Subject: The AustralAsian: There's no place like home

The AutralAsian Sat - Sun, March 25 - 26, 2000

There's no place like home

Sebastiao do Rego was at the Dili harbour recently speaking to refugees returning from Indonesia-controlled West Timor.

DILI, East Timor -- Esperanto da Delve was beaming with a smile.

"Nothing better than coming home", he said.

Esperanto was among the 480 East Timorese returnees, from Indonesia-controlled West Timor, who arrived on March 15 in Dili harbour on board an IOM boat. They had spent seven months in refugee camps in West Timor.

The on-going repatriation is organised by both the IOM and UNHCR, with the help of other international organisations and humanitarian groups. Everyone is racing against time, trying to beat the March 31 deadline set by the Indonesians.

Jakarta recently announced that after March 31 the East Timorese refugees in West Timor will be cut off from all aid. Any of those still remaining after that date will have to become Indonesian citizens.

After the returnees were registered by UNHCR their baggage and belongings were inspected by Portuguese UN peacekeeping soldiers and Civpol. Both these groups are responsible for customs in transition East Timor.

Customs services are important because of the acute security problem here.

During customs inspections, knives were found among the baggage. The UNPK soldiers and Civpol instructed all the returnees to leave their sharp tools in a large box so that there were no misunderstandings.

Security was tightened because on March 9 a boat carrying 386 East Timorese home from Kupang was also found to be carrying two hand grenades, three air-guns, several packets of airgun pellets and a couple of bayonets -- hidden among the returnees' baggage. Four people were detained for questioning by Civpol.

Commenting on the March 15 returnees, IOM officer David John said: "It's a big mixture of returnees on the ship from different districts such as Lospalos, Same, and Viqueque, who were then taken to the transit center (in Tasi Tolu) to be registered by UNHCR. Then they will be taken to a safe haven."

"In the early morning , they will be taken back to their homes," he added.

Jose Maria, 30, from Lospalos recalled the militia intimidation in the refugee camps.

"I'm very happy to be back in Timor Lorosae. It was horrible in the refugee camp where we were. We were threatened if we tried to register our name to come back home," he said.

Jose said there was a concerted campaign of misinformation carried out by the militias in the camps.

"They told us we will be separated from our families once we reached Dili. Also they warned us we would be beaten up badly when we went back home."

He looked relieved when he said: "Of course that is untrue when I reached Dili."

"We are now welcomed by UN officers."

Esperansa da Silva, 23, said that she didn't care about what the militias were saying in the refugee camps.

"I didn't really care because the only thing I wanted was just to come back home and now I'm very happy."

She also said that she had news from East Timor when her father sent her a letter asking her to come back.

Outside Dili harbour hundreds of Timorese had gathered, some to welcome the returnees while the rest to try to identify any militia members or their family members among the refugees.

Sonny Inbaraj and Ilana Eldridge The AustralAsian **************************************************************************** Support the Asia-Pacific Support Collective for the reconstruction of East Timor and democratic initiatives in West Papua, Aceh and Burma. For more details contact ****************************************************************************

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