Subject: Age: Refugee tide runs back to East Timor

The Age July 27, 2001

Refugee tide runs back to East Timor


In what will probably be the last refugee repatriation voyage, 179 East Timorese boarded the Patricia Anne Hotung this week homeward bound for Dili and a fresh start.

The former Australian Navy ship turned refugee carrier has plodded up and down the coast for more than 18 months assisting almost 10,000 East Timorese to escape the squalor and oppression of militia-controlled camps in and around Kupang in West Timor.

Perhaps 85,000 East Timorese remain in West Timor. Nobody really knows. Privately, senior officials from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees say they believe the real number to be closer to 60,000.

But on one critical issue there is agreement. The East Timor refugee crisis is heading for resolution and the losers will be the militia leaders who helped orchestrate the crisis in the first place.

According to the UNHCR and its partner agency, the International Organisation for Migration, the Indonesian Government will soon offer the East Timorese a choice to go home or resettle on other islands.

The UNHCR and the UN Development Program are already involved in a planning mission with Jakarta to resettle the refugees on Sumba, one of Indonesia's eastern islands.

"The message of the Indonesian Government to the refugees is, `you cannot stay in West Timor. You can be Indonesian and we love you for that, but you cannot stay in West Timor'," said Iain Hall, UNHCR's senior field officer in Dili.

He said the local government in West Timor had made clear that it could not absorb the refugees except for about 6000 people.

Indonesian authorities are also getting fed up with the cost of looking after their often ungrateful guests. In an incident in January, refugees resettled at Salamu just outside Kupang began burning down their homes in protest at poor living conditions. According to UNHCR officials, complaints about the East Timorese are common by the Indonesian Government taskforce in charge of refugees.

From the Governor, Piet Tallo, down to senior army and police officers, Indonesians are, in the words of the bishop of Atambua, "getting fed up with the refugees".

There is also strong evidence of a change in attitude towards the militias.

High-ranking Indonesian police sources in Kupang have confirmed the arrest of Igidio Mnanek, the leader of the Laksaur militia. They say Mr Mnanek, who kidnapped an East Timorese teenage girl as a war prize in 1999, has been brought to Kupang.

There are other signs that security forces are being more assertive in taking control of the refugee camps. Gone are the militia goons who used to enter the Fatululi refugee transit centre outside Kupang with impunity.

Much of the credit for improved security goes to the new Indonesian commander for the eastern islands, Major-General Willem da Costa, whose father was born in East Timor.

Reconciliation talks between East Timor independence leader Jose "Xanana" Gusmao, and the leader of the Mahidi militia, Cancio Lopes de Carvalho, could result in Mr Carvalho returning next month along with 10,000 supporters, Mr Hall said.

However, Mr Carvalho would almost certainly face arrest on war crimes charges for violence committed after the 1999 vote to end Indonesian rule.

With aid supplies drying up, a steady trickle of refugees returning home and resettlement on a remote eastern island as the only reward for carrying the lost cause of Indonesian rule, there appears to be a new willingness by militia leaders to negotiate.

"Hard-liners are becoming more moderate and the moderates are now talking about returning," said Mr Hall.

One option to encourage the return of East Timorese could be for donor funds to be allocated specifically for the fast-track development of communities whose residents were in West Timor, he said.

Some of those still in the camps are former civil servants, soldiers and police, waiting for their Indonesian pension pay-outs. So far only 600 out of an estimated 2014 former soldiers have returned home with their pensions paid.

The new nation of East Timor could put to good use the skills of former Indonesian-trained civil servants. But the cost to entice all 20,000 back is likely to be in the vicinity of $20 million if Jakarta continues to stall on their payments.

Farewells at Kupang port are still intense reminders of families split apart and this week's was no different.

Clutching their ID papers, a husband and wife checked through the gates, their eyes streaming with tears. "Don't cry mama, we're going home," said one of their children.

A police officer gave a tearful hug to departing family members before rejoining his guard post at the port gate.

Captain Camilho, of Battalion 743, spoke soothingly to distressed relatives on board the Patricia Anne Hotung, as he helped them load their luggage. He has been dockside for many of the repatriation trips from Kupang.

The time came for the gangplank to be lifted and he prepared to leave, but not before standing to attention and snapping a crisp salute. His eyes were red and his expression was deeply pained. [This message was distributed via the east-timor news list.]

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