Subject: Age: Fear Rules Journey Home For E Timorese

The Age [Melbourne] Saturday 22 January 2000

Fear rules journey home


Natalia Guterres, her husband and their five children were among about 100 refugees who braved threats and found a way out of the tightly-controlled Tuapuakan refugee camp last week.

It was a significant breakthrough for a camp described by a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) official as one of the last bastions of total militia control over the refugees in West Timor.

Since Mrs Guterres and her family were forced out of their native Los Palos in East Timor last September, after the Indonesian military-orchestrated wave of destruction, they have had little contact with the outside world except for occasional visits of UNHCR and the International Office of Migration.

"We decided to go back home on 11 December but we were threatened by the militia," Mrs Guterres said. She made the break and headed out of the camp to UNHCR transit centre in Fululi, Kupang. But she was still not immune from intimidation.

Two members of Alpa militia arrived at the transit centre shouting abuse at the group from Tuapuakan camp. "You will be killed in Dili," they shouted. "You will never make it back home."

Mrs Guterres responded: "I don't care. At least I will die in my homeland."

The Alpa militia group (also from Los Palos) controls almost everything inside the camp, including security, food distribution and information, according to Indonesian-born Dr Januar Achmad, a public health specialist. Last October, their reign of terror turned Tuapuakan into a no-go area for Caucasians, including aid workers, the media and UN officials. Only a few weeks ago Dr Ida Qareen, a UNHCR field worker from Iraq, was chased by a machete-wielding militiaman, one of a series of attacks on aid workers in Timor refugee camps last year.

The militias have used the razor-sharp machete in Timor to slash, mutilate and hack to death suspected independence supporters.

The UNHCR's public information officer in Kupang, Mr Yusuf Hassan, said that at the time of that incident, the militias also threatened to stop the aid organisation from showing a video about life in East Timor, warning that its equipment would be smashed. About 20 Indonesian soldiers were standing nearby, but did nothing. In December, the UNHCR withdrew all activity in the camp until it received guarantees of security.

About 130,000 refugees have returned from the West Timor camps out of a total exodus to West Timor, based on UNHCR figures, of at least 250,000.

After receiving fresh guarantees for their security, UNHCR officials returned to Tuapuakan camp about two weeks ago, noting that the atmosphere had improved.

But Mr Armin Navarro, from the migration office, said most refugees were still afraid to openly register for repatriation, even if they had decided to go home. "They don't want to be identified in the Tuapuakan camp. They are nervous about being watched. Many of them secretly get out of the camp and then telephone us from a church."

The repatriation flow is also hostage to rumors and disinformation. Mrs Guterres had been told inside the camp that after arriving in Dili, the women would be separated from the men and the women would be raped.

This has prompted the UNHCR to launch a public information campaign. Indonesian journalists from the Kupang media have been provided UN-sponsored trips to Dili to see for themselves and interview key people.

Photos of refugees who have safely return to their homes in East Timor are displayed on the camp notice board. Videos are also being shown of refugees who have successfully returned home.

The deputy chief of UNHCR in Kupang, Mr Craig Sanders, said the atmosphere has been slowly changing, even in the hardline camps. The overt intimidation by the militias has stopped. But there is still an all-pervasive fear - only it is more subtle.

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