Five hours drive south of East Timor's capital Dili, Ainaro township looked beautiful that morning. As the sun drew up the last of the dew, crowds could be seen pouring into town for the big day. A convoy of refugees from West Timor was about to return. Together with 200,000 others, these people had been driven out by the scorched-earth campaign of the Indonesian military TNI, the police and pro-integration militias.
Dozens of trucks and minibuses were spotted in the distance. 'Refugiados sira mai!' (The refugees are here!) some youths shouted. Everyone stood up, scrutinising the vehicles as they passed. Tired and tense faces on the trucks. The atmosphere relaxed when some bystanders called out to people they knew. They ran along with the trucks and, not waiting for the tailgate to open, leapt up. One young man kissed the head of an old woman, yelling almost hysterically.
Not everyone was welcoming. Some youths stood back just watching. 'Who knows, there could be militias among them', they said. Rumours of militias infiltrating among returning refugees had long been heard. Indeed some in this convoy were ex-militias who had chosen to return once they realised TNI and the Indonesian government wanted to close the book and send them back to Timor Lorosae.
It was a reasonable suspicion. No comprehensive investigation has yet explained all the many incidents of violence in 1999. Untaet's Serious Crimes Unit has gathered information on ten big cases and about 640 others all over Timor Lorosae. The Human Rights Unit is also doing research. Reports of lost family members or other violence-related losses continue to come in. Yet still the people have no full report on what actually happened.
In the midst of this uncertainty and lack of clarity, Timorese elites want to push ahead with a reconciliation process. 'It's time to look to the future, let us forget the past', is the leaders' refrain. President Xanana Gusmao has even offered a general amnesty for any who committed crimes in the past. Not everyone agrees. 'How can we forgive others if we don't even know what they did wrong?', says Martinho Gusmao, a priest in Baucau. But there is no further discussion. The elites have decided that physical development must be the priority, not truth and justice.
The leaders have been promoting this course since before the referendum. But every peace agreement was always broken within a few hours, increasingly robbing the word 'reconciliation' of meaning. The main problem was that the most important players in the conflict, TNI and the Indonesian police, were not sitting at the negotiating table. Yet it was they who were arming, funding and training the pro-integration militias.
Ainaro was among the worst affected by the destruction. For its people, elite peace agreements and reconciliation mean very little. 'A head cannot walk without its body,' said Agapito Bianco, from Cassa village, at a reconciliation meeting in Ainaro last November. 'We only see the militia rank-and-file returning, not their heads. It's as if those who gave the orders are eating a juicy steak; they throw us the bones, and we fight among each other over the bones.'
Initiatives such as this meeting have the support of local leaders and NGO's like the human rights organisation Yayasan HAK. The aim is to bring survivors together with suspected perpetrators, to hear one another's stories. This is difficult, because many ex-militias deny they were involved in violence even in the face of eyewitness evidence. Former militia leader Joao Pereira, also from Cassa, illustrates the difficulty when he says ambiguously: 'We have to reveal everything, so the families of those who died know. If we are not open, people will continue to bear a grudge, even if we are innocent. We have to tell in public who we are, so that when people meet us in the street everything will be OK and there will be no fear.'
Cassa was known as the main base for the Mahidi militia. The group was involved in horrible atrocities in 1999. Its leader Cancio Lopes de Carvalho proudly told SBS televion how his troops ripped open the belly of a pregnant woman, and shot old people whose families were suspected Falintil supporters. Pereira and his men confess to taking part in some operations but say they never killed anyone. That is why they were prepared to return to Timor Lorosae once the Indonesian government had withdrawn its support.
At the meeting, several survivors and victims' relatives tell of the appalling things that happened to them. The faces of the ex-militia men show deep sorrow after hearing the results of what they did. 'My husband was murdered then burned, then his body was given to the dogs. He died because he wanted freedom,' says Maria de Conceicao, from Maununo village. Now she has to bring up their five children alone. 'I can't go to my gardens because I am sick and thin. For two years I didn't know where to turn, my house had been burned down, nothing was left. The Red Cross came once and gave me 18 sheets of zinc, but it didn't help much because I still can't work.'
The meeting had no powers to demand a legal accounting. But the discussion and the listening showed that the problem was not as simple as finding the perpetrators and putting them in jail. 'What's the use of jailing them?' asks Aniceto Guterres Lopes, former director of Yayasan HAK who now heads the truth and reconciliation commission (see box). 'They should be put on trial, that's true. But will that bring the problem to an end?'
Aniceto faces an extraordinary challenge. He knows the violence not only left a large number dead, but destroyed Timor's social fabric and caused such immense material losses that it will take exceptional efforts to rebuild from zero. 'It isn't easy', he says. 'We can't just ask people to shake hands and then think it's over.' The idea of grassroots reconciliation meetings such as this was a way of breaking through the deadlock the elites are in. At least they can identify the widespread consequences of the violence, and also expose the truth as told by both survivors and those accused as perpetrators.
The November meeting was not the first. Customary elders and youth leaders had earlier taken a similar initiative to help resolve the increasingly complex refugee-militia problem. The UN refugee agency UNHCR conducted the repatriation by giving more attention to the refugees (including militias among them) than to those who had stayed in Timor Lorosae and coped with the aftermath alone. 'This gave rise to envy', said Aniceto. 'People couldn't understand why those who committed murder and arson were given help so readily, whereas the victims were left to fend for themselves.'
In view of these unhealthy signs, the people chose to take the initiative themselves. After long discussions it was finally decided that ex-militias involved in violence should give an accounting of themselves in a traditional way, by rebuilding what they had destroyed such as schools and houses. 'This didn't mean they were then freed from their legal obligations. That's a matter for the government and the law courts later. This is the people's way of imposing sanctions and after that accepting them back openly. But those who were involved have to be taken to court,' says Aniceto Neves, a Yayasan HAK staff member whose older brother was killed in Ainaro by a Mahidi militia group.
All the participants, whether victims and their relatives or perpetrators, realise the limitations of this forum. But at least it was a simple step forward on a new path out of the bureaucratic deadlock and the political circus of an elite that seems never to really care for the people's problems - not even those who not so long ago were waving the banner of the people's freedom.
Hilmar Farid (email@example.com) was a volunteer in East Timor in 1999, and has visited repeatedly since then. He edits the Jakarta cultural magazine Media Kerja Budaya (http://www.geocities.com/mkb_id/).
Truth and Reconciliation Commission
A Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in East Timor has been formally established in East Timor. The Commission is an independent authority which aims to achieve dual goals of reconciliation and justice. It will operate for two years, and has three primary functions:
First, it will seek the truth regarding human rights violations in East Timor within the context of the political conflicts between 25 April 1974 and 25 October 1999. The Commission will establish a truth-telling mechanism for victims and perpetrators to describe, acknowledge and record human rights abuses of the past.
Second, it will facilitate community reconciliation by dealing with past cases of lesser crimes such as looting, burning and minor assault. In each case, a panel comprised of a Regional Commissioner and local community leaders will mediate between victims and perpetrators to reach agreement on an act of reconciliation to be carried out by the perpetrator.
Third, it will report on its findings and make recommendations to the government for further action on reconciliation and the promotion of human rights.
The Commission does not have the power to grant amnesty to perpetrators of human rights violations. However, those who fulfill the terms of a community reconciliation agreement will be immune from any further civil or criminal liability for those acts.
The Commission will complement the formal judicial process. Any evidence of serious crimes such as murder, rape or the organisation of systematic, widespread violence will be referred to the Office of the General Prosecutor. Serious crimes will continue to be handled exclusively by the Special Panels established under Regulation 2000/15.
The Commission is supported by the Timorese leadership.
Untaet Press Office, January 2002. More details: www.easttimor-reconciliation.org.