Subject: Transcript: Disease continues to take its toll on refugees in W Timor

Australian Broadcasting Corporation The World Today - transcript Monday, January 24, 2000 12:17 p.m.

Disease continues to take its toll on refugees in W Timor

JOHN HIGHFIELD: Well, it's one thing for our troops [see following report], another altogether for the displaced people of East Timor. Over in West Timor, more than 100,000 refugees who fled across the border from East Timor continue to live in makeshift camps, relying on international aid efforts for their survival. There's now a serious escalation in the rate of sickness and disease for them, and the latest figures show that more than 400 people have died as the wet seasons continues.

Our Indonesia correspondent, Mark Bowling, reports there appears to be no easy solution to the crisis for the refugees, especially when a campaign of fear and intimidation by pro-Jakarta militias has reduced the number of those displaced people returning to East Timor to no more than a trickle.

MARK BOWLING: Asilla dos Santos lies in a tiny wooden coffin surrounded by candles and grieving family. She was one-year-old and died after a bout of diarrhoea. A solution of water, sugar and salt could have been enough to save her life - another victim of the squalid conditions in refugee camps inside West Timor.

With the daily downpours which come with the tropical wet season, East Timor's refugees are living in mud, sheltering under orange tarpaulins and in cramped huts, its fear and sickness preventing many from returning home.

Arthur Howshen, a volunteer doctor, says there's already a crisis:

ARTHUR HOWSHEN: The condition in the camp is definitely deplorable. Every day many of the people are dying from malaria, respiratory infections and acute gastrointestinal diseases. There's also a lot of food shortages, of rice, is common and there's also a lot of children suffering from vitamin A deficiency.

MARK BOWLING: The pro-Jakarta militias whose reign of terror forced the exodus into West Timor in the first place are now officially disbanded, their weapons seized. But in the camps they've carried out further acts of violence and intimidation, and there are those among them like Vabonus Ousa, a former commander with the Besih Merah Putih, the feared militia group, who still dream of the day when they will lead these refugees back across the border. But the time is not yet right. "We want to prepare for it," he says, "but as long as there is no order in East Timor, we won't go back."

The Indonesian Government says it will close the border to refugees two months from now. It wants those in the camps to decide their future and move on. But with the deadly militias involved, many are not prepared to return to East Timor. The militias have stepped up a propaganda campaign to scare the refugees. There are stories of human rights atrocities committed by Australian Interfet troops. Meanwhile in the camps, militia men harass aid workers, and shortly after the delivery of food and supplies, they move in to control distribution.

International aid workers have been attacked, and according to Craig Sanders from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, conditions are getting more dangerous.

CRAIG SANDERS: Our staff on many occasions have been involved in incidents involving knives, guns, grenades, rocks, physical assault and verbal threats. Our staff have really been out there on the ragged edge of this operation, and they've found themselves on many occasions standing between people who on the one side were threatening them, were telling them to get out of the camps, and on the other side people begging to take them out of these places.

MARK BOWLING: Despite the worsening security situation, international aid workers don't want to leave. They don't want to abandon essential food and health programs, and they're aware that to pull out now could result in a sharp escalation of the crisis.

This is Mark Bowling in Atambua, West Timor, for The World Today.

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