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Call to End East Timor Refugee Crisis

For Immediate Release May 11, 2000

Contact: John M. Miller, (718)596-7668; Karen Orenstein, (202)544-6911

Returning Delegation Calls for U.S. and Indonesia to End East Timor Refugee Crisis

A delegation recently returned from a fact-finding mission to East Timorese refugee camps in West Timor found that East Timorese refugees remain under threat from militia leaders and members of the Indonesian armed forces (TNI), who are preventing the refugees from returning to East Timor.

The delegation of congressional staffers, human rights advocates, journalists, and a noted filmmaker returned on May 1from the week-long mission. The delegation also visited Jakarta and Dili, East Timor, meeting with Indonesian NGOs, church leaders, government and military officials, as well as East Timorese NGO leaders and international aid workers.

"Despite Indonesian government and military denial of militia presence in West Timor's refugee camps, there was obvious fear on the faces of most East Timorese in the camps. Intimidation and tension created by militia leaders was palpable," said Karen Orenstein of the East Timor Action Network (ETAN), co-leader of the delegation. TNI-backed militias continue to carry out a widespread disinformation campaign alleging horrific conditions and abuse by international forces in East Timor.

Continued discovery of modern weapons in the camps points to direct TNI collusion with militia leaders. Several separate reports of a low-level training plan, based on the continuous drilling of fifteen militia members by the TNI with five men rotated in and out at a time, further connect TNI to militia repression. After an unplanned encounter involving a meeting of militia leaders in the Cassa camp in Belu, delegation members were informed by reliable sources of a large cache of weapons buried near the militia meeting house. Several other such caches are believed to be buried in three areas of the Belu region, each the property of a militia leader. The militia meeting was led by Cancio Lopes De Carvalho, head of the Mahidi militia, a known murderer widely believed responsible for the killing and disembowelment of a pregnant woman. Delegation members were not able to enter the Naibonat camp, located on a military base in Kupang, due to unsafe conditions.

Over 200 refugee sites are scattered throughout West Timor, with more than 100,000 total refugees in the province and 11,000 to 30,000 still elsewhere in Indonesia. "While food distribution to large camps is basic, access to food is sub-standard at the many smaller sites, some of which consist of only five or six families," noted Indonesia specialist Loren Ryter, a delegation participant. "We also noticed many children with reddish hair ­ a sign of malnutrition," added Orenstein. Members of the delegation observed men in pro-Indonesia t-shirts controlling the allocation of food brought into the Belu area by Catholic Relief Services.

"The health care situation is extremely troubling. Continuous damp and muddy conditions in the camps due to an unusually long rainy season have exacerbated health problems. A malaria catastrophe looms once the rains stop," said Ryter. The normal environmental malaria prophylactic of fumigation will not work in the camps because spraying cannot be done on plastic sheeting, and mosquito netting is in short supply. There is an urgent need to increase the capacity of local health care facilities, which were already taxed before the arrival of tens of thousands of refugees. The April 1 cut in Indonesian government support and subsequent withdrawal of the Indonesian Red Cross from the camps has had a harsh impact on the health of refugees. Further, the recent termination of a government program sending newly graduated medical students to work in rural areas has hit communities with refugee camps particularly hard. Shortage of vital medicines remains a severe problem.

"The East Timorese refugee crisis is also hurting the people of West Timor. In some areas, the refugee population outnumbers the indigenous community," stated Orenstein. Land for the camps has been taken by the government of Indonesia with no compensation for local residents, and aid to refugees is creating resentment among local West Timorese. This may contribute to the destabilization of one of the poorest areas of Indonesia.

"The best solution to the refugee crisis, repeatedly voiced by humanitarian aid workers, is repatriation," said Orenstein. "The only way to increase the rate of repatriation is to remove militia intimidation and control of the camps. Militia leaders must be arrested so people can feel safe to choose to return to their homes in East Timor." The UNHCR (UN High Commissioner for Refugees) last week reported that the rate of repatriation has slowed to a trickle.

Genuine accountability for events in East Timor is crucial to achieve full repatriation, as well as justice and reconciliation for the people of East Timor. "Without exception, Indonesian and East Timorese NGO leaders with whom we spoke had no faith in the newly forming Indonesian process of justice. Overwhelmingly, East Timorese felt that East Timor should not be the test case for the process of Indonesian accountability. Many East Timorese suggested that cases within Indonesia should be the test of Indonesia's justice system. They argue that trying and convicting those responsible for ordering and committing military and militia terror in East Timor is an international, not strictly Indonesian, issue and should be treated as such," added Orenstein. Human rights legislation does not yet exist in the Indonesian criminal code, and its creation is being opposed by many factions of the Indonesian government and military.

"Continued U.S. pressure on the Indonesian government is critical to both resolving the refugee crisis and realizing genuine accountability for human rights abuses. The U.S. must maintain its current ban on military ties with Indonesia, and strengthen conditions for lifting the ban. U.S. officials should cease making public or private statements about resuming military ties. Members of the Indonesian NGO community stated repeatedly that the ban is the most critical point of leverage for reform forces in Indonesia," said Orenstein. "The U.S. must also support the establishment of an international tribunal in East Timor with significant East Timorese and Indonesian participation."

The delegation was composed of congressional staffers Jaron Bourke from the office of Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), Daniel McGlinchey from the office of Congressman Barney Frank (D-MA), and Jeannette Windon from the office of Congressman John Porter (R-IL); novelist, screenwriter and filmmaker John Sayles; human rights advocates Karen Orenstein from the East Timor Action Network, and Pamela Sexton and Charmain Mohamed from Peace Brigades International; Indonesian politics and history researcher Loren Ryter; and freelance journalists Carolyn Robinson (CNN International and Reuters Television) and Lisa Upton (Australian Broadcasting Corporation and SBS).

The East Timor Action Network/ U.S. (ETAN), founded following the November 1991 Santa Cruz massacre, supports a genuine democratic and peaceful transition to an independent East Timor. ETAN has 28 local chapters throughout the U.S.

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