Subject: SMH/ETimor: Saying it by numbers: Mummy, where are you?

Sydney Morning Herald March 8, 2000

Saying it by numbers: Mummy, where are you?

By MARK DODD, Herald Correspondent in Dili

They are the forgotten victims of the anti-independence violence which swept East Timor last September. Now their faces stare forlornly from the hundreds of polaroid snapshots lining the display board outside the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) tracing office in Dili.

They are the 440 children still separated from their parents during the orchestrated deportation of tens of thousands of East Timorese by Indonesian troops and their pro-Jakarta militia collaborators.

Reuniting the children living in refugee camps in West Timor with their parents in East Timor is painstakingly slow work, said Ms Barbara Jaeggi, the ICRC's Protection Delegate in charge of tracing.

"We've been working on it since the start of the operation. We are doing our best and we hope we can bring back the majority," Ms Jaeggi said.

The children vary in age from two years to 16. The first photograph in the ICRC's line-up is an 11-year-old girl, Eduarda Dias, from Manufahi, a south coast region previously under the control of the Mahidi (Life or Death) pro-integration militia.

Wearing a blue dress, Eduarda holds a large white card with the number 115.

The photos often convey a snapshot of the militia-run camps the children are living in.

There is a cheerless photograph of Carlos Soares, Number 524, from Manatuto, posing against a background of rickety bamboo structures built on arid bushland.

Ms Jaeggi said that so far 81 children had been reunited with their parents.

In West Timor most of the children are living with an extended family. The luckier ones are with relatives.

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) estimates that as many as 100,000 East Timorese remain in camps in Indonesian West Timor, the majority of them unable to exercise their right to leave because of continuing threats and other intimidation by Indonesian officials and militia.

Mr Soren Jessen-Petersen, Assistant High Commissioner for UNHCR, said on Monday that 50,000 or more refugees would probably like to return home "if they had a free choice".

A well-organised campaign of disinformation and intimidation that appeared to have a local element of official support remained the biggest problem preventing the return of refugees, Mr Jessen-Petersen said.

"As long as people are being kept in a situation where they have no access, or not enough access, to objective information, where they are constantly being pumped and pumped with misinformation, and at the same time clear intimidation and harassment, it is obvious this is the major obstacle," he said.

The UN released an example of the type of disinformation referred to by the UNHCR chief - a propaganda sheet bearing the misleading title "UNTAS Bulletin" and a symbol similar to that of the recently departed Interfet force. This item, widely distributed in camps across the border, claimed the August 30 UN referendum result was false.

"Saddening and disgraceful conditions continue to exist in East Timor. News from families in East Timor via the telephone consistently indicates that the situation there is of concern, with a rise in criminal activity and high despotism," it said.

The "UNTAS Bulletin" blamed a shooting incident involving Indonesian troops at the border town of Motaain on February 19 during a family reunion meeting on an attempt by UNHCR to kidnap local people.

Mr Jessen-Petersen blamed Indonesian authorities for prolonging the misery of refugees wanting to return to East Timor.

"The basic problem is, these people [militia] are allowed to do what they are doing. They are allowed to harass. They are allowed to intimidate. That is the issue," he said.

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