Subject: AFP: East Timor's refugees in limbo
Date: Sun, 01 Aug 1999 11:07:38 -0400
From: "John M. Miller" <>

Received from Joyo Indonesian News:

East Timor's refugees in limbo

SUAI, East Timor, July 25 (AFP) - They live in the shadow of an unfinished cathedral, their lives on hold like the grey building that towers over them. Hundreds of refugees whose fear of militia violence prevents them from returning home have set up a tent city on the grounds of the scaffolding-clad cathedral here.

A local source places the number of refugees at more than 700, up from about 400 who sheltered in the open cathedral and other buildings on the church property three weeks ago.

They are among more than 58,000 people which a church-based aid group said are displaced across East Timor ahead of a late-August ballot on autonomy within Indonesia or independence.

In Suai, the refugees have now spread across the church grounds in tent-like shelters made of orange and blue tarpaulins or palm leaves.

The refugees said they fled to the hills weeks ago because of violence and intimidation by armed pro-Indonesian militias. When the United Nations Mission in East Timor arrived, they felt safe enough to move down to the church.

"When UNAMET arrived, we came down," one bearded elderly refugee said.

Halfway through a drive to register an estimated 400,000 voters for the ballot, UNAMET officials have said the best option for refugees is to return home and register there.

But for the hundreds camped in Suai, going home isn't yet an option. They felt safe enough to return to the church. But continued fear of militia violence prevents them from going to their villages.

"It is true. They don't go back. They are still afraid. They prefer to stay here," the local source said.

Even at the church compound militiamen try to intimidate them, the elderly refugee said. He said two vans and some motorcycles drove past the fenced compound in a suspicious manner the night before.

"If UNAMET was not here, they would have already entered," the man said.

In his July 20 report to the United Nations Security Council, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said the refugee problem in East Timor was directly related to the prospects for a free and fair vote.

He spoke of people who "are either under the control of the militias, in sanctuary in church compounds or in hiding in remote areas of the territory.

"A resolution of the problem of the internally displaced is given added urgency by the requirement that voters register and vote in the same place.

"Many of the displaced do not have access to registration centres while others might register where they are now living and later return to their homes before the ballot."

UNAMET electoral staff are developing plans to help displaced people participate in the popular consultation process," Annan said.

Church officials have signed about 100 affidavits for refugees who do not have identity documents, the local source in Suai said. The affidavits allow people to register but not everybody at the church compound seems aware of the procedure.

"In the church, we've not yet registered. We're waiting for an order," the elderly refugee said.

They're waiting to go home, too. Until then, life must continue in the shadow of the cathedral.

As the sun rises through smoke from their cooking fires, a woman chops wood and one man cuts another's hair.

Under a tent, a crowd gathers around a man with a guitar, and sings.

At the same time across the grounds, another guitar plays the same song inside a different tent.

They sing about the place they call Timor Loro Sae -- Timor, land of the rising sun.

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