KUPANG, Indonesia — Terror has followed the people of East Timor into the refugee camps and streets of West Timor.
Armed militiamen have been going through the camps here in the western half of Timor island demanding identification cards, terrorizing refugees and taking away people believed to be supporters of East Timorese independence, according to Protestant and Roman Catholic clergy, aid workers and other West Timor residents.
As nine ships carrying the vanguard of an Australian-led peacekeeping force steamed toward East Timor, where they are expected to arrive Monday, residents of West Timor wondered Saturday whether the Indonesian authorities will make good on their promises to disarm and rein in the militias, who are blamed for kidnapping three Red Cross workers, killing refugees, threatening nuns, beating up and stoning foreigners and intimidating anyone who crosses them.
Numerous refugees in several camps--part of the estimated 180,000 East Timorese who have fled here--have reported seeing their compatriots taken away in what has appeared to be an orchestrated campaign to liquidate Timorese independence supporters. But the numbers and fate of those taken from the camps are unknown.
"In Atambua, they are being shot," said a U.N. official, adding that four refugees had been taken last week from camps in the area near the East Timor border and that two of them had been confirmed dead.
Local newspapers in Kupang, the capital of West Timor, in recent days have reported the discovery of at least five corpses believed to be those of murder victims. The dead included a 35-year-old man from East Timor, three students whose throats were cut aboard a boat on which they were fleeing to a nearby island and an unidentified person believed to have been abducted from the Atambua General Hospital.
Four doctors have also left Atambua after being threatened by militiamen while treating refugees at the hospital, local media reported.
A week ago, gunmen abducted three East Timorese workers from the offices of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Atambua. The men were taken away with their hands bound. Two of them were able to convince the militiamen that their ICRC identification cards were valid, and they were released. But one man is still missing and feared dead, a Red Cross official said today.
"Indonesian [officials] tell us, 'We do many things to protect the people from East Timor,' but we know what has happened," a Kupang priest said Saturday. "They have no heart.
"They try to kill many people there, from 25 years ago until now," he added, referring to the Indonesian occupation of East Timor, which began in 1975.
As the world focuses on the impending arrival of the peacekeepers in East Timor--and on such hazards as one Indonesian Muslim leader's threat Saturday of a "holy war" against them--humanitarian aid workers worry that the security and welfare of the refugees in West Timor may slip off the international agenda.
Humanitarian aid workers have only limited access to the refugee camps here and are afraid to ask too many questions lest they be kicked out. Foreign journalists and their all-important video cameras have been generally barred from showing the plight of the thousands of East Timorese who are camped out in stadiums, schools and fields and at the Kupang harbor. Some families could be seen Saturday lying in the dirt, using their only blanket as a makeshift shield against the scalding sun.
"They should not be forgotten," the Red Cross official said. "They lost everything also. When people sleep under trees, that means they are in their last days, and thousands of families are in that condition."
Some of the East Timorese refugees are independence supporters fleeing the machete-wielding militias that have burned the territory's capital, Dili, to the ground and forced about 200,000 people--roughly one in four East Timorese--from their homes. Others are anti-independence supporters or their families, who fear retribution if they stay.
It is almost impossible to know who is who, since nearly all of the refugees in West Timor claim to have opposed independence--a numerical impossibility given that 78.5% of the electorate in the former Portuguese territory voted to break away from Indonesia in a U.N.-sponsored referendum Aug. 30.
Even many refugees in hiding tell their protectors that they voted not for independence but to give East Timor autonomy within the Republic of Indonesia.
"They say they are pro-autonomy," one Protestant clergyman said. "To me, that's ridiculous. If they are pro-autonomy, why are they in hiding?"
Since the East Timorese refugees--and their militias--began pouring over the border 10 days ago, clergy and human rights sympathizers have been secretly helping some of those being hunted by pro-Indonesian forces to leave the island, hiding them and buying them airplane tickets to nearby Bali, Australia or other destinations.