While bodies lie rotting justice for the killers seems a long way off

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The Independent Online
TO LOOK at, you would hardly notice them: two low cairns of rocks and dry dirt piled up in the scrub in forgotten corners of the Dili Technical College. Above one, someone has erected a rough cross, which has collapsed half-buried in the loose earth. But the give-away is the sickly sweet smell. These are graves of East Timorese murdered by the militias or their Indonesian military masters. And under the eyes of the United Nations and the multinational peace-keeping force, the evidence is quietly rotting away.

The first grave is that of an old man, covered up where he was found last Wednesday by local people. "We found him under a tree," says the man who brought us here. "He was wearing black trousers and a brown shirt. He was in his seventies or eighties, and his body was all chewed. Nobody knows his name."

The second grave is smaller, hardly big enough for a child. Beneath the dirt lies the lower half of a corpse, severed at the belly - no head, no arms, no shoulders or chest. Dogs might have caused the mutilations to the old man, but not even a very big dog can slice a human body across the middle. There is another grave near by, our guides tell us; in the neighbouring jungle are six more. These men were murdered, probably as they made a trip down from the mountains to gather food for their families; the chances are good that their murderers are still close at hand. But justice is a long way off.

A fortnight ago, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Mary Robinson, promised a tribunal on crimes against humanity. Now two things make successful prosecutions seem almost far-fetched. The first is the obstructiveness of other Asian governments, including Japan, who are blocking a resolution designed to set up an investigatory commission. The second is the almost complete lack of expertise on the ground.

When Nato went into Kosovo, teams of police, forensic scientists and lawyers from the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague were at work within days, sealing off and cataloguing mass grave sites. In East Timor, a few harassed policemen have the task of exhuming the bodies and collecting what evidence they can.

Physically, the task is re- volting - after days or weeks exposed in the tropical heat the bodies are putrefied and maggot-ridden. More seriously, the civilian policemen lack the forensic training needed for an investigation that would stand up in an international court. Already crime scenes are being compromised by the well-intentioned people who have covered these bodies. "Not more," said one policeman yesterday when told of the bodies in the technical college. "I've already got 14 dead bodies to look after. I can't deal with any more."