Zelia Soares and her family had decided to go home, to leave this refugee camp in western Timor and take their chances in the newly independent East Timor.
First, they passed a quiet word to a relief worker. Next came an urgent morning call crackling through a walkie-talkie, telling them to get ready. Soon nine people -- an aging grandmother, the children, and the hard-faced family matriarch with betel nut stains on her teeth -- were loaded aboard a battered blue-and-white bus, along with green plastic chairs, rolled straw mats and rice sacks filled with cooking tins. Policemen armed with automatic weapons rode with them for protection.
The stealth and caution of the Soares' departure can be explained by the men in black T-shirts and army fatigues who lord over the refugees here with cold stares and unspoken threats. These are the foot soldiers of the militias who rained terror across the border in East Timor before fleeing to this desolate camp, about 22 miles northeast of Kupang in western Timor.
Their presence can still spark fear among the mostly rural refugees, and concern among relief workers. But the old bravado is gone from their swagger, just as it is from their threats of an armed insurgency in their homeland. They still wear the militia colors, but most don't dare admit their affiliation. They are defeated and leaderless -- abandoned by those who instructed them to kill, cut off from their Indonesian army backers and wondering whether they, too, might one day go home.
The sound of defeat is evident in their voices.
"I want to go back to East Timor," says Antoniv da Silva, 41, who says he was a member of the notorious Besi Merah Putih militia, the "Red and White Iron," which was responsible for much of the destruction in Dili, the East Timor capital, after the vote for independence in August. He says he would go back to fight if ordered by his leaders. But with East Timor now officially independent, is there still a fight left?
"I have to admit, it is too late," he says. And where are his leaders? "We haven't seen them at all, since the last clash," His reply brings nervous laughter from those listening in.
"The last time we saw them was when we left Dili on a ship. They were in first class. We were in the lowest class."
Formed by the Indonesian armed forces as a counterweight to East Timor's pro-independence guerrillas, the militias became an undisciplined mob that murdered independence leaders, harassed villagers and burned houses, shops and marketplaces. In the end they were defeated by Timorese who defied the terror and voted overwhelmingly for independence from Indonesia after a 24-year occupation. A new Indonesian parliament quickly endorsed the result.
Militia members were chased across the border into western Timor by an Australian-led peacekeeping force, taking along hundreds of thousands of civilians swept up in their retreat. Their leaders are now under subpoena by an Indonesian human rights investigating team, and they face new charges of obstruction of justice for failing to show up for questioning in Jakarta.
In perhaps the biggest blow to the militias, there are signs the Indonesian armed forces, isolated internationally and humiliated by the East Timor debacle, are moving slowly but deliberately to cut ties with their former proteges.
"We want everybody to go home," said Maj. Gen. Sudrajat, the armed forces spokesman in Jakarta. "To tell you the truth, we just want to get rid of the East Timor problem. We are tired." He said the armed forces commander has informed militia leaders in Atambua, the main militia training base: "Be realistic . . . It's useless."
The militias are in "a bit of a crisis," said Yusuf Hassan, spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Kupang. "Indonesia is no longer showing enthusiasm in supporting them. Having said that, there is still some training going on in some of the sites. There are still some elements of the Indonesian military supporting them."
Some militia members in western Timor still talk of waging war over East Timor, but for the most part there has been little action. A few cross-border excursions against the peacekeeping force have left several militiamen dead and two Australian soldiers wounded. Now the militias spend their time doing military drills near Atambua, mostly using sticks in place of rifles.
"The threats have been incessant and unfulfilled," said Australian Maj. Gen. Peter Cosgrove, commander of the intervention force known as Interfet, in an interview in Dili. "We do notice that their level of sponsorship has diminished markedly. Their unity of purpose is in question. Their morale has been significantly damaged. I think their financial position is grim. I think they're homesick.
"The vast majority of them would like to see a formula for reconciliation. But in some ways they are tied into a vicious circle of using the IDPs [internally displaced persons] as a bargaining chip. We know from the overtures we receive that their hearts and minds are not in it."
"They are pretty good at being bullies," said Col. Mark Kelly, chief of staff of the intervention force. "But when they actually faced a well-trained, disciplined force that came in here with a mandate and rules of engagement . . . they knew they couldn't get away with what they had been getting away with."
According to the Indonesian government and the UNHCR, there may be 170,000 East Timorese refugees still in western Timor, and tens of thousands may be there against their will, virtual hostages of the militias. A movement to repatriate the refugees brought 118,000 people home to East Timor in recent weeks.
But now that movement has slowed to a trickle, relief workers here say. The number of daily flights has dropped from five to one, if that many. U.N. refugee officials also complain that they still do not have free access to all the camps.
Not all the refugees stay because of intimidation. In fact, relief workers, diplomats and Indonesian government officials cite a complex series of reasons the refugee return has slowed. Refugees have access to relief supplies in western Timor, while in devastated East Timor there are no jobs and food is scarce. Others here have settled into a new life. At a UNHCR center, one East Timorese man and his wife said they wanted to go home -- but only after July 2000, because they had enrolled their son in a local high school and want him to finish the school year.
Asked how many of the refugees will become permanent residents of western Timor, the Indonesian army commander in Kupang, Col. Jurefar, said, "That's a difficult question. Next month, we'll make a new inventory. . . . If law and order is maintained in East Timor, I'm sure more refugees will go back. But unfortunately, it is still difficult to meet your daily needs in East Timor."
However, Maj. Gen. Sudrajat, the armed forces' spokesman in Jakarta, acknowledged that intimidation by the militias is an obstacle to the refugees' return. While many of the refugees stay in western Timor for economic reasons, he said, "Of course we should admit that some elements of the militia -- the pro-integration militia -- also discourage them from going home."
Part of the problem, say Indonesian government officials, military officers and foreign relief workers, is that many of those still here are rural people, mostly uneducated, who are waiting for instructions from the village chiefs, family elders and militia leaders who brought them here.
"A large number of people who are uneducated or semi-educated are under the grip of the militia," said Hassan, the UNHCR spokesman. "They don't have access to information. They would go back if they had the right information, and the intimidation was not there." The UNHCR has launched its own information campaign, using fliers and videotapes to counter what it calls the disinformation of the militias.
No one can give an accurate figure, but Hassan estimated that the number of people now being held against their will in western Timor would number "tens of thousands."
Indonesian officials and relief workers say that the ability of the militias to hang on to their weapons in the camps, despite the government's call to disband, reflects pockets of support remaining inside the armed forces.
Marzuki Darusman, Indonesia's attorney general and chairman of the national human rights commission, said, "The question is always why doesn't the armed forces move on it? There are intransigent elements within the armed forces -- that's the only way to explain it."
A Western diplomat in Jakarta said that the Indonesian government knows that allowing the refugees to return home is a necessary condition of resumption of normal relations with the United States and other Western governments. But he also said that given the problems of command-and-control in the armed forces, "They can't just turn it off overnight."
Sudrajat said much the same thing: "There are some militias in the west that are still carrying arms. We cannot arrest them because we do not have enough forces. We cannot search, one-by-one, in the camps. We'd have to declare a military emergency first. Our method is to try to persuade them."
There are some signs that the message may be seeping in.
On Dec. 12, one of the most notorious militia leaders, Joao Tavares, held a meeting in the border town of Motaain with Xanana Gusmao, the East Timorese independence leader. The longtime enemies embraced. The next day, Tavares announced that his militia group, the East Timor Fighters Force, was disbanding. Tavares said further fighting was futile, and he urged all his men to turn over their weapons.
Col. Jurefar, who attended the Gusmao-Tavares meeting, said he saw "a new communication" developing that may eventually lead the refugees home.
"The atmosphere of that meeting was peaceful," he said. "There was no hatred at all." He said the two sides have agreed to have future meetings at the border.