Feb 27, 2024 Last Updated 12:52 AM, Feb 22, 2024

The forgotten of West Timor

Published: Jul 29, 2007

Elcid Li

In Kupang in the 1980s I sometimes heard a salvo fired at the Heroes Cemetry about a kilometre from my home. The next morning I would see a new grave. Another soldier or police officer had died in battle in East Timor. When I returned to Kupang at the end of 2001 I saw the body of a little girl. She had died of hunger in the Noelbaki refugee camp near the city. Her grave was dug among other little graves on the land belonging to a local resident.

In the past it was like a myth - I heard from an uncle about the road running with blood at the Santa Cruz cemetry in Dili. Now I feel that what happened in East Timor could also happen in West Timor, as if death had moved from one place to the other. West Timor today is like the dark side of the moon, where the sun never shines. Perhaps only some dramatic massacre will open the eyes of the world.

Antonius Seran Wilik, a retired teacher in Belu district near the border with East Timor, will not easily forget the date 4 September 1999. On that day he took 42 East Timorese refugees into his home. The Raihat refugee camp would be built there later. But it was not the first time the Raihat sub-district, which borders directly with Bobonaro district in East Timor, had seen refugees. The first time was 1946, just after the Second World War. The second was 1975, when East Timor was in upheaval and Indonesia came in and took over. There were even still stories of refugees from a war in Manufahi in the 1880s.

If in 1975 the refugees numbered about 4,000, in 1999 there were about 24,000 - for a population in Raihat of only 7,000. As a respected local leader, Antonius Seran Wilik ordered six square kilometres of traditional land to be set aside for the refugees. They were also allowed to live in the gardens and backyards of the locals. Antonius said the refugees came from an area that had traditionally supplied brides for his people. Belu district has the same language and culture as East Timor. The 1999 refugees were on the whole greeted as if they were relatives.

At first the world took a lot of notice of the refugees. But when three staff members of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees were murdered on 6 September 2000, nearly all international agencies helping the refugees pulled out of West Timor. Reduced assistance for refugees placed an increasing burden on the locals. Theft increased in the town of Atambua near the border. Forests in South Belu were chopped down and turned into agricultural land. No locals had ever dared to cut down those trees for fear of being fined. But the refugees just said 'we are defending the red-and-white (flag)', and after that the law was powerless. The locals knew this was illogical, and they worried about droughts and flooding for generations to come. But the refugees were hungry, and they were relatives. The province of East Nusa Tenggara of which West Timor is a part is the poorest in Indonesia.


The slow rate at which refugees were returning proved that the militias retained a strong influence in the West Timor camps. They used guerrilla tactics to avoid handing over their weapons to the military. Anyway, many of them had been soldiers, or trained by them. It is common knowledge that the weapons are still there, even if they are not openly visible.

The area near the border has become heavily militarised. In January 2002 there were an estimated five battalions. Although some welcomed the increased military presence because it would control the militias dangerously frustrated with the new Jakarta policy, many feared that West Timor could be turned into a military operations area as in Aceh or Papua.

As in East Timor Bishop Belo became a symbol of the people's resistance, so in West Timor the Catholic Church speaks out through the priests. In Kefamenanu, priests rejected the establishment of a base by Infantry Battalion 744, formerly from East Timor. The commander of the Udayana military area, based in Bali, said to them in a meeting: 'Who will look after the priests' safety if not the soldiers?' There have been instances of intimidation against the church. A homemade bomb was found at the bishop's palace in Atambua.


No one knows how many refugees there are - numbers are a political commodity for all those involved, both the government in East Timor and Untas, the refugee umbrella organisation. Untas, who said it was too early to ask them to make up their minds, sabotaged a survey of refugees in 2001 that wanted to ask their intentions. The survey resulted in numbers that were quite incredible.

Official assistance for the refugees ended on 1 January 2002. This is a risky way to force them to make up their minds whether to go home or stay. Some are already using the word 'new residents' rather than 'refugees' to describe them. They had enough food stored to last them until May, but after that things could get tense. Hunger can drive people to desperate acts. The Udayana commander has threatened to shoot rioters on sight. They have been living in these basic camps for nearly three years now.

They feel like hostages against the possibility of international sanctions against those military officers who committed crimes against humanity in East Timor. Once again, the little people have become the victims. Moreover, many West Timorese feel that political turmoil in Jakarta has resulted in scant attention being paid to peripheral areas such as their own. One local politician has called for UN intervention. However, this remains a sensitive issue.

While the new country of East Timor obtains a lot of international help, West Timor gets none. Not surprisingly, many farmers near the border have turned to small trade across the border. The trade profits the soldiers and police guarding the crossings too. They take Rp 5,000 (one Australian dollar) in 'safety money' for every box that passes by. A young Brimob policeman told me he earned Rp 300,000 a day that way.

The situation in West Timor is like a boil waiting to burst. First, unless the refugee problem is solved, it will lead to conflict with the locals, especially over land. Second, the continued presence of the militias, although now more or less clandestine, has introduced a volatile element. In a stressful situation these people create fear. They feel they are at war and the law does not apply to them. Third, the excessive number of soldiers to guard the borders is becoming a burden on the local population.

I now place my hope in Xanana Gusmao and his offer of reconciliation. His visit to Atambua on 4 April 2002 did much to counter the negative campaign in the camps that there would be a revenge attack into East Timor once the United Nations was gone. May President Xanana bring peace to us all.

Elcid Li (domingguselcid@lycos.com) is a freelance journalist. Thanks to Dony for his help in Atambua.

Inside Indonesia 71: Jul - Sep 2002

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