Independent: Forgotten: The Child Refugees of W. Timor
The Independent [UK] 24 January 2000
Forgotten: the child refugees of West Timor
By Richard Lloyd Parry in West Timor, Indonesia
Apart from its size, and the driving rain and the mud bubbling on the ground around the huts, it takes a while to work out the most remarkable thing about the Tuapukan refugee camp in Indonesian West Timor. More than 12,000 people live in this camp a shanty town hastily improvised last September at the height of the violence in Timor. Some are painfully thin, most are grubby, and yesterday, as the tropical rain tumbled out of the sky, everyone not under shelter was soaked to the skin.
But the most striking thing is not the raggedness of the refugees, but their youth: Tuapukan is a refugee camp of children. Half of the population here is under 18, according to the UN High Commission for Refugees. And with the coming of the torrential rain season, conditions are, if anything, worse than when they were driven out of East Timor by theviolence that followed the referendum on independence.
"Every day, many of the people are dying from malaria, respiratory infections and acute gastro-intestinal diseases," says Arthur Howshen, a volunteer doctor. "There is also a lack of food, shortages of rice are common, and there are also a lot of children suffering from vitamin A deficiency."
This is just one of dozens of camps scattered across West Timor. Estimates of their populations vary from 50,000 to almost three times that number.
But the conflict that dispossessed these people officially ended with the dispatch last September of a 9,000-strong international peace-keeping force. Back in East Timor's capital, Dili, the painful job of reconstruction is beginning, and international concern has evaporated. Why are the camps of West Timor still teeming, and who is responsible for them? Nobody has a clear answer.
Undoubtedly, some of the people here will never return to East Timor, and by choice. Despite the manipulations of the Indonesian army, much of the violence against the East Timorese last September was perpetrated by their own people locally recruited soldiers and members of their tame militias. "I spoke to one guy and asked why he didn't want to go home," says John Battle, the British Foreign Office minister who visited Tuapukan last week. "He told me, 'I don't want to see people who know who I am and remember what I did'."
Militia members are still active. Refugees who want to leave are intimidated, or discouraged with ghastly tales of life in the East of hunger and terror, of rape and murder by the soldiers of Interfet, the multinational force.
Craig Sanders, the UNHCR chief in West Timor, said his staff have found themselves "standing between people who on the one side were threatening, were telling them to get out of the camps, and on the other side people begging to take them out of these places".
Much of the responsibility lies ultimately with the agency that allowed their dispossession in the first place the government of Jakarta. The local administration is doing little to repatriate the East Timorese, but it clearly does not want to make them feel too welcome. Hungry refugees are reported to have taken food from the fields of local farmers, creating the kind of tensions that have exploded into violence in other parts of Indonesia.
"People don't think of this as an emergency any more," says Mr Sanders. "But by the standards we apply of mortality rates, for instance that is exactly what it is."
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