Scotsman: Fear for Future Keeps Refugees in Squalid Exile
The Scotsman Publications Ltd. Scotland on Sunday
February 6, 2000, Sunday FEAR FOR FUTURE KEEPS REFUGEES IN SQUALID EXILE
By Joanna Jolly In Tuapukan, W Timor
A SHORT drive from West Timor's capital, Kupang, the concrete road forks down a mud path to the bamboo and blue plastic shelters of a makeshift camp for more than 20,000 East Timorese refugees.
Originally set up as a interim holding post for some of the estimated 250,000 people forcibly deported from East Timor last year, the camp at Tuapukan is beginning to look like a permanent shanty town as refugees settle into life in exile, planting crops and setting up small businesses.
Security is extremely tight.
Following an incident two weeks ago, when Philip Sherwell and Julian Simmonds, of the Sunday Telegraph were beaten up by militia, journalists have to report to the co-ordinating office before entering the camp. Visitors cannot walk around alone but have to be escorted by armed soldiers wearing Indonesian military uniforms with their names and insignia removed.
The co-ordinating office says that to date, between 2,000 and 3,000 refugees from the camp have returned to East Timor. The 22,042 who remain are not rushing to register for repatriation.
"We are not sure how many will stay here, they change their minds quite often," says co-ordinating officer Max Adoe. "The situation in East Timor is not really safe."
There are still an estimated 120,000 refugees in West Timor, concentrated in camps around Kupang and the border towns of Kefa, Betun and Atambua.
Most arrived in October after been forced from their homes by the pro-Jakarta militias and the Indonesian army, packed into trucks, ships and aircraft with few possessions after their houses were burned around them.
More than any other camp in West Timor, Tuapukan holds the largest number of pro-Jakarta militias and East Timorese members of the Indonesian military, responsible for some of the worst acts of violence and destruction after the United Nations-sponsored ballot last August.
Following a pro-autonomy congress in Kupang two weeks ago, the leaders of the political wing of the militia say they have denounced armed struggle and are urging those directly involved in last year's violence to disarm.
However, with the naming of militia leaders and Indonesia military officers in an Indonesian report on human rights abuses in East Timor, human rights officials are concerned the leadership of Tuapukan camp may become more hardline. According to the head of UNHCR in West Timor, Craig Sanders, although the security situation has improved in all the West Timorese refugee camps over the past few months, there are still incidents of intimidation by militia against the refugees in Tuapukan.
The presence of refugees in West Timor provides legitimacy to those militia and pro-autonomy leaders who claim they still have a strong support base.
Following the pro-autonomy congress, militia leader Eurico Guterres visited the camp and ordered refugees not to leave. The refugees are repeatedly told that if they return to East Timor, they will be killed by the international peacekeeping force, Interfet.
These stories are backed up by reports in the local paper describing Interfet soldiers raping East Timorese women and killing suspected militia members. To counter these threats, the UNHCR runs an information programme aimed at providing information about the reality of life in the newly-independent East Timor.
Officials have begun to video returning refugees who tell their stories and describe the situation in their home towns. These are shown regularly on television in the camp and are backed up by newsletters and radio programmes explaining shelter, farming and humanitarian programmes.
But for the moment, the information programme has little effect against the direct threats and misinformation campaign conducted by the militias to keep control of the refugees.
Officials say that it will be some time before the atmosphere in the camp relaxes enough to give the refugees the freedom to decide whether they want to return to East Timor.
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