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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

SEPTEMBER 24, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 38

Timor's Trail of Tears
Refugees face violence, starvation and exile
By JONATHAN SPRAGUE and TOM McCAWLEY Jakarta

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Habibie gives in to international pressure over foreign intervention -- but his problems are far from over

It's the Army, Stupid
Ramos-Horta on Indonesia's real problem

Indonesia Pays the Price
Savagery and scandal test the economy

Timor's Trail of Tears
Refugees face violence, starvation and exile

'We Were Surprised'
Ginandjar on East Timor and Bank Bali

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The stone cathedral near Kupang in West Timor is jammed with bodies. Refugees from the east crowd the pews, the floors, even the altar. Here there is no trace of the bravery of the voters who faced down militia intimidation to cast their ballots in the Aug. 30 referendum, nor of the joy of those who danced when the massive mandate for independence was announced. Here, no one talks of independence. "They have threatened to kill us," whispers Joao de Pereira, 26, of the East Timorese militiamen who haunt the refugee camps in West Timor. Wednesday last week, armed men arrived at de Pereira's village in East Timor. They murdered those they suspected of being independence activists. Some talked of killing everyone. Then an army truck came and took the remaining villagers to a town near the border with West Timor, where de Pereira was forcibly separated from his son. Pushed across the border, he boarded another truck that brought him to the cathedral. There, de Pereira sits, still terrified, desperately worried for his child.

While diplomats argue and Jakarta dithers, swelling numbers of refugees are wondering whether they will ever go home, where their loved ones are, whether they will live to see another day. Towns and villages across East Timor have been virtually razed by militia violence. Aid agencies estimate that some 300,000 people, more than a third of the population, are hiding in the hills, living on roots and leaves, facing starvation. A handful of refugees from Dili flew to Darwin, Australia, with evacuating U.N. staff. Over 150,000 have crossed into West Timor, many against their will. More are pouring in every hour from the equal number of people pressed against the other side of the border. Once across, they are still not safe. Refugees say the government is not providing any rations. Militia, the same ones that drove them from their homes, patrol the camps, intimidating even local West Timorese. "They are starting to control the city," a priest in Kupang worries. Talk simmers of men and boys, and sometimes women and children, being executed.

Reports of militia violence within East Timor continue to trickle out. The Catholic humanitarian group Caritas said most of its 40 local employees have been killed. An 80-year-old nun was murdered in the Bishop's chapel in Dili. The father of independence leader Xanana Gusmao was killed and his mother is missing. And uncounted ordinary people throughout the territory are feared dead. The Indonesian military says only 55 were killed in the week after the referendum's results were announced on Sept. 4. Independence advocates say 10,000 or more may have died. Satellite photos show spots of flames all across East Timor. At this point, the violence may be dying down with little left to plunder or burn, and U.N. staff still in Dili say militiamen seem to be headed for West Timor with their loot.

Where they will go from there is a big question. Many refugees in West Timor are actually families of militiamen, and they may head back to East Timor. Militia leaders talk of carving out a pro-Indonesia enclave in East Timor. As for other refugees, independence advocates fear that the military and militia deliberately set out to clear East Timor of most of its pro-independence population, and will not allow them back. The claim appears to be underpinned by Jakarta. Trans-migration Minister A.M. Hendropriyono said about 100,000 of the refugees could be resettled in East Nusa Tenggara province, of which West Timor (but not East Timor) is a part, within two months. "Above this capacity, willing or not, we will have to resettle them out of East Nusa Tenggara." Nothing was said about helping the East Timorese return home.n

With reporting from Kupang, West Timor

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