240,000 refugees from E. Timor face forced resettlement

Aid workers, diplomats fear systematic campaign to forestall independence

September 29, 1999|By Michael Zielenziger | Michael Zielenziger,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

JAKARTA, Indonesia -- Nearly a quarter-million East Timorese in refugee camps controlled by pro-Indonesian militias in West Timor might be forcibly resettled across West Timor and elsewhere in Indonesia, according to Western aid workers and foreign diplomats.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that many of the refugees were ordered out of East Timor by the militias in what those observers fear may be part of a systematic campaign aimed at overturning the Aug. 30 pro-independence vote.

A map studied by Knight Ridder details Indonesian government plans to distribute small groups of East Timorese refugees to more than two dozen sites across West Timor, as well as to the Indonesian islands of Sumba, Flores and smaller islands to Flores' east in the Lesser Sunda chain.

A veteran Western diplomat here said top Indonesian officials have openly discussed their plans to resettle Timorese refugees on other islands, but have given no indication whether the refugees would ever be allowed to return to East Timor.

"They are trying to send everyone out of East Timor," one official of an international aid organization said after visiting several refugee camps near Kupang, West Timor. "People in these camps are totally terrified. They don't talk to you. They step back when you approach."

Added a veteran Western diplomat: "These are like the concentration camps we saw in Serbia. It's very worrisome. It appears as if whole families are being held hostage against their will."

The United Nations mandate to restore order and meet humanitarian needs in East Timor does not extend to West Timor, where thousands of anti-independence militiamen are reported to be gathering and appear to control the giant, open-air refugee camps, which lack adequate food, potable water or medicine.

"This is a very risky situation," the aid official said. "Many, many people's lives are at risk here."

Some diplomats and relief workers believe that Jakarta might be willing to let aid workers into the camps and eventually to let the refugees go home, but is unable to control the militia groups running the camps.

"Even if people here [in Jakarta] want it done, there's no way those instructions are being carried out," said one Western diplomat.

Since Indonesia agreed to accept a U.N. peacekeeping force in East Timor, refugee and humanitarian agencies in Jakarta have expressed deep concern about the western half of the island, which is to remain part of Indonesia after East Timor becomes independent.

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Sadaki Ogata won a pledge more than 10 days ago from Indonesian President B. J. Habibie that the United Nations and aid agencies would have free access to the camps. So far, the Indonesian government has not made good on that promise.

"We've had no real access so far," UNHCR spokesman Fernando del Mundo said after his second day in Kupang, where 44,500 refugees are in the Noelbaki camp. "We've driven by; we haven't been able to get in."

In a meeting with West Timor's governor yesterday, UNHCR officials were told that at least 60 percent of the 239,120 people in the camps want to return to East Timor. But according to del Mundo, the governor said "he did not think this was the time to do it. His priority was to provide assistance and move these people into temporary shelters."

One foreigner who obtained brief access to a refugee camp said he was able to interview a few refugees surreptitiously.

"They whispered in my ear and told me they were forcibly taken out of East Timor and wanted to go home," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "One said flatly, `I don't want to be here. I want to go home to East Timor.' These people are hostages."

Foreign governments and aid agencies have been reluctant to criticize Indonesia for its treatment of the refugees, for fear of losing any prospect of access to them.

Pub Date: 9/29/99

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