Subject: Land of hunger (West Timor)

Sydney Morning Herald

Land of hunger

Jessica Mahar West Timor August 24, 2008

All Charles Meluk wants is a better future for refugees in West Timor. The 22-year-old East Timorese man has been living in the Noelbaki refugee camp since 1999, when more than 286,000 of his countrymen fled across the border away from the chaos after the vote for independence.

Thousands remain in three camps outside Kupang, the West Timorese capital, with hundreds of others in settlement camps dotted around the bustling port town.

Mr Meluk is part of a youth group set up in Noelbaki, and his aim is clear. "I want to ask the Indonesian Government to take care of the children's future and help them," he said as he gestured to 30 children crowding around him.

"We need more food, medicine and support. We want the Government to give them skills because we're trying here to help them."

In August 1999, 78.5 per cent of East Timorese voted in favour of becoming an independent nation.

Many of the rest of the population, who had voted for the country to become an autonomous region of Indonesia, were forced to flee their homes as violence racked the country and houses were burnt to the ground.

Some of those who escaped are still in the camps around Kupang, too frightened to return to their motherland for fear that violent revenge awaits them.

The conditions they live in are poor. Food and medicine are in short supply and there is no guarantee of education beyond primary school.

Their homes are thatched huts with dirt floors and no electricity or running water.

Domingos Enriques has four children, whom she supports by selling vegetables, bought from Indonesian farmers, in the camp market. Originally from Viqueque in southern East Timor, she fled the country and has lived in Noelbaki ever since.

"I have a difficult life here," she said. "The children don't have many fruits and vegetables and they don't get healthy from the fruit and vegetables. And sometimes they are very sick. This land does not have any service for the children. There are lots of problems. Sometimes my children are sick and need to go to the hospital but I don't have money to pay for any transportation."

A makeshift games room has been erected with a pool table, where many of the young men socialise.

A marketplace provides a basic income for residents, as well as a place for the camp's isolated residents to buy food.

The situation for other West Timor residents is also dire. A recent report by the Church World Service, CARE and Helen Keller International said 91 per cent of children there were "food insecure", meaning they lacked access to regular and affordable safe, nutritionally adequate food.

Malnutrition in the district topped African rates, the report said, and about 60 per cent of people did not have access to safe drinking water. Church World Service deputy director of programs, Maurice Bloem, said acute and chronic malnutrition were evident by the high prevalence of wasting and stunted growth in children.

About 50 per cent of infants and young children are moderately or severely underweight compared with African countries overall, where 21.9 per cent of young children are underweight, a report in January's Lancet said.

"Due to continued poor food production from season to season, and due to poverty, households just don't have adequate access to food in either quantity or nutritional quality," Mr Bloem said.

The survey also found a high degree of infectious disease, particularly diarrhoea, caused by poor hygiene, water and sanitation, and acute respiratory infection among small children due to their immune systems being low.

AusAID works with the Indonesian Government to provide assistance to the West Timorese.

The situation in Kupang is worse than in other parts of the country. About 30 per cent of its residents live below the poverty line, double the rate in the rest of Indonesia.

Only 39 per cent have education beyond primary school and mosquito-borne diseases such as dengue and malaria are rife.

In West Timor, AusAID has allocated $30million to help the region develop and to alleviate food shortages.

Winston Rondo is the co-ordinator of CIS Timor, a non-governmental organisation that helps East Timorese refugees. He said the aid and support provided was inconsistent. "At one time there were over 500 local NGOs working on the refugee post-conflict issues; now there are less than 10," he said.

"As long as the issue is popular they work, then once interest wanes they move on to the next hot topic. Their only exit strategy is to walk away when the money runs out."

Mr Rondo said poverty was caused by limited access to health services, education, housing, employment and infrastructure, as well as extremely limited natural resources, drought and a rising population.

"This can lead to significant conflicts between people and communities, and result in struggles and fights over land and fields, water resources and resources for production," he said. "These conflicts will only increase if there are no significant social changes."

In the Manusak settlement camp, where new houses are being built on land donated by local Indonesians, village elder Florindo Mori said unseasonable rain had rendered the cassava and corn crops inedible but even if they had regular sun and rain, the 200 people in the village did not have sufficient land to farm.

Climbing down from a roof where he has been working, Mateus Alves said access to drinking water was sporadic. "We have a big problem with water. When there's rain, there's water; when there is drought, we have to walk three or four kilometres," he said. "The biggest problem is access to hospitals. People are sick with malaria, diarrhoea, a lot of eye problems and chicken pox, and I think we have a problem with malnutrition.

"We have no food for the family to eat every day ... in East Timor there was no problems like this as we produced it ourselves."

Jessica Mahar travelled to Indonesia and East Timor as a fellow of the Asia Pacific Journalism Centre.

Source: The Sun-Herald

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