by Anna Kaslim
(IPS) DILI --
22, was marked for death in the rampage unleashed by pro-Indonesian militia, defeated in the 1999 Timorese independence vote. But against overwhelming odds, she outwitted her enemies and lived to resume her life.
When the militias laid waste to East Timor, Maria and several hundred other refugees took shelter at a half-built cathedral in Suai district.
After militia leaders slaughtered at least 100 women and children, along with the local priest, the militia forced Maria and the remaining refugees onto trucks and took them across the border to Atambua in Indonesian-controlled West Timor.
In Atambua, a terrified Maria, along with other young women, were kept at the local military headquarters where she was raped by Indonesian soldiers.
She will not say whether her rapists were one or many. But she was among at least 30 young women taken from Suai's cathedral and either kept as sex slaves or raped at the military or police headquarters in Atambua, says the human rights group Fokupers.
After a week, she was transferred to the district police station where she managed to escape when guards were not looking.
It would have been too dangerous to stay in Atambua and going across the border was impossible, so with no money Maria jumped on a bus to Kupang, West Timor's provincial capital.
Maria managed to evade gangs of militia patrolling Kupang's streets and told her story to a local priest, who realized that as a witness to the massacre at Suai cathedral, she would be in danger of militia reprisal.
When the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was flying the first lot of vulnerable refugees back to East Timor, he made sure Maria was on that plane.
But while her courage and stamina is obvious, up to this day the tale of how she escaped her abductors is known only to her mother, one sister and a counselor from Fokupers.
Her village and even her friends will never hear what she endured nearly two years ago, because if Maria's tale was known she would risk being an outcast.
It took months before Maria felt brave enough to tell a woman from the pro-independence group National Council of Timorese Resistance (CNRT) that she was witness to some of the Suai massacre and had been raped by pro-Indonesian militia.
Maria, many others have been too ashamed to tell anyone of their humiliating experience in 1999.
It is only in the last few months, as word spreads of the social services provided for such women, that more are reporting their experience to counselors and aid groups, giving a clearer picture of the extent of sexual violence inflicted by the militia.
"This is just the tip of the iceberg," Bjorg Frederiksen of the UNHCR says of the 30 rapes now documented in the Suai area.
"It's so difficult for the women to come forward because they fear if they go to the police, there is a lack of confidentiality and amongst the community there is no sensitivity for this issue," says Frederiksen.
She says many young women returning from West Timor refugee camps have reported being raped in September 1999 and then abused in camps in West Timor.
Unlike guerrilla fighters who can brag of their exploits, these "fighters" are destined to live a life of shame, embarrassed about their role in the war, often shunned by their communities or their husbands and families, say aid workers.
"A lot of the men think it is the women's fault," says Olandina Alves from Etwave, another non-government group trying to help women and children recovering from the 1999 violence.
She says some raped women have either not returned to their husbands because they fear they will not be accepted or have split from husbands who accused the women of being militia wives or having willingly consented to sex.
"People in the community still think a woman is low if she is raped. Rape is very much a taboo issue in Timor and has not been discussed openly," says Alves, who says that in Timorese society women are expected to be virgins before marriage.
Prejudice has turned many of these young victims, many of whom have since borne militia babies, into social pariahs, adds Alves.
She says that until very recently, victimized women in Ermera district were shunned even by CNRT, which has long led the struggle for independence in East Timor.
It was only after local CNRT leaders realized that international and local non-government agencies cared enough about these women to visit them frequently that the CNRT leaders started to accept the women.
While ex-guerrillas with Falintil, the pro-independence force, have returned to their communities as heroes or become part of the new East Timor Defense Force, there has been no public recognition of how high a price the women have had to pay for the war, says Alves.
While some husbands accept and understand why the women were raped, in other instances Alves says she has had to work hard to stop girls' families and husbands from throwing the raped women out of their homes.
Yet often, it was precisely because of the women's husbands or family connections to the independence movement that the women were raped, say U.N. investigators.
Many were raped after their husbands fled to the mountains and the women stayed behind to look after young children or protect the house.
Kirsty Sword Gusmao, wife of independence leader Xanana Gusmao, is one of the few public figures in Timor to publicize the issue.
She has been campaigning on behalf of Juliana dos Santos, a young girl abducted by a militia leader and kept in West Timor, and has highlighted the issue of young girls becoming sex slaves -- or "militia mistresses" as they are called.
However, apart from Xanana, who condemned violence against Timorese women at the opening of a campaign against domestic violence late last year, none of the other independence leaders have acknowledged these women's social isolation and recovery as a major issue, say women activists.
Still, some women are putting their lives back together with the help of Etwave and Fokupers, which have been giving loans for the women to start small businesses.
If husbands have been supportive, some married women have been accepted by their communities. A few have even been brave enough to acknowledge that their babies are the result of militia rapes, says Olandina.
But young women find it extremely difficult to rebuild their lives even if they are accepted by their communities and families, says Azinia, who has counseled women in Suai and Maliana districts.
"They feel low and humiliated," she says, explaining that each one of the women she had counselled said they had no hope of ever marrying. Many had trouble focusing on their work or finding some way of supporting themselves, she adds.
Adding to the victims' sense of isolation is the lack of hope that their rapists will ever be prosecuted in either a Timorese court or an international war crimes court.
Quite a few, including Maria, have become cynical about the United Nations Transitional Authority in East Timor (UNTAET) and the police when they fail to see militia members arrested.
"No one, UNTAET or anybody, does anything to help me now. How can I support myself?" she asks, disappointed that reporting her rape twice to U.N. police did not lead to any prosecutions.
July 9, 2001 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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