Subject: East Timorese refugees screened before boarding boat home

East Timorese refugees screened before boarding boat home

JAKARTA, Nov 20 (AFP) - East Timorese refugee soldiers and their families are preparing to begin the journey back to their devastated homeland, an official coordinating the repatriation said.

A boat chartered by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), the Patricia Anne Hutong, had docked at the port of Kupang, West Timor's capital, and was waiting Monday to collect the former soldiers and their families -- about 450 people, the IOM's Chris Lom said.

The 55 soldiers, who held low, auxiliary ranks in the Indonesian armed forces (TNI), were among the hundreds of thousands of East Timorese who left or were forced from their homes as a wave of killing and destruction swept the territory last year after its vote for independence from Indonesia.

The TNI and the anti-independence militias they nutured are blamed for the carnage and destruction.

The armed forces, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have been planning for several months the repatriation of these soldiers, whose role in the violence is unknown, but security threats to UN staff had delayed the operation until this week.

UNHCR staff were screening the returnees at a processing center in Kupang to check that they were returning voluntarily and to assess the possibility of reconciliation-related problems on their return.

"The most important part is to ensure that if they think they may have a problem in their village, they will tell us," Lom told AFP by phone from Kupang.

There had been "serious consequences" when past returnees had failed to inform refugee workers in advance of potential conflicts with their fellow villagers back in East Timor, Lom said.

"People have hidden their fears and problems have arisen precisely because they didn't tell us.

"Maybe they thought they could get away with it or they thought they wouldn't get back if they admitted to the likelihood of there being a problem," he said.

The boat is due to leave Kupang tomorrow and arrive in East Timor's eastern port of Com on Wednesday, from where the returnees will be transported to their homes in the eastern districts of Los Palos and Viqueque.

The TNI had paid the retiring military personnel one-third of their pensions and would hand out the remaining two-thirds after they had boarded the boat, Lom said.

"They're getting a third of their pension in advance so they can buy stuff to re-build.

"One of the major concerns is that things are more expensive in East Timor, so people will try to stock up on essentials here to restart their lives," Lom said.

The UNHCR has told the returnees they cannot bring their cars on board, but Lom says there would be room for motorbikes and "anything they can carry up gang plank themselves."

The operation is the first major repatriation of refugees since the killing of three UN workers in the border town of Atambua on September 6 brought to a halt internationally-assisted operations in the region.

Lom said the TNI was directing the Kupang leg of repatriation process like "a military operation."

"Several colonels are walking around and various military officers are giving them pep talks. They're obviously still under military discipline, so it's hard to tell what they're feeling," he said.

"It's difficult to tell whether they would have many options other than to go back."

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