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Timor's rebels find peace brings poverty
By REESE ERLICH
© St. Petersburg Times, published June 16, 2000
ALIEU, East Timor -- The East Timorese guerrillas who fought the Indonesian army for 25 years are caught in a Catch-22. They have scrupulously abided by terms of a U.N.-backed cease-fire, but now the United Nations can't provide them with adequate food, shelter and medical care.
Guerrillas bivouacked here rarely eat meat or even vegetables. They live in abandoned buildings. Their medical clinic consists of some bare rooms and a few boxes of medical supplies.
Even Sergio Vieira de Mello, chief administrator for the U.N. in East Timor, calls their living conditions appalling, but he can do little until the guerrillas' political future is resolved.
Falintil, the Armed Forces for National Liberation of East Timor, consisted of 1,500 armed men when it emerged from the hills last year. The United Nations brokered a cease-fire between the Indonesian military and Falintil, followed by a referendum on independence. After losing the Aug. 30 vote, the Indonesian army and allied militias killed hundreds of Timorese and put cities to the torch. Falintil stayed in its assigned areas and refused to be drawn into the fight.
Now, eight months after the arrival of U.N. peacekeepers, the Indonesian military is gone, but the armed soldiers of Falintil are still confined to the town of Alieu, unable to provide for their basic needs.
Vieira de Mello says humanitarian organizations, on principle, don't help armed groups, even those as peaceful as Falintil. "So we have been trying to find all kinds of roundabout ways in which to provide assistance to them," he says.
The real problem, he says, is that the United Nations and Falintil cannot agree on a future role for the guerrillas. Xanana Gusmao, East Timor's main independence leader, proposes that Falintil form the core of a 3,000-person military defense force. The United Nations questions how large the force should be and how many guerrillas should join.
A team of British experts will soon visit East Timor to assess its defense needs. After the team's report is presented in the fall, Vieira de Mello expects Falintil's future will be closer to resolution.
Despite the harsh conditions, Falintil soldiers have not rioted or looted. Falintil commander Filomino Paixo says that shows the group is a disciplined, neutral force.
"We will not become a political force," he said. "We are concerned with defense of the nation."
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