The Freedom To Fear

GERHAD PASIMOS TAKES OFF HIS rumpled green cap and clenches it in his hands. His unwashed hair sticks straight up, testament to the weeks he has lived in a makeshift refugee camp on the northern coast of East Timor. He fled his hometown on Dec. 26 after being terrorized by Indonesian soldiers and paramilitary troops. ""They made me dig my own grave,'' he says. Then the Muslim soldiers wrapped him in a shroud and buried him up to his neck. When Pasimos, a Roman Catholic, refused to recite an Islamic prayer, they set his house on fire. Why had the troops targeted him? He'd been seen talking with independence activists.

It's nothing that their own president hasn't already done. Two weeks ago, B. J. Habibie's government announced that it would ""release'' the province, located on a small island 1,200 miles east of Jakarta, that it invaded 24 years ago after Portugal relinquished it. But neither the East Timorese nor the Indonesians really seem ready to make that break. The local population of 830,000 may be too traumatized by a quarter century of brutal occupation to embrace independence now. And the government may have so much invested in the province--politically, socially, economically and especially militarily--that it would be too costly to let it simply secede. Habibie would prefer that the East Timorese accept ""autonomous status''--giving them control over everything except defense and foreign policy--instead of full independence. Some locals accuse the military of promoting violence in order to justify its presence as a ""peacekeeper'' in the province.

Both sides agree that the negotiations should proceed very cautiously. Just two hours outside the capital of Dili, villagers carry rifles openly in the streets. Pro-Indonesian factions have existed on the island since Portuguese rule and have sometimes joined the government in brutalizing independence agitators. Now the military has supplied automatic weapons to thousands of these government supporters, ostensibly so they could ""defend'' themselves in the event of independence. But reliable witnesses say the paramilitaries are carrying out the same campaign of brutality as the military. ""Even if the military left now, we would have to find a way to have all the weapons taken away from people,'' says one independence activist.

With or without guns, East Timor has a long way to go before it can survive on its own economically. Though the province was once a thriving coffee and spice exporter, with a burgeoning tourism trade, its livelihood has been decimated by the military, which monopolizes important industries and imports thousands of workers. Many farmers have been forced to give up local crops and grow rice to ship to other islands. Manuel Carrascallao, a local community activist, says he used to earn $300,000 a year exporting spicy, award-winning coffee. ""Now I grow it only for personal consumption,'' he says. Even if the troops left tomorrow, it would take him years to rebuild his operation. ""The East Timor economy has not been geared for self-sufficiency,'' says a Western diplomat in Jakarta. While Indonesia has built roads, schools and hospitals on the island, it has failed to create jobs for locals or make health care affordable. Locals complain, for instance, that they can't afford the cash bribes demanded by Indonesian doctors. Tuberculosis is widespread.

Ethnic hatred poisons even the simplest interactions. When the child of a local farmer died two weeks ago while under the care of a Javanese doctor, the farmer reportedly attacked the doctor with scissors. According to a Western health official, the farmer's father had been killed by invading Indonesian soldiers 25 years ago: ""Now he felt the Indonesians had killed his child, too.'' But the resentment flows both ways: the Indonesian manager of a large hotel calls the East Timorese ""pigs.'' Religious differences exacerbate the tensions; most Indonesian soldiers are Muslim, while more than 90 percent of East Timor's people are Catholic.

Even if East Timor breaks from Indonesia, it may never be totally free. ""We are condemned by geography to coexist with Indonesia,'' says Nobel laureate Jose Ramos-Horta, a resistance leader living in exile in Sydney. After decades of fighting for freedom, the most terrifying prospect may be its imminence. That's why some leaders of the independence movement favor a U.N.-monitored ""transition'' period of anywhere from two to 10 years. ""Every single member of our society wants independence,'' says Leandro Isaac, director of the Reconciliation Commission for East Timor, an organization that promotes gradual autonomy. ""But we want to know we can control our own political fates in the future.'' Whenever that future comes.