Youth of Timor who have lost everything except life

IT IS 8am, the start of another sweltering day in Suai, and nearly 100 children are squeezed into what was once a classroom but is now a burnt-out concrete shell. Dozens more are queueing in the doorway; others are hanging in through the broken windows, straining to hear what is happening inside. Outside, a soldier carrying an automatic weapon stands guard.

A month ago, lessons started again in the ruins of the Catholic high school in this coastal town in East Timor's south-western border region. Classes are limited to a few subjects and run for just two hours a day. There are no desks, no blackboards, no books, no pens. But teachers, the few who remain here, are anxious to teach and the children of Suai are itching to learn.

Slowly, hesitantly, the rhythms of ordinary life are resuming in Suai, site of one of the bloodiest acts of retribution during the wave of violence that followed East Timor's vote for independence from Indonesia on 30 August. In the compound of the wooden parish church, across from the school yard where children are excitedly milling around, three priests, three nuns and at least 100 refugees who had sought sanctuary there were massacred on 6 September by pro-Jakarta militia gangs armed with assault rifles and machetes. Some witnesses say that 250 people were killed.

Suai, which was a stronghold of Laksaur, one of East Timor's most feared Indonesian Army-backed militias, also suffered some of the worst effects of the scorched earth policy carried out by the militias as they withdrew from the territory. About 95 per cent of the buildings in the town and surrounding villages were torched.

Physically devastated, psychologically traumatised, Suai presents an enormous challenge to the international aid agencies that are attempting to rebuild East Timor and prepare it for nationhood under the guidance of the United Nations Transitional Authority for East Timor. In Suai, they must begin virtually from scratch.

Entire streets of houses were reduced to rectangles of ash by the departing militias, who took care to gut public buildings such as schools, shops, hospitals and administrative offices. The infrastructure has been crippled, too: wells were poisoned; electricity generators stolen. What could not be destroyed was looted. "Zero" is one of the few words of English understood by the people of Suai, left with no possessions but the clothes they stood up in.

"When you have a natural disaster like a cyclone or an earthquake, you always find a few things if you root around in the rubble," says Richard Uxton, shelter co-ordinator of Timor Aid, an Australian charity supported by War Child. "Here, there was absolutely nothing." With half of the 50,000 locals who fled to refugee camps in West Timor now returned home, a reconstruction programme is beginning, and not before time, for the plastic tarpaulins distributed as an early stop-gap are inadequate protection against the monsoon rains that have just set in.

Timor Aid and another charity, Care Australia, plan to distribute enough tools and materials to build 4,000 houses in the Suai area over the next six months. Some East Timorese, astonishingly resilient, are not bothering to wait. They are already constructing temporary dwellings of bamboo and palm leaves, and are planting maize and other vegetables in the nutrient- rich squares of cinders where their homes once stood.

The school has reopened; so has Suai's Saturday morning market, in its former premises, now a charred concrete wasteland, off the town's main street. Traders squat among the rubble, their wares displayed on plastic sheets. Every week there is a little more fresh produce for sale: pineapples, garlic, betel-nut, bundles of cassava leaves. The town, like the rest of East Timor, requires more than physical rehabilitation. Most of its bureaucrats and professionals - doctors, lawyers, teachers and engineers - were Indonesian, and they have left. One of the tasks facing the UN authority, which has a mandate to administer the territory for three years, is to train locals for key jobs.

Despite the privations of daily life, there is a mood of optimism in Suai. Already, remarkably, some people are talking about reconciliation. "I own nothing, but the fear has gone," says one young man, Jose Dos Santos. "I can walk around in the dark; I can sleep at night without worrying about a knock on the door." Some memories will never fade. Human remains, presumably from the churchyard massacre, are said to have been found in the town's rubbish dump earlier this month. Outside the church, currently being rebuilt, there is a scorched patch of grass bordered by pebbles; inside it are empty bullet casings, fragments of a jawbone, two belt buckles. A group of independence supporters were gunned down here and their bodies burnt on the spot.

Down the road is a half-built Gaudiesque cathedral. Suai's new parish priest, Father Renee Manubag, believes it important that a project begun by his murdered predecessor, Father Hilario Madeira, an outspoken critic of the Indonesian military, should be completed. "We would be keeping a promise to the people who died," he says.

EAST TIMOR FILE

There are well over 100,000 East Timorese refugees trapped as virtual prisoners in makeshift camps in West Timor.

Refugees are regularly subjected to intimidation, harassment and extortion inside the camps by anti-independence militia groups. In some cases they have also been killed, beaten or raped.

Poor shelter and sanitation have resulted in the spread of ailments such as chronic diarrhoea and tuberculosis.

Aid workers have been threatened and assaulted by militia groups inside the refugee camps.

Refugee convoys back to East Timor have increasingly been attacked by armed militia. The flow of refugees back to East Timor has now been reduced to a trickle compared with last month.

The Indonesian government has failed to take effective measures to disarm the militias or to grant aid agencies access to all the refugee camps.

Amnesty International:

www.amnesty.org.uk

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Ashdown Group: Editor-in-chief - Financial Services - City, London

£60000 - £70000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Ashdown Group: Junior Application Support Analyst - Fluent German Speaker

£25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A global leader operating...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power