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East Timor Struggles to Find Justice, Rebuild - 2004-09-23

Five years ago this month, international peacekeepers arrived in East Timor to find a country in ruins. Days earlier, an overwhelming majority of the population had voted to end more than 24 years of brutal Indonesian rule. After the vote, pro-Jakarta militias and their sponsors in the Indonesian army went on a rampage, killing an estimated 1,500 people and leveling villages.

Five years ago these streets were silent and smoldering. Today, they buzz with renewed activity, and along with development has come its attendant curse, the traffic jam.

Despite signs of progress, the scars of 1999 remain. Just down the street, families squat in burned-out houses that were destroyed by uncontrolled militias after the East Timorese voted for independence from Indonesia. The scars are not just physical. The East Timorese are still angry at their suffering at the hands of the Indonesian security forces and their East Timorese allies in the militias.

The militia leaders and nearly all of the most violent offenders are now in Indonesia and beyond the reach of East Timorese justice. A few have returned to East Timor. For more minor offenders - those accused of beatings, burning houses or looting - the Timorese have come up with a unique version of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Patrick Burgess is an Australian lawyer who helped the United Nations prepare for East Timor's independence vote. He now is a consultant to the reconciliation commission. "We set up a system where, in their own communities, in their villages, these perpetrators would go to a public hearing, they would make an apology for what they had done," says Mr. Burgess. "The victims could speak to them face-to-face and tell them of their anger, how they had ruined their lives, make them confront what they had done and the effects of it."

The community then imposes a punishment, such as rebuilding a house or school, or repaying the victims. Mr. Burgess says the admission of guilt and the apology were frequently more important to the victims than the punishment.

Those suspects accused of murder, rape or torture are sent to the U.N.-sponsored Serious Crimes Panel, which is largely staffed by international judges, defenders and prosecutors.

"Once people killed his brother, he had to hide because if he didn't hide, he would have been killed as well," said a witness who gave evidence to the Serious Crimes Panel in Dili against a militia member who is accused of murder.

Mirko Fernandez is a forensic anthropologist from Canada. For the past year and a half, he has been working with the Serious Crimes Unit. He is worried about the prospect of bringing to justice those responsible for hundreds of deaths. The Serious Crimes Unit is to wind up its work next year, and the forensic unit closes in December. Mr. Fernandez estimates that only half the bodies of the roughly 1,500 victims of the violence have been exhumed and examined, but the unit has been told not to dig up any more.

Mr. Fernandez hopes to set up a new commission to focus on identifying the victims' bodies and returning the remains to their families. "This will be a commission that will focus on exhuming, analyzing and returning back the remains to the Timorese community, and we would try and bring in anthropologists from all around the world to help us," he says.

Indonesia set up its own human rights tribunals, to head off demands for an international court to try East Timor suspects. But many people say the Indonesian process has been inadequate and failed to punish those who allowed the militia rampage.

"We are left with, out of the 18 persons who were tried in that process, 16 Indonesian officials acquitted, two East Timorese convicted, and an overall feeling by people in Indonesia and in East Timor who are involved in this that the process has been far less than satisfactory," says Mr. Burgess.

East Timor still must live with its giant neighbor and former oppressor, and the government has been circumspect about calling for prosecutions.

With or without full justice, the East Timorese are moving forward, rebuilding their country.

The anthropologist Mr. Fernandez says the hope is visible.

"You see that these people are just phenomenal, all you see is smiling faces, and the kids will wave at you, and its good to see that," says Mr. Fernandez. "And you can only imagine what they've gone through."

Despite all the problems: the lack of justice, the moribund economy, and occasional outbreaks of civil discontent, East Timor is a place reborn. Five years ago every face wore a look of fear, with people shuffling around joyless and careworn. All that has gone.