via the Sydney Morning Herald
7 May 1999
by Lindsay Murdoch
Pro-Indonesian paramilitary groups are forcing thousands of East Timorese villagers from their homes into refugee camps where they are living in appalling conditions and each day have to swear their allegiance to Indonesia.
Officials from international aid agencies, who have been threatened with death if they go to the camps, believe the campaign is part of a strategy to force villagers to vote for East Timor to remain part of Indonesia in the United Nations-supervised ballot in August.
As representatives of Indonesia and Portugal early yesterday signed an agreement on the ballot in New York, foreign doctors and aid officials said they were shocked by film of up to 10,000 villagers in the biggest camp on the outskirts of Liquica, 40 kilometres west of Dili.
The footage showed Indonesian officials separating men from women and children, many of whom appear to be in dire need of medical treatment.
Armed Indonesian soldiers and police, as well as militiamen, patrol the camp where families are living under tarpaulins and in empty, open buildings with no sanitation or cooking facilities and little water.
Most of the villagers are believed to have been rounded up in military trucks and taken to the camp since early April when pro-Indonesian militiamen attacked a church and the priest's house in Liquica, killing up to 60 people who had sought refuge.
Human rights activists believe that many of their homes have been burnt and looted by pro-Indonesian militiamen who now control large areas of rural East Timor as well as the main towns.
Only hours after the signing of the agreement in New York, pro-Indonesia militia intensified their intimidation of supporters of independence.
As diplomats at the UN labelled the agreement a historic breakthrough, armed militia threatened to kill a prominent human rights activist in Dili, Mr Aniceto Gutteres.
Militiamen also went to the Dili offices of the Catholic relief agency Caritas, and told staff they would be attacked unless they stopped supplying food to about 11,000 refugees in the city.
Frightened staff were sent home and the offices and areas storing rice and other essential supplies were closed.
Mr Gutteres, the head of Yayasan Hak, the main independent human rights office in Dili, was told by militiamen he and his family would be killed after a speech he made on Wednesday supporting independence for East Timor.
With his house surrounded by armed militiamen, Mr Gutteres phoned Portugal's representative in Jakarta, Ms Anna Gomes, who passed on his pleas for help to Jakarta diplomats.
Indonesian authorities have taken no action against the militiamen responsible for the Liquica massacre. Survivors say some of the church killers have now taken control of the refugees.
Reports and film of the Liquica camp reaching Dili show that Indonesian officials demand that the villagers must sing the Indonesian national anthem each day, salute the Indonesian flag and wear red and white, the flag's colours.
A small number of foreigners who reached the camp this week said the villagers appeared too frightened to speak to them.
Asked about the refugees at Liquica, the chief of Indonesia's armed forces in East Timor, Lieutenant Colonel Tono Saratman, said: "I can't say anything about that ... it is the responsibility of the police."
One villager at the Liquica camp, who replied "no" when asked whether families had enough food, was bundled away by camp guards, including Indonesian police and soldiers.
The Indonesian military, which claims it will remain neutral during the ballot to decide East Timor's future, has also thrown a cordon around the village of Hatolia, 45 kilometres south-west of Dili.
Hundreds of refugees have fled to the village to escape pro-Indonesian paramilitary attacks, Catholic Church sources say.
Indonesian officials have recently banned foreigners travelling outside Dili except to stage-managed pro-Indonesian rallies and tours, denying journalists and diplomats the freedom to inspect camps like those at Liquica and Hatolia. A Herald photographer was turned away from Hatolia at gunpoint on Wednesday.
Aid agencies operating in East Timor, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, have also not been able to reach the camps.
While Indonesian military officers claim the refugees are fleeing attacks by guerillas supporting the pro-independence leader, Xanana Gusmao, workers in Dili said it was clear the refugees were being put through a kind of political indoctrination ahead of Indonesia's general elections on June 7 and the East Timor ballot on August 8.
Mr Estanislau Martins, the Dili secretary of Caritas, said his organisation wanted to send food and other supplies into the Liquica camp but did not have permission. "They [the militia] are sweeping the outlying villages and bringing the people to centres so they can make sure they vote the right way."
Dr Dan Murphy, a US volunteer working at a Catholic clinic in Dili, described the situation at Liquica as "like a concentration camp"