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Fearful of Returning Home, East Timorese Refugees Play Waiting Game

Asia: Pro-Indonesian militias continue fight against independence, intimidating those who fled to West Timor.

June 17, 2000|DAVID LAMB | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The U.N. has tried to counter the misinformation with newspaper ads, radio announcements, even sending field workers to East Timor to photograph returnees, then giving the pictures to family members in the camps. Officials do not deny that some returning militiamen have been beaten, and one reportedly was killed, but generally the spirit in East Timor has been one of reconciliation and problems have been surprisingly few, relief workers say.

The militias' influence has been diluted since the days they ruled, first in East Timor and then the camps in West Timor. But the return of their leaders--something the Indonesian government should have prevented, relief officials say--has heightened tensions in the camps where anti-independence supporters intimidate, manipulate and instigate.

"The situation in the camps is very fragile, volatile," said Craig Sanders, who heads the U.N. refugee program in West Timor. "It's like skating on thin ice. It's rare that you can see you're on thin ice until it breaks, and when it does, you go down quickly."

Two weeks ago, five people died when West Timorese fought East Timorese in and around Tua Pukan camp here. The violence flared on rumors that a 16-year-old refugee girl had been impregnated by a West Timorese--a rumor that underscored the growing jealousy between the two groups, most of whose members are Christian, though Indonesia itself is predominantly Muslim.

"I love the East Timorese like brothers, but they are poor and we are just as poor," said Yeremiasa Pah, who has a vegetable stand near the camp. "Why should they get free rice, free blankets from the United Nations when we get nothing? The United Nations should take care of us too."

The Indonesian government, anxious to end the West Timor crisis, has set three deadlines for cutting off its refugee aid. Each passed uneventfully as international pressure mounted. But relief workers say most of the food, medicine and supplies come from international agencies and the impact of Indonesia ending assistance would be more symbolic than substantive.

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