Subject: JP: Human Tragedy of East Timor

Jakarta Post August 10, 2003

On The Shelf

In an armed conflict, civilians always become victims. They are forced to leave their homeland and live in terrible conditions of poor shelter, inadequate health care and hunger.

It happened to the East Timorese after the vote on self-determination on Aug. 30, 1999. In the mayhem that ensued, many fled across the border into Nusa Tenggara Barat, with the number of refugees reaching a huge 250,000 people.

They found themselves vulnerable targets of attack from the warring factions. The social costs were also great; members of families could find themselves separated into two countries, women were threatened with sexual harassment and children no longer had access to education.

Their lives depended almost entirely on the aid from the government, ill-prepared as it was for the humanitarian disaster unfolding before it, and private agencies. Many survived, but others perished of diseases and malnutrition.

Consisting of 25 separate stories, this book is a touching, harsh portrayal of the lives of the refugees. It was written by members of the Jesuit Refugee Service (JSR), who accompanied refugees or internally displaced people and provided them with humanitarian aid.

Yet, it not only depicts the refugees' suffering but also shows that, amid their misery, they held on to hope of a better future.

There are sad tales, such as of parents who refused to accept their children into the camps because it would be another burden for them. Other parents exploited their children for financial gain in the repatriation program to East Timor.

There are other stories revealing the depths of human misery and the struggle to survive. One young mother helped another by breastfeeding the latter's ailing newborn. It was to no avail, and the baby died, buried in an instant noodle box.

Children suffered the most, living in cramped quarters, seeing their parents making love at night next to them, denied adequate food and education (JSR did set up makeshift classrooms) and witnesses to violence. The psychological scars are sure to live with them for years to come.

The book reminds us that it is the government's responsibility to ensure that civilians are spared the horrors of a conflict not of their doing.

Jembatan Airmata, Tragedi Manusia Pengungsi Timor Timor (The Bridge of Tears, The Human Tragedy of East Timorese Refugees), Editor: Sindhunata, Galang Press, Yogyakarta, 2003, 261 pp

-- Yusup Priyasudiarja

Back to August menu
World Leaders Contact List
Human Rights Violations in East Timor
Main Postings Menu