Subject: Winston Rondo: Putting one's heart into the refugees' plight

The Jakarta Post

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Winston Rondo: Putting one's heart into the refugees' plight

Yemris Fointuna , The Jakarta Post, Kupang

The more they are suppressed, the more they grow. Such is the philosophy of Winston Rondo, 35, director of the Timor Center for Internally Displaced People's Service (CIS).

For more than 10 years, non-profit organization CIS has devoted itself to working in refugee camps for the East Timorese living in West Timor, East Nusa Tenggara. Being a servant to humanity is Rondo's spiritual calling, and for that, he is grateful.

"That's why my CIS volunteer friends and I are committed to helping people in [refugee] camps, although we receive death threats frequently," said Rondo when he was contacted at his office in Kota Baru, Kupang.

His calling and involvement in affairs of humanity began in 1998, when he became chairman of the Kupang branch of the Indonesian Christian University Student Movement (GMKI).

"As the GMKI chairman, I was active in the Timor Leste Peace Solidarity Forum, which consisted of university students, human rights activists and pro-democracy institutions based in West Timor, NTT," he said.

His work in refugee camps has helped him understand the real meaning of service.

"What we do is help those who have been forgotten as a result of the government's political decisions."

He recalled times when his organization's presence worried former East Timorese people.

"Many of the CIS volunteers were bombed and persecuted, and even their relatives were subject to death threats," he said.

But the threats never broke his or his team's spirit.

"In the eyes of former East Timor citizens, NGOs are foreign agents supporting the independence of East Timor in the 1999 referendum.

"So at the beginning when we helped refugees, we always said we were university students," he continued.

However, this disguise didn't last long as between 2001 and 2003, the CIS joined forces with the government, the UNHCR, IOM and several other humanitarian agencies to encourage refugees to return to East Timor through the repatriation program.

"What we did at that time was conduct a media campaign by distributing pamphlets, brochures and newspapers, produced video messages, organized radio campaigns, ran reconciliation meetings, to encourage refugees to return to their hometowns," he said.

"All those things we did well, although we had to deal with death threats.

During the referendum process in East Timor, Winston was considered a supporter of pro-independence groups, with his name on the list of people sought by the pro-integration militias and Kopassus intelligence.

"Before the referendum I was reported missing. My parents panicked, because communications had broken down at that time. I became a nomad, moving around frequently so as to avoid militias and Indonesian intelligence agents," he said.

"A militia group in the district of Ainaro, East Timor, even tried to shoot us," he recalled.

Winston received more death threats again while he was helping the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation (CAVR) and the Commission of Truth and Friendship (CTF).

The governments of Indonesian and Timor Leste formed these agencies to conduct investigations, interviews and collect data related to cases of human rights violations carried out by a number of militia and Indonesian soldiers before and during the referendum in 1999.

"We tried to penetrate camps as effectively as possible," he said. "One way was to take a humanitarian approach with children and mothers living in the camps. When people were sick, we cared for them until they recovered. Slowly but surely we came to be accepted in camps.

For Winston, the East Timorese refugee problem is far from resolved, with 40,000 people still living in emergency barracks, and 3,700 families without access to government assistance.

"The refugee problem will persist as long as people still live in camps. Many refugees have no access to basic necessities, no access to clean water or adequate health services. But the government does not care," he said.

The plight of refugees has worsened since foreign institutions stopped providing humanitarian aid in refugee camps in 1999.

"In fact, thousands of children's livelihoods has been threatened because they can't go to school due to economic hardship," said Winston.

The father of two, Liliane Gratia Imanuela Rondo, remains committed to helping refugees, by convincing residents to share their land so houses can be built for refugees.

"We have also encouraged refugees who weren't involved in violence before and after the referendum to go back to Timor-Leste, independently of the repatriation program. Dozens of families want to return to East Timor," he continued.

Winston hopes the government will assist refugees, especially those who have decided to become Indonesians, so they are seen as having the same status as local residents.

He wants to make sure refugees have the same rights as local citizens when it comes to accessing aid programs such as rice for poor community members, village allocation funds or other social programs.

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