Subject: Transcript: Militia campaign pressures E Timorese to stay in camps

Australian Broadcasting Corporation Transcript 7:30 News Report 19/01/00

Militia campaign pressures East Timorese to stay in camps

MAXINE McKEW: Yesterday, Australian peacekeeping troops in the East Timorese enclave of Oecussi clashed three times with militia groups who had entered from Indonesian territory.

The attacks highlight the level of militia activity in West Timor.

One of the most disturbing aspects is the continued intimidation of the thousands of East Timorese refugees still languishing in squalid conditions in camps in West Timor, where disease and malnutrition are rife.

Whilst the UN attempts to convince the refugees that it is safe to return home, the militias are waging a powerful campaign of threats and propaganda to keep the refugees in the camps.

ABC Indonesia correspondent Mark Bowling reports.

MARK BOWLING: This has become a daily ritual.

50-year-old Isabella Asensau died after a respiratory infection.

Another victim of the squalid conditions in refugee camps inside West Timor.


We already have very high mortality rates and some camps are already in a state of emergency by UNHCR standards.

MARK BOWLING: This infant should not have died after a bout of diarrhoea.

A solution of water, sugar and salt could have been enough to save her life.

But now the mother and family of baby Asila Dos Santos can only mourn.

CRAIG SAUNDERS, UNHCR, WEST TIMOR: It's distressing to see this, to be watching what's happening here.

We are trying to tackle these problems the best way we can.

We do continue to have some difficulties in, at times, getting access to areas.

MARK BOWLING: As an international aid worker, Craig Saunders has already witnessed the depths of human suffering.

But dealing with the refugee crisis in West Timor is as urgent and difficult as any he's experienced.

There are 200 makeshift camps, many of them scattered close to the border with East Timor.

At the height of the tropical wet season, conditions are ideal for the rapid spread of disease like malaria.

Disease has claimed more than 400 lives in the four months since these East Timorese fled their homeland.

The latest nutrition study shows 24 per cent of all refugees suffering acute malnutrition.

CRAIG SAUNDERS: These are not Club Med conditions.

People are living under very, very difficult, precarious conditions.

The water supply, at times, is precarious.

It's tankered in by trucks.

The sanitation is far from adequate -- with the rains, there are serious problems of drainage.

So we don't believe that they're staying behind because they're getting a better deal.

MARK BOWLING: The Pires family is finally on the move.

Gathering all possessions, they're preparing to return to East Timor.

But it's not a day of celebration.

They've been warned not to leave.

Militiamen still intimidate these simple village people.

They are no longer in uniform, but their cold stares and unspoken threats are obvious.

A United Nations convoy arrives to pick up any refugees brave enough to go home.

In this family, it's only the women and children who are going home.

Hermin, the father, is staying behind.

He says there's business to attend to and will follow soon.

But, more likely, his decision has been influenced by the militias.

The United Nations has made every effort to get refugees across the border.

Already 130,000 have made the trip by land, sea, or air.

Here at Motain, the flow across the border has now slowed to a trickle.

Australian soldiers are among those searching the new arrivals for weapons.

SOLDIER: Turn around, please.

MARK BOWLING: There are no security hitches on this convoy and there's a belief that life on the Pires family's small farm can begin again.

TRANSLATION OF LORENZA PIRES: I got information from my family in East Timor that it's safe, now and forever.

MARK BOWLING: But convincing the tens of thousands who remain in camps that there's a better life in a new, independent East Timor is proving a difficult task.

Here, about 20 kilometres from West Timor's capital, Kupang, members of the feared Mahidi militia still hold sway.

Even though their group has officially been disbanded, they still train together.

While his men languish in a refugee camp, Mahidi leader Cansio -- one of the most feared militia commanders -- enjoys the relative comfort of a small hotel.

According to Cansio, the battle for East Timor is over.

He speaks of reconciliation and still believes he could be accepted back in East Timor.

And if you can believe him, there's no intimidation going on in the camps.

TRANSLATION OF CANSIO, MAHIDI MILITIA LEADER: We encourage them to go home, those who want to go home -- please go.

Not all of the militia groups are trying to stop people leaving for East Timor.

MARK BOWLING: But other militia leaders are waging a very deliberate fear campaign to keep refugees in West Timor's camps.

The most recent claims are that women who return will be raped by Australian soldiers.

CRAIG SAUNDERS: They're sowing all sorts of doubts.

They're spreading stories about what happens to people when they arrive in East Timor -- separations, some of them are fairly outrageous allegations, killings and this sort of thing.

MARK BOWLING: Food supplement programs target the most vulnerable refugees -- the children.

But the only long-term solution to better health is moving people out of these camps.

International aid workers are increasingly getting entangled in the subtle cross-border politics.

DR ARTHUR JAUCIAN: There is definitely a battle for the hearts of the people here.

Many of the women would like to go back, but the militias are trying to stop them from going back to East Timor.

MARK BOWLING: It's almost certain that despite the best international efforts there will be more tragedy, more deaths in these camps and if security doesn't improve, then all international aid workers will be moved out.

The United Nations already has an evacuation plan in place.

Aid workers don't want to abandon their life-saving projects, but they may be forced to.

CRAIG SAUNDERS: Our staff, on many occasions, have been involved in incidents involving knives, guns, grenades, rocks, physical assault, verbal threats.

Our staff have really been out there on the ragged edge of this operation.

MARK BOWLING: Even if the international staff stay, the refugees must prepare for more upheaval, more danger.

The Indonesian Government has set 31 March as the deadline for refugees to decide whether they stay -- as Indonesians -- or return to their homeland.

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