Selected postings from east-timor (reg.easttimor)

Subject: Kompas: fate of refugees

Captivates of Peace in Timor Island

Kompas, 21 March 2006

'The Government no longer pays attention to us. Some local officials have even asked us why we have not repatriated and returned to Timtim. We don't think about going back to Timtim. We're here not only for the sights. We are legal citizens. I'm surprised that officials ask us this,' said Salem Nimran (49)

By P. Bambang Wisudo

Indonesia's occupation in East Timor (Timtim) has been a grey period which inherits sadness to this day. Thousands of ex refugees still live in temporary barracks, with no access to education and adequate health facilities. The fate of ex Timtim citizens is still unknown and remains a neglected agenda for post conflict handling.

In 2005, the central government in Jakarta had ended its assistance to refugees in the form of housing material (BBR) and termination funds. Refugees are considered gone. Nimran no longer has the right to receive BBR or termination funds as he does not own land.

'How can we buy land when we don't even have enough for food,' said Nimran, a father of three children. He lives in a makeshift home with tin roofing and hard-packed ground as flooring. Bits of tarpaulin are joined here and there to cover parts of his wall which is made of lontar leaves. He occupies land owned by the local people in front of the Loloa terminal complex in Atambua. He makes a living by seeking and breaking up stones into gravel. Other times he works as construction labor. 'People don't give us land to farm on,' said Nimran.

Nimran was often asked to leave by the land owners, however he, and some 42 families living in that block had refused. He still hoped to receive some fuel compensation funds for the poor. The funds will be used by the people to buy land for living. However, they don't have the cards. Their names were not included as recipients for the fuel compensation fund as announced by the Statistics Office in Atambua, so they all stormed on the Statistics Office in Atambua on 3 March.

'We have no hopes for the government,' said Nimran not knowing what to do.

Nimran had once been offered to transmigrate to other parts of Indonesia. He had refused the offer. Like most of the other ex East Timor citizens, they prefer to stay on Timor Island. They want to stay close to their birthplace so they can easily visit their families in Timor Leste whenever they want.

Coaxing them to move is not an easy matter as the decision to stay or not is a group decision. Customs require them to live within the same location with other families of the same bloodline which can amount to tens of people. The problem is that Timor Island does not have the resources to accommodate the thousands of people hungry for land. Forests are destroyed as wood are felled for firewood and building material and its land is used for farming.

'The locals had once confronted the ex refugees living in Wemer forest. The people in Timor have always refrained from touching the forest as it provides water for the people of Belu,' said Wendilinus Inta (31), an NGO activist in Atambua.

In the end of 2005, the government had removed the refugee status of ex East Timor citizens living in West Timor. However, thousands of ex East Timorese are still living in refugee camps concentrated in Belu district and Atambua.

According to NGO data, the number of refugees in Belu district amount to around 10,000 families. The local government mentions 12,000. The number of neglected ex East Timor refugees still amount to around 30,000 to 40,000 families. This different amount becomes a point of argument and prejudices. The Camp Coordinator is often charged of adding the amount to gain more contributions. However, the fact remains that the numbers of people and refugee families continue to grow naturally and will become harder to resolve.

'Data is a big problem. The government claims that all refugees have been assisted and all refugee assistance has been stopped in 2000. The fact is, thousand of refugees are still living in refugee camps,' said Winston Rondo, Coordinator for the Timor CIS Volunteer Group.

Repatriation, said Winston, is still open to them. However, the number of people actually returning to East Timor is too small. Only five families do so after long periods. A problem that prevents repatriation is the fear of retaliation. Although they may not be directly connected to acts of violence, they are afraid they might be connected with members of families involved with the pro-integration militia. Some people still live in refugee camps, said Winston, still unsure whether to go home, stay, or go home later.

'Some continue to stay on the idea that the government must take care of them,' said Winston.

If not thoroughly resolved, the refugee problem may not only withhold efforts to develop peaceful and friendly relations with Timor Leste, but also may become sources of conflict in the future. Currently, several community groups have initiated to ask refugees to leave land they are occupying. West Timor's natural resources are too limited to be further divided with thousands of ex refugees. Informal jobs in the district are mostly taken by the refugees. This burden is too great for West Timor which is categorized as one of the poorest areas in Indonesia is now like a dry piece of straw, easily combustible.

The Coordinator for the Timor People's Advocacy Information Centre (PIAR), Sarah Lery Mbooik said the central government cannot leave the burden of handling refugees to NTT Province alone. NTT is too poor and cannot be saddled with this problem. 'Moreover, since the occupation of East Timor till today, the people of NTT have always remained as bystanders,' said Lery.

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