Subject: Independent/E Timor: Bring Our People Back Home

The Independent [London] 9 January 2000

Bring our people back home

Violence in East Timor drove a quarter of a million across the border. Tens of thousands are still there ­ and the world's newest nation needs them back, reports Richard Lloyd Parry

Xanana Gusmao, leader of East Timor's Falintil guerrilla army that fought Indonesian occupation, once said: "East Timor's greatest natural resource is its people." But at the moment when the country needs it most, even that one resource is seriously, and mysteriously, depleted.

Four months after being driven from their homes by the combined activities of the Indonesian army and its militias, tens of thousands of East Timorese are missing, their number ­ and even their exact whereabouts ­ only vaguely known.

In the capital, Dili, the United Nations and dozens of private NGOs (non-governmental organ- isations) are struggling to create the beginnings of an independent state out of the rubble left by the Indonesians. Nestled in the obscure depths of South-east Asia, cut off from the world's great trading routes, East Timor, has nothing very obvious to offer to the rest of the world. Coffee and sandalwood are its only export products. There is some oil off its south coast, but it may not be worth the cost of extracting it.

So the fundamental fact is this: the world's newest nation needs its people But the financial and organisational might of the UN and all the NGOs has so far proved incapable of returning the victims of September's violence to their homes.

For some of the missing it is clear that there will be no homecoming. UN police in Dili have already catalogued more than 1,650 murders ­ no doubt as many victims again lie undiscovered in mass graves or out in the open, where the heat and insects of the jungle will quickly digest them. But the majority of the missing, perhaps one in eight East Timorese, are frustratingly close at hand, living as refugees in Indonesian West Timor.

The UN knows that they are there. The Indonesian government knows that they are there. So why do they remain there, in conditions of filth, disease and fear? "In Rwanda in one week they saved one million people," Monsignor Carlos Belo, the Nobel Prize-winning Bishop of Dili said last week. "Why here after months are there still more than 100,000 refugees in West Timor?"

Even that number, like most facts about the refugees, is uncertain ­ the International Committee of the Red Cross reckons no more than 50,000 refugees remain outside East Timor. The Indonesian government claims that the number is 70,000; unofficial estimates put it as high as 170,000. The truth is that nobody knows, and it is in that ignorance that the danger lies.

When 250,000 people poured over the border into West Timor in September last year, they came so suddenly and in such large numbers that their whereabouts were obvious. Some were refugees, fleeing the violence engineered by the Indonesian army after the overwhelming vote for independence in August's UN-run referendum. But many were deportees, forcibly herded into trucks and ships, in a final attempt to frustrate the independence movement.

Until the Indonesian parliament ratified East Timor's independence in October, aid workers who tried to reach the refugees ran the risk of violent attack from the militia men running the makeshift camps. But many of the militias, urged by their former military masters, have disbanded and the refugees have become more dispersed and harder to monitor.

"The places that remain are nothing like the classic, large-scale, well-organised refugee camps that you might see in Africa," says Henk van Goedhen of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

A few people are living with relatives or in local homes, but most are in a variety of camps, all of them hastily improvised with no time for installing proper sanitation or shelter. After four months, conditions are wretched. "That as much as one-fourth of the children are acutely malnourished is an alarming situation and warrants immediate remedial action," said Unicef, the UN Children's Fund, in a report on camps in West Timor's Belu district last week.

Partly the problem is diplomatic. The Indonesian government, which remains officially responsible for the refugees, has been humiliated enough by the horrors of the last few months ­ aid workers are reluctant to chide it further for the lamentable organisation of the camps. Among those who remain there are certainly some who have no intention of returning to East Timor ­ former militia members, locally recruited policemen, soldiers, civil servants and their families, who fear revenge attacks.

Others may feel that even a tenuous existence on irregular aid hand-outs is still better than life in the ruins of East Timor. And many have no doubt been dissuaded by the virulent propaganda put out by the militias.

"People were told that the multinational soldiers were raping women, that people were being arrested when they crossed the border," says Mr van Goedhen. To counter that, the UNHCR has toured the camps showing films of messages from returned refugees as well as leaders like Bishop Belo. "But there's no doubt that a lot of militia influence remains and that, when we're not around, a lot of nasty intimidation goes on," said one aid official.

The suspicion remains that, having resolved the issue of the country's independence, the world is failing to follow through in helping the refugees of East Timor. Already, attention is beginning to shift elsewhere, to focus on the Spice Islands, where the worsening conflict between Christians and Muslims, is creating a new humanitarian disaster.

"Why are they always asking the bishop to write letters, to make films?" Monsignor Belo asked last week.

"Is the bishop more powerful than the United Nations?"

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