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SEPTEMBER 18, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 11

Pat Green/AP.
U.N. aid workers, escorted by Australian peacekeepers, leave Atambua, West Timor, on Sept. 7, 2000 after a militia mob went on a killing rampage.

A Rage Unchecked
Militia-led violence erupts in Indonesia's West Timor as three U.N. workers are slaughtered

Threats were nothing new to Alias bin Ahmad. As head of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees' office in Atambua, a town in Indonesian West Timor, the 49-year-old Malaysian national had spent most of the past year doling out food to tens of thousands of East Timorese refugees—and receiving frequent phoned warnings to get out of Indonesia. His agency is run by the U.N., which also has administered East Timor since the referendum last August that split it from Indonesia. That role makes the U.N. highly unpopular with the anti-independence militiamen who embarked last year on a savage spree of post-referendum violence that filled the refugee camps in West Timor.

Hundreds of militia members are camped in West Timor. Some cling to hopes of somehow winning back a slice of East Timor. Others seem driven merely to perpetuate violence. After the leader of one militia group was mysteriously killed in West Timor last week, his adherents scheduled a funeral procession that was to pass directly past Ahmad's agency. On Wednesday morning, as thousands of pro-Indonesian sympathizers assembled 40 km away, Ahmad nervously called the local Indonesian military but was given assurances that the march would be peaceful. Two hours later, as a convoy of trucks, cars and motorcycles rumbled past Ahmad's office, a group of 50 men wielding machetes, broken bottles and home-made rifles split off from the procession and made their way to the UNHCR complex. "The writing was on the wall," Ahmad says from Dili, East Timor, where he was evacuated on Wednesday night. "We were going to be attacked."

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Within minutes, a hail of stones came crashing down on the UNHCR office, which contained a scaled-down staff of 10 workers. Indonesian police guarding the complex, all 11 of them, disappeared. Ahmad and several others bolted out of the house and escaped over a 2-m wall at the back. (He hid in a neighbor's house for several hours.) Three of his colleagues were not as fortunate. American Carlos Caceres, Croatian Pero Simundza and Samson Aregahegn of Ethiopia were murdered. "One was beheaded, one had his legs cut off and the other was stabbed in the stomach and disemboweled," reports Ahmad. If that wasn't brutal enough, the gang then dragged the bodies of the three victims into the street and burned them.

Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid was in New York with 155 other world leaders for the United Nations' Millennium Summit, and his reception got perceptibly chillier after the killings. U.S. President Bill Clinton, in his address to the body, called on Jakarta to "put a stop to these abuses." U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan requested a minute of silence for the victims. Wahid was furious, and said the killings in far-off West Timor were calculated to sabotage his trip. "The timing was precisely selected while I was in New York," Wahid later told reporters. "The purpose was to humiliate me."

The carnage in West Timor provides more grim evidence of just how ungovernable parts of Indonesia have become. On Friday, the Indonesian military confirmed that 11 more bodies, burned beyond recognition, had been discovered in another village in the area, apparently killed before the raid on the UNHCR. Aid agencies pulled out all of their personnel as two battalions of army reserve troops were shipped in. Reports of further violence were quickly denied.

A year ago in East Timor, a similar shroud of uncertainty prevailed after foreigners were expelled—and the killings began. Some 1,200 East Timorese were slaughtered by military-backed militias then, and the turmoil has continued ever since and spread throughout Indonesia. More than 3,000 Muslims and Christians have been killed in the Maluku islands, and a settlement of the conflict there seems far from certain. The residence of Philippine ambassador Leonides Caday was bombed early last month, as Wahid was attending a high-profile meeting with top Indonesian leaders. Last week, the mutilated body of Jafar Siddiq Hamzah, an Acehnese human rights activist, was recovered in North Sumatra. (Hamzah was a permanent U.S. resident, and Washington called for an investigation into his death.) .

Last year's killings in East Timor had a clear political agenda: revenge. Political currents ran through the slaughter in West Timor last week as well, but none as clear or as strong as Wahid suggested in New York. The Indonesian military claims the violence began after Olivio Mendosa Moruk, former commander of a pro-Indonesian militia, became angry at a neighbor who tried to extort money from a minivan driver. Moruk supposedly slapped the man and turned him in to the police. In retaliation, a mob showed up at Moruk's house; the former militia leader was decapitated, castrated and disemboweled. His friends, in turn, burned down houses in the village and organized the funeral cortege that invaded the UNHCR headquarters in Atambua, 30 km from the border with East Timor.

The situation is rife for contemplating conspiracies. Moruk had just been named in an Indonesian government report that lists 19 people suspected of committing human rights abuses in East Timor last year, and some believe the Indonesian military had him killed to keep him quiet. Whatever the truth, the violence clearly spells trouble for Jakarta. Political turmoil has already unsettled things at the top in Indonesia: last month, the country's highest legislative body forced Wahid to cede some leadership powers to Vice President Megawati Sukarnoputri, and his administration is being investigated over two financial scandals

More importantly, that confusion has moved down the layers of command. "Soldiers on the ground are very apathetic about orders from Jakarta," says former Defense Minister Juwono Sudarsono, who was rotated out of the cabinet last month. Even if the military has largely cut ties to the militias, it has appeared extremely reluctant to rein in its former protEgEs. Witnesses to last week's violence insist that Indonesian forces stood aside as the mob did its gruesome work. "Naturally it's hard for the military to disarm those guys," says one officer familiar with East Timor who requests anonymity. "After all, they're friends. It would be as if you didn't trust your friend."

Until such security can be guaranteed, though, the U.N. says it has no plans to reenter West Timor. And with no foreigners left to distribute rice and other staples to the 100,000 refugees still in camps, there are many scary scenarios: a humanitarian disaster, an uprising against the local West Timorese or a mass exodus back to East Timor. "If the Indonesian government does not pick up where we left off," says Andrew Harper, the U.N.'s program coordinator for West Timor, "it is going to have a major crisis on its hands." For Indonesia, that could be one crisis too many.

Reported by Zamira Loebis and Jason Tedjasukmana/Jakarta

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