago. On the day the result of the referendum was announced - 78.5 per cent pro-independence - his brother telephoned with reports of imminent violence.

With his parents and four brothers and sisters he fled to his grandfather's home, a lowhouse screened by mango trees and palms. For a week neighbours were driven out by the militias and forced to the docks for deportation to West Timor.

The Duartes clung on invisibly, sleeping in a ditch, never showing their faces. They saw neighbours' goods looted and houses burnt. Soon they were the only people left in the street.

Finally the militia sniffed them out. "I was reading a comic when they arrived," said Felice. "I took my glasses off so they wouldn't know I was educated. We had cut up pieces of the Indonesian flag and we wrapped them around our heads. We lied and told them we were pro-Indonesia." The militia believed them. Instead of killing them, they herded them to the port and told them to get on the next boat out.

"That night... the BBC said the multinational force was coming, so we waited. But on Friday it did not come, and on Saturday and and Sunday it did not come.

"We let other people take our place on the boat, and finally the planes and helicopters started to land." The boat they should have sailed on was the Dovo Solo. Once at sea the young men on board - men like Felice - were hacked to death and their bodies thrown overboard.