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Talking spares an East Timor city from ruin

After the independence vote, much of the territory was destroyed.

Nestled on a hillside overlooking the sea, Baucau is a place of palm trees, shimmering vistas, and notably intact buildings.

At a schoolyard near the city's cathedral, women sell small bunches of garlic, green tomatoes, and hefty breadfruits. A minibus tout beckons potential passengers. Men discuss the affairs of the day. Life in this East Timorese city seems pretty much back to normal.

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"Well, I can't say it's normal," says Alphonse da Silva Frietas, a government worker who lacks a job because there is no government for the moment, "but it's getting there."

Baucau is East Timor's second city, the administrative capital of a region known for supporting independence and its Roman Catholic seminary. But it also stands out as one of the few places in the territory that emerged largely unscathed from the terror of last month.

The lesson of Baucau seems to be that communication can stave off violence in times of civil unrest.

On Sept. 4, voters in East Timor heard the result of a UN-sponsored referendum in which they had just participated: overwhelming support for independence from Indonesia. This outcome ignited reprisals from militia members and Indonesian soldiers opposed to independence, who destroyed most of the capital, Dili, and other towns. They forced hundreds of thousands of East Timorese into West Timor, a part of Indonesia, and killed an unknown number of people.

Baucau was not immune. Perhaps a quarter of the city's structures were demolished or burned. Most were Indonesian government offices; departing officials did not want to leave anything useful behind. Soldiers stripped the control tower at the military airport of all its technology, leaving nothing but chairs and a few water bottles filled with urine.

Baucau's residents had to flee, but most went into the surrounding hills at the behest of the city's leaders, a precaution that saved many from a forced trip to West Timor. There were killings here, but in all likelihood on a lesser scale than in other parts of the territory.

Today, there is much reason for gratitude. The city's old town seems essentially untouched. As residents return, the city is springing back to life more quickly than other places in the territory. Junior high school students are back in their classes, a sign of normalcy nearly impossible to see elsewhere in East Timor.

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Some credit the local Roman Catholic bishop, Basilio do Nascimento, for protecting the city. "Don't believe it," says the bishop, a bald-headed man with a mellifluous voice and a demeanor that veers between kindly and stern.

"What we were trying to do is establish a dialogue among all forces - the government, the police, the army, the political parties and the militias."

The Indonesian military created East Timor's militia groups in two phases - some many years ago to fight pro-independence guerrillas and others late last year to intimidate East Timorese voters into choosing to remain within Indonesia.

Baucau benefited from having older militia groups whose members had ties to the city and who kept away newer, more violent militias based in Dili.The local groups, says Kieran Dwyer, the United Nations civil affairs coordinator here, "played a much more protective role than most militias." He also credits the town administrator, an Indonesian-appointed Timorese, and the local leader of the pro-independence National Council of Timorese Resistance for their work in maintaining dialogue in the runup to the vote and afterward. These leaders and the bishop kept open lines of communication with local police and military officials.

Re-integrating those who favored remaining within Indonesia, whether they were violent or not, is a thorny issue for East Timorese leaders and their UN backers.

In Dili, the mere accusation that a person is a militia member can draw a hostile crowd and in some cases a brutal beating.

But Bishop Basilio sees a day when the town administrator, Virgilio Marsal, and one of the local militia leaders, Joanico Belo, will return to the city.

"I think they have no problem with Baucau and Baucau has no problem with them."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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