Desire for justice burns like a sickness in this woman's heart

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 August, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 August, 2005, 12:00am

Six years ago Celia Arego lay huddled inside a walled compound hearing the war cries of bloodthirsty pro-Indonesian militiamen laying waste to the community outside.

It was the dying days of Indonesian rule over East Timor, and the anguished birth of a new country. An overwhelming independence vote in a United Nations-run referendum on August 30, 1999, had triggered a vengeful orgy of violence by Indonesian troops and their proxies.

What happened next still haunts Mrs Arego and others who survived. Gunmen broke into the church compound, where scores of frightened civilians had taken shelter, and ordered the men to be separated from the women.

Among the men led away at gunpoint that day, never to return, were eight members of Mrs Arego's extended family - brothers, uncles, cousins. All are presumed to have died at the hands of the militia.

After the fighting stopped and Australian-led UN peacekeepers arrived to take charge, Mrs Arego returned to her neighbourhood on the eastern fringes of Dili. Her house had been torched, so she found a new home and picked up the pieces of her life, giving birth to two children with her husband.

But she has not stopped thinking about the horrors of 1999. 'We don't know who was behind [the killings], we have no proof ... I feel angry, of course. In my heart, I feel sick,' she said.

Dealing with the bitterness and pain of the past is among the challenges facing the leaders of East Timor, the world's newest country it achieved formal independence in May 2002.

UN investigators have indicted 440 Indonesian officers and militia members over the deaths of around 1,500 Timorese during and after the referendum. But only a handful have been brought to trial. Most live freely in Indonesia, which refuses to extradite them.

Indonesia established its own human rights tribunal in East Timor in 2002. All of the 17 accused police and military officers were acquitted and the US government called the tribunal 'seriously flawed'.

At the same time, East Timor has sought to heal its wounds through a truth and reconciliation process on the South African model.

Across the country, hundreds of communities have been invited to tell their stories and offered a chance to forgive those among them that took part in the violence, excluding anyone who committed serious crimes such as rape and murder.

A national commission is due to publish its final report in October on the outcome of the hearings, including the names of the accused. Commission members said it would create a historical record and an opportunity for healing.

'Reconciliation is a process, so in this process we have to look not only at justice but all other aspects ... ultimately the result will depend on the public,' said Aniceto Guterres, the commission's president.

Some reconciliation meetings have bridged divisions among villagers over how to respond to the return of militia suspects, according to aid workers and diplomats.

Others, though, have failed to shrug off grudges and scores to be settled, stemming from the 1999 killings and earlier conflicts.

Among those named in the commission report is Lino Soares, a former pro-Indonesian militia member living in Dili's Cristo Rei district.

The squat, windowless shack where he lives today with his wife and eight children is only a short drive from Mrs Arego's home.

When he returned in 2000 with his family, he was attacked and beaten by neighbours. Last year, he took part in a reconciliation meeting where he apologised for his actions and sought forgiveness.

In an interview, Mr Soares, who sells fish on the nearby beachfront, denied taking part in massacres.

'We've had reconciliation. We know the truth. I'm not a violent man,' he said.

However, Mrs Arego refused to attend the meeting and shows no interest in reaching out to former militiamen. Instead, she wants a judicial reckoning for those behind the violence. 'Reconciliation has brought peace, but not justice,' she sighs.