Subject: JP: E. Timor Refugee Disaster Looms As Aid Deadline Nears

Jakarta Post March 27, 2000

E. Timor refugee disaster looms as aid deadline nears

By Fabiola Desy Unidjaja

ATTAMBUA, East Nusa Tenggara (JP): A colossal humanitarian disaster involving 100,000 refugees is looming as the March 31 aid cutoff date approaches for those East Timorese remaining in Indonesia.

The Indonesian government has set the deadline for the refugees to choose whether they wish to remain Indonesian citizens or be forcibly repatriated to East Timor.

More importantly, on that date the government will also stop giving humanitarian aid to East Timorese refugee camps.

The decision is a reasonable one for the government, who, faced with limited resources, cannot support these refugees for an indeterminate length of time while there are also another 400,000 refugees from various other conflicts across the country who need attention.

While there are numerous international agencies who are assisting East Timorese refugees, local officials have pointed out that their combined assistance accounts for less than one-tenth of the daily cost of supporting the refugees. The rest of the burden is shouldered by the Indonesian government.

The immediate choice facing the refugees is daunting.

If they choose Indonesian citizenship, they will be moved to another part of the country, away from their customary environment to one that is totally alien.

But if they choose to return to East Timor, they will face uncertainty and the possibility of terror.

Those wishing to return are haunted by reports of insecurity in East Timor, while the repatriation program itself seems to be moving very slowly.

They are now faced with the threat of not receiving food aid once the deadline has passed.

A project officer from international nongovernmental organization (NGO) Care International has warned of disaster if the government cuts its aid.

"If the government stops aid these refugees will die, it's as simple as that," said the aid worker, who asked not to be named, recently.

Each refugee currently receives Rp 1,500 and 400 grams of rice per day from the Indonesian government. It is distributed monthly by the local social services agency.

Children under five years old and pregnant women may claim additional daily food.

The government also takes care of clean water supplies, medicines, sanitation facilities and building materials for the some 20 camps across the province.


East Nusa Tenggara Vice Governor Johanes Pake Pani said the cutoff date was not due to a lack of compassion, but was rather down to plain financial concerns, as the refugees were a huge burden for the local administration.

"Almost 80 percent of the people (in the province) are already poor, and yet for over six months we have had to take care of these refugees. We cannot afford it anymore," he told The Jakarta Post.

Pani pointed out that the administration would like to help but it had already allocated much of its own budget for the refugees.

Indonesia has allocated US$40 million in its state budget for refugees across the country, not just in East Nusa Tenggara. Coordinating Minister of People's Welfare and Poverty Eradication Basri Hassanudin estimates that $110 million is needed.

Vice Governor Pani noted that international agencies provide some basic necessities but he said foreign assistance in total currently contributed to less than 10 percent of the assistance provided to East Timor refugees.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) officer in Kupang, East Nusa Tenggara's provincial capital, Craig Sanders said the UN simply did not have the resources to further expand assistance.

"We should have no illusions that the UN has the resources and the money to help finance these people alone," Craig said, stressing that the refugees were the responsibility of the Indonesian government.

He conceded that the UN was aware of the potential of increased mortality and disease rates and of the social tragedy that may occur if the deadline was imposed.

The UN cannot do much about it, he remarked.

Even with current combined efforts, over 530 refugees have died in the camps in the last six months, most from diarrhea and as a result of respiratory problems.

Comments from UN officials seem aimed at washing the institution of responsibility and leaving the bulk of the burden on the Indonesian government.

A senior humanitarian affairs officer from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) in Kupang, Enayet Madani, told the Post that the UN were here to assist the Indonesian government in the refugees problem, not to be responsible for it.

"The UN stance is clear -- we are not going to take over the responsibility from the government," Madani said.

Negotiations are said to be underway in Jakarta on extending the deadline. However with less than a week to go the situation looks bleak.

Refugees who spoke to the Post seemed distressed at the prospect facing them and clueless as to what to do about it.

A refugee in the Haliwen camp near Attambua remarked that even with the assistance currently received many people were still going hungry. It is difficult to imagine what it would be like if the aid is officially stopped.

"Only (refugees who are) former military officials and civil servants have enough food because they also receive salaries and rice subsidies from their jobs, while the ordinary refugees rely on the food aid," Josinto, 36, said.


Sinda Araujo, another refugee in Haliwen, said food assistance was the only means of sustaining survival. The 35-year-old woman from Maliana said she had also been in this situation before.

In 1975 she and her parents were forced to flee to West Timor during the violence after the Portuguese left the territory.

Now she has found herself again in a refugee camp.

She says she wants to stay in Indonesia because her husband was shot during the postballot mayhem and her two brothers were murdered two weeks ago after they had arrived in East Timor.

Lusi Alberto, 29, said she and her husband had yet to decide on their future despite the fast-approaching deadline.

"I don't know what to do, but I still believe something can be done if we try," she said.

Some are choosing to ignore the issue.

Olandina Da Silva Ximenes, 45, who stays in Toapukan camp, Kupang regency, said she knew of the deadline but was not taking it seriously.

"I still believe the Indonesian government will not leave us to die in this place," she said.

A widow with five children, Olandina said her husband was a military officer and killed during the postballot mayhem.

Olandina, who lives with her two teenage daughters in the camp, said her three sons had gone to Dili and warned her not to return.

"Everything I own there -- my house, my crops -- has been taken away by the CNRT and nobody seems to be responsible for our security there," Olandina told the Post in the camp located around 15 kilometers from Kupang.

The CNRT is the Proindependence Council for East Timor Resistance.

Another refugee in the same camp, Jorge Mau Das, 36, said he wanted to go back but feared for his family's security.

"I want to go back but I can't now. I have to wait for the sake of my family," he said with an empty look in his eyes.

Jorge said that he favored East Timorese independence and had voted to reject Indonesia's offer for wide-ranging autonomy in the Aug. 30 ballot.

He is listed as among those who would like to remain Indonesian and join the transmigration program with the hope of someday returning to East Timor.

"I choose freedom because I wanted to be led by my own people. Now white people have taken control there," he said.

One of those who is registered to be repatriated to East Timor is Oline Da Sil.

"I want to go back home and I have already registered but I don't know when those people will send me back," said the widow, who makes extra money by selling vegetables she buys from a nearby market to fellow refugees. (dja)

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