Subject: JRS: The journey home to East Timor: Repatriation from West Timor

Source: Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) 
Date: 23 Jul 2002 East Timor alert 23 Jul 2002

The journey home to East Timor: Repatriation from West Timor

On 22 July more than a thousand East Timor refugees set off on their journey to cross the border from West Timor and return home. JRS in West Timor reports that there were 47 returnees from Kupang, 84 from Soe, 5 from Kefa, and hundreds from Atambua. The returnees from Kupang had a long journey to make: firstly they went to Atambua the day before, stayed overnight in the cold air before being delivered to the border with hundreds of other returnees. "You are just about to move your bedroom. Last night you still slept in camps. Tonight you will sleep in your home country," an Indonesian military commander told the hundreds of assembled returnees. At 9.30 a.m. hundreds of vehicles loaded the returnees and their belongings and began the journey towards the border.

It has been nearly three years now since the mass exit from East to West Timor - a population movement sparked by violence and large-scale destruction during and after a traumatic vote for independence in East Timor in August 1999. While the majority of the refugees have since returned home, thousands still remain in the camps in West Timor. Since the beginning of 2002, the number of people returning home to East Timor has increased substantially. This has been due in part to the desire to return home for the recent presidential elections and the celebration of Independence. However, since January 2002, the government of Indonesia has cut humanitarian assistance to East Timor refugees, thus adding a further incentive to return.

"When did you dismantle your place in the camp?" a JRS staff member asked a female returnee from Atambua camp.

"Yesterday," she answered shortly.

"At what time did they pick you up?"

"Early dawn, at about three?"

"Where did you sleep then last night?"

"We didn't sleep at all. We just sat, waiting for the truck to take us to the border," she explained.

JRS joined one of the buses and was surprised to find only one family, a mother with three children, on board. A JRS staff member asked the mother about her reasons for going home.

"Life is getting more difficult here. I could hardly support my four children. I could get vegetables or food easily from my garden in East Timor, but here, I couldn't find any for free. Everything has to be paid for. This land doesn't belong to us, East Timorese," she replied in a plain manner.

Nurlela had been living in Lakafehan camp since 10 September 1999 with her four children - her husband died due to illness. She relied on government food assistance to sustain her family, but since the government stopped the assistance she started selling fish at the market.

"I usually got 15 to 20 thousand rupiah per day for the fish, but not every day. I have to support four children, pay their school fees, transportation, monthly payment for electricity," she said. She was carrying her baby - not more than a year old. Her eldest son kept an eye on their belonging in the truck and on the other two younger children. When we passed through Lakafehan camp, they waved their hands at some people they knew. Nurlela shed a few tears.

"Why did you leave the camp and return to East Timor?" JRS asked one of Nurlela's children, Dewi Ratnasari (10).

"Because they want us to leave. If we stay, they will shoot us" she said.

"Who said that? Did you hear that yourself?" JRS asked again. She smiled her uncertain answer.

"We were asked to gather on Thursday night, and were asked to leave the camp. They talked a lot, but I didn't understand what they were talking about," Rudy (15), the second son of Nurlela said.

"Now, only a few refugees stay there," he said while waving his hands and calling out the names of his friends in the camp in Lakafehan.

When we reached the border town, there were already around 80 people crossing the frontier. JRS delivered lunch packages to all the returnees and accompanied three mothers with their new-born babies, one pregnant mother, and a very old couple to the junction point where a doctor from IOM had been waiting for them


Back to July menu

Main Postings Menu

Note: For those who would like to fax "the powers that be" - CallCenter is a Native 32-bit Voice Telephony software application integrated with fax and data communications... and it's free of charge! Download from