A Lot to Forgive

As landmark human-rights trials open in Indonesia to punish a few of those behind East Timor's 1999 hell, survivors still find it hard to forgive their tormentors


Issue cover-dated March 28, 2002

JUANA DOS REIS FOUGHT OFF a wave of revulsion as the woman held her in a tight embrace. "In my heart I felt sick, but I could still control myself," says Dos Reis, recalling the February encounter at a refugee camp just across the border from East Timor in Indonesian-controlled West Timor.

The hug came from the same woman who had admitted to torturing her three years ago--shaving her head, burning her flesh with cigarettes, denouncing her as a "priest's whore" and holding her captive for one month in Zumalai, an East Timor sub-district. All because Dos Reis was known as a fervid supporter of independence, while her persecutor was the head of a women's unit in a pro-Indonesia militia group.

Now Dos Reis is supposed to offer forgiveness to the woman, who remains in West Timor. But while she and many other traumatized Timorese are participating in a series of reconciliation meetings promoted by the influential Catholic Church, their horrific memories of 1999 lurk just beneath the surface, stirring desire for some form of retribution.

The horrors are taking centre stage again with the opening of unprecedented human-rights trials in Indonesia and reports linking top Indonesian military officers to the terror.

How East Timor defuses the memories will largely shape its bid to become a peaceful, democratic nation following full independence in May. Healing divided communities is vital to the political and economic renaissance the new nation so urgently needs.

There is some reason to be hopeful. At the village level, there's a palpable sense that most folk are focused on feeding their families and getting on with their lives. Emotions have certainly subsided since the black days of 1999, when the independence vote unleashed a vicious backlash of murder, arson and rape by pro-Jakarta militias. With thousands of lower-level militia members still trickling back home from West Timor, United Nations officials say that they have encountered remarkably few incidents of revenge.

But the calm seems tenuous. From the breezy mountains of central Ainaro to the baked sidewalks of the coastal capital of Dili, expectations are high that the most serious offenders will be prosecuted and punished. If that doesn't happen--and many international observers believe it won't--the submerged bitterness could rapidly come to a boil. "There are still a lot of people who can't accept any kind of reconciliation until there is justice," says Maria Gabriela Carrascalao Heard, head of the nation's sole television station. Seeking justice for close family members lost in the 1999 violence, she knows how difficult the healing process will be.

"People only give lip service to accepting each other," says Fatuleto village chief Joao Freitas. When he sees former militia members roaming around his village in the border district of Covalima, he remembers his older brother and nephew who were murdered three years ago. "I do feel a grudge. I want to hit them, but I can't, because I'm the village chief," Freitas confesses.

Many Timorese admit that they are only talking up reconciliation in order to woo alleged criminals back home, where they would be vulnerable to prosecution. This explains, for example, how Dos Reis came to hug her former torturer--she stills wants to see the woman punished.

Sensing the duplicity, and worried about their economic future, many of the estimated 60,000 Timorese in West Timor are resisting return. Personal and political conflicts reaching back decades will complicate the reconciliation process. But some refugees insist they will come back in time to vote in the April presidential elections.

Why? Because Xanana Gusmao, the undisputed front-runner, is reputed as a beacon of reconciliation. "I believe in Xanana. Before he was my enemy, now he is my friend. He's a statesman," gushes Nemesio Lopes de Carvalho, the former deputy commander of Mahidi, an 8,000-strong militia group that cut a swathe of terror from Ainaro to Suai in 1999.

Carvalho is considered one of the biggest fish to return from West Timor, bringing 842 people back with him last October. Some still hold out hope that he can persuade his older brother Cancio, the former Mahidi commander, to come back too. These days Carvalho spends his time planting corn, listening to the radio and lounging on his porch in Cassa village in Ainaro. A court order keeps him under house detention, though he hasn't been indicted. Since his return, nothing much has happened to him, other than a little verbal abuse. "It's time for us to suffer. If people insult us, that's normal," says Carvalho. But his wife remains in Jakarta with their three children, fearful of local rejection.

Indeed, critics charge that Jakarta remains a safe haven for high-profile ex-militia and the Indonesian military officers who allegedly called the shots. After repeated delays, a landmark Indonesian human-rights court on March 14 opened the first of a series of trials of 18 officers, militiamen and civilian officials accused of rights abuses in East Timor.

The trial opening coincided with reports in The Sydney Morning Herald that evidence leaked by an Australian intelligence agency showed Indonesian generals orchestrated the violence. "These revelations are important for the historical record. They might lead to more people being indicted, but I wouldn't hold my breath," says Sidney Jones of the New York-based Human Rights Watch.

Many also remain pessimistic about the court cases in Jakarta. United States Senator Patrick Leahy, who sponsored a bill cutting assistance to the Indonesian military until officers were brought to book for the abuses of 1999, has his fears: "The ad hoc trials won't adequately address the human-rights issues, not only because key high-ranking officers have not been charged, but also because of the courts' limited jurisdiction, witnesses' fear of testifying, poorly qualified judges and corruption within the justice system."

Whether or not such gloomy predictions are warranted, the UN is continuing its efforts to dispense justice in East Timor through two panels combining international and local judges. The UN Security Council has committed funding through to mid-2003 for the Serious Crimes Unit, which has issued 34 indictments and has 650 cases under investigation. While there's been widespread disappointment with the slow pace of prosecution, many Timorese were heartened by a landmark case last December in which 10 suspects were convicted and jailed for 13 murders, various acts of torture and the forcible transfer of civilians in Los Palos town in the east of the territory.

But East Timor won't just rely on legal remedies to provide citizens with some psychological catharsis. Adapting the South African model of public confession, the interim government has formed a Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation. Suspected murderers and rapists will still be processed by the courts, but thousands of militia members are expected to stand before their victims in village hearings slated to commence in June. In some cases, the ex-militia will be asked to perform community service, like rebuilding schools, hospitals and homes devoured by the flames in 1999.

Will it work? Some Timorese fear that the fragile calm could be threatened by raking up so many painful memories. Radio and TV broadcasters say they will try to edit the proceedings to avoid inflaming emotions beyond control. The bottom line is that there is no real incentive for the ex-militia to come forward unless they are hounded by their fellow villagers--something the commission seeks to avoid. "We want them to appear voluntarily and sincerely, not because they are forced," says commission chairman Aniceto Guterres Lopes.

For a glimpse of what the hearings could deliver, it's instructive to return to Cassa, Carvalho's home base. Last November, some 300 villagers gathered for a meeting facilitated by a local human-rights group at the request of several family members of 1999 victims. With UN peacekeepers on alert outside, a few ex-militia stood up to request forgiveness, explaining how they were forced by military officers to go on a rampage. Some family members of victims wept openly, while others reassured the ex-militia that they bore no ill will.

Carvalho himself didn't testify, but the former militia leader played a key role in convincing some of his men to participate. The lesson is that the commission must work through old patronage networks to ensure attendance at future hearings.

Four months later, it seems that the Cassa hearing did provide a measure of healing. According to the village chief and other locals, the ex-militia are now more frequently invited to social gatherings like weddings and participate in roadbuilding projects. "We can walk freely now, and people don't bother us," says Zulio de Santos, an illiterate farmer who reluctantly admits to being ex-Mahidi. But some fear still lingers. "We don't want to talk too much," says one Cassa woman married to an ex-militia member, shooing away journalists.

For family members of victims, the November gathering in Cassa did not bring closure. Take Fernao De Araujo Gomes, whose father was shot dead by Mahidi members. It was a relief to get some feelings off his chest at the hearing, says Gomes, but what he's really waiting for is the prosecution of Carvalho's brother, Cancio, whom he holds responsible for his father's death. With some 1,000 Cassa residents still in West Timor, Gomes admits frustration that the "reconciliation" meeting did not prompt more of them to come back.

Rather than spend a lot of money on village hearings elsewhere, Gomes believes the new government should put that cash into strengthening the legal system--and creating more jobs for a nation wallowing in unemployment. "If people are busy, they can forget, day by day, what happened," says 29-year-old Gomes, who has a job disseminating information about the presidential poll. "People are very poor. They lost everything: their houses, their livestock. If they don't have jobs, they will have lots of time to remember--and get angry."

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