- The Washington Times - Friday, May 31, 2002

MOTAAIN, Indonesia Joao Pereira's East Timor home is just a few miles from here, but until recently it was a distance he had been reluctant to travel.

Fear about what would happen to him, a former supporter of integration with Indonesia, and the government salary he received, tied him and his four children to the Indonesian side of the border, where they lived as refugees for almost three years.

Now Mr. Pereira has had enough. He has gone home, joining an increasing number of East Timorese who opted to return before May 20, when East Timor achieved full independence after 24 years of Indonesian occupation and months of U.N. administration.

The new East Timorese government hopes the estimated 50,000 East Timorese who remain across the border will follow the lead of people such as Mr. Pereira.

"I want to return to my birthplace," said Mr. Pereira, 47, from behind dark glasses that shielded his eyes from the bright sun as he waited at this border crossing beside two trucks loaded with the bedding, plastic chairs, wooden cabinets and a panting dog he brought with him.

His eldest daughter, Anina, 17, wiped tears from her eyes as they lined up with dozens of other returning East Timorese to get fingerprinted, receive a $75 allowance, and have their photographs taken by Indonesian repatriation officials.

U.N. officials say 10,000 refugees went home in March and April, the highest level in two years.

About a quarter of East Timor's population more than 200,000 people have already gone back since they were forced out in September 1999 amid a campaign of killing, arson, looting and forced deportation carried out by armed militias and the Indonesian security forces that created them. The violence was the culmination of a campaign of violence surrounding East Timor's overwhelming vote to separate from Indonesia which, with U.S. approval, seized the former Portuguese colony in 1975.

Many of those who remain on the Indonesian side of the border are former soldiers, police or civil servants like Mr. Pereira, who continue to receive Indonesian government salaries while they live in Indonesian West Timor.

Like other refugees who are going back, Mr. Pereira seems prepared to take his chances in East Timor rather than rely any longer on his Indonesian salary. He worked for the Department of Information in his home district of Maliana before he became a village chief in 1991.

Those who remain in the camps complain of hunger since Indonesian authorities on Jan. 1 cut off all refugee assistance in an effort to encourage the East Timorese to go home.

Militia and their guns once ruled these camps, but the military and local government turned against them. Without the food and other aid they used as a weapon to hold people in the camps, the militiamen are virtually powerless, said a Western diplomat who closely follows East Timor.

East Nusa Tenggara, the province that borders East Timor, is Indonesia's poorest and could not support the refugees indefinitely. Its people did not like the East Timorese outsiders crowding their land.

The diplomat credits Maj. Gen. William da Costa, the local military commander, for taking firm action against the militias and working with the former U.N. administration in East Timor to get the refugees home.

"It's an example for all over Indonesia. Of course, he couldn't have done it if he wasn't supported by Jakarta," the diplomat said.

Some refugees remain reluctant to leave the camps for a number of reasons, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Some still cling to their meager Indonesian salaries. Former militiamen remain concerned about how they will be treated in East Timor.

At the Noelbaki camp just outside Kupang, the East Nusa Tenggara capital, refugees endure a miserable existence cooking on open fires outside rows of clapped-together plywood shacks. It is a desolate and windswept place that appeared to have only a couple of hundred remaining residents.

Mr. Pereira and the others would rather take their chances in newly independent East Timor. He and his children joined a convoy of about 20 donated trucks loaded with refugees. They drove slowly past a sparkling bay, leaving behind a simple metal barrier that marks the border with Indonesia.

By early afternoon, Mr. Pereira and his family were home in the village of Sanirin. His four daughters arrived to kisses from a relative waiting on the front porch. His son, Atin, 8, did a little dance inside. Adau combed her hair before a mirror in the front room.

The houses in this village are small, thatched-roof boxes made from thin strips of palm wood. A picture of East Timor's president, Xanana Gusmao, seems to be stuck to every one. As the village chief, Mr. Pereira's house is bigger and better than the rest, with wooden-framed windows, a new-looking metal roof and painted walls.

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