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Reconciliation: One of Many Challenges for East Timor - 2001-09-05

East Timor is preparing to install an interim assembly after last month's first free elections. The body will draft a constitution and prepare the territory for full independence next year. With the political building in full swing, East Timorese will now have to begin to deal with the legacy of violence and human rights abuses.

Two years after the attacks by anti-independence militias, visitors are still struck by the devastation in East Timor.

Although some buildings have been reconstructed, most of the estimated 35,000 homes and businesses that were sacked are still gutted shells without roofs, doors or windows.

Less visible is the emotional trauma on the people here. An estimated 1,000 people were killed in the violence and many were injured. Virtually everyone has a family member who was victimized.

The foreign minister in East Timor's transitional administration, Nobel Peace Prize winner Jose Ramos Horta, says reconciliation is vital for the future of the country. "Absolutely important, we must put the past where it belongs, heal the wounds," he stresses. "Not everybody can claim to be exempted from violence. It was not only Indonesia that perpetrated the violence here."

Mr. Ramos Horta notes East Timorese militias were involved in the violence two years ago. And East Timorese political parties also fought each other in the mid-1970s, clashes that led to Indonesia's occupation of East Timor.

For the head of the U.N. human rights unit in Dili, Patrick Burgess, this legacy of violence poses a major threat to the prospect of long-term stability. "The biggest problem for this new country will be if violence, old payback scores, retribution, retaliation breaks out between those factions who were involved in 1999, and also in the complex history that goes back between those factions to 1974," he says.

In an effort to heal the fledgling country, East Timorese leaders have set up a truth and reconciliation commission. The first step is to encourage people to talk about the serious human rights abuses that occurred during the past quarter-century. Crimes like murder, rape and organizing violence are being prosecuted by a special court, which already has sentenced one individual to 15 years in prison and indicted 10 others.

Mr. Burgess says community reconciliation programs will also be created to deal with the tens of thousands of less serious crimes, like arson, looting and beatings that were committed. In order to avoid overwhelming the courts, East Timorese who participated in lesser crimes can go before local leaders and the victims in their communities and ask for forgiveness and be allowed to make amends. When the perpetrators complete the reparations, they receive a court order absolving them of further legal action.

East Timor's leadership is also facing another major problem: an estimated 80,000 refugees in Indonesian West Timor - among whom officials say are several hundred militia members who were most involved in the violence two years ago. The militias have conducted raids into East Timor and could pose a major security threat after U.N. peacekeepers leave. They are also accused of preventing about 30,000 innocent refugees from returning home.

The director of East Timor's leading human rights group, Reconciliation Commission member Aniceta Guterrez, led a delegation to West Timor last month to meet with the militia leaders. He reports they want amnesty, but says through an interpreter that his commission is not authorized to deal with this issue. He says, "Whether or not there is amnesty is a completely different issue and this is the issue of another government."

According to the head of the Jesuit Refugee Service that works on both sides of the border, Father Frank Brennan, the issue of amnesty will probably have to wait until the United Nations leaves after full independence next year. "Because it won't be until then that the militia leaders and the elected Timorese government will able to negotiate a deal," he says. "And it'll be a dirty sort of deal, where in the end the militia leaders will want to come home on terms that they will return the little people in exchange of some sort of amnesty."

Officials say a way must be found to return the refugees home, protect them from reprisals and reintegrate them into society. And that, they say, will be one of the many challenges facing the leadership of world's newest nation.