Subject: Thousands of E. Timorese Families Separated; children at risk

Associated Press 10-31-99

Many E. Timorese Families Separated


DILI, East Timor (AP) - Four-year-old Natalino Alegria is downcast, seemingly close to tears. Benedito Martins, small for his 11 years, stares into the camera with the defiant look of a kid who's scared but trying not to show it.

Both were separated from their parents more than seven weeks ago, when hundreds of thousands of East Timorese fled in terror as anti-independence militiamen went on a rampage of burning, looting and gunfire.

Along with other youngsters in photos posted on a bulletin board in East Timor's burned-out capital, Natalino and Benedito clutch hand-scrawled signs to their chests bearing identification numbers meant to help relief workers reunite them with their families.

Up to three-quarters of the former Portuguese colony's 850,000 people fled into the rugged mountains of the interior or to squalid refugee camps in neighboring West Timor, and many families were separated in the chaos.

Only about 100 East Timorese children are formally registered with the International Committee of the Red Cross as missing, but relief workers believe the actual number is much higher.

``In many cases, the families have managed to find out from friends or relatives where their children ended up, so they haven't reported them missing - they're just waiting and hoping for news,'' said Ruth Kottmann, who helps run the Red Cross tracing program.

``And in the camps, people will step in and take care of an unaccompanied child if there is any connection at all - someone they know from their village or neighborhood, perhaps, or the child of an acquaintance. Or even a stranger.''

Every morning at Dili's badly damaged main hospital, a long line of people forms to look at pictures of missing children. So far, five have been reunited with their families. A dozen more have been identified by relatives and are waiting to be brought back this week.

Displacement is only one of the perils afflicting East Timor's children.

Schools are ruined and teachers have fled. Childhood diseases threaten to sweep through whole communities, and a monotonous diet of rice is stunting many kids' growth. Tens of thousands of children are living in wrecked, looted homes. Some are traumatized by the violence they witnessed, especially against their mothers.

Children's needs are central to much of the work by aid agencies in East Timor. The groups were able to resume operations only after an international peacekeeping force moved in Sept. 20 to quell the militia violence that broke out after the territory's people voted overwhelmingly for independence from Indonesia.

Last week, seeking to stave off a potential measles epidemic, medical groups launched a mass vaccination drive for children under 5.

Thousands of mothers with infants and toddlers in arms lined up in sweltering heat outside vaccination centers in Dili and outlying towns. As ships began returning thousands of refugees from West Timor, youngsters got vaccinations as soon as they stepped off the boat.

Amid such progress, there are worrisome signs. Aid workers are concerned about the growing numbers of ragged street kids who have taken to begging outside the capital's military posts and aid compounds.

Very few are thought to be homeless, but their parents are simply too overwhelmed by the task of rebuilding their homes and finding food to keep a close eye on them.

For unsupervised children, Dili holds hazards at every turn: dangling live electrical wires, traffic, buildings with half-collapsed walls and roofs. The capital is an armed camp, filled with soldiers and sandbags, tanks and trucks, curls of razor wire.

Probably the most important step toward restoring structure and routine to children's lives will be getting schools running again. That won't be easy.

About 70 percent of East Timor's buildings have been destroyed or badly damaged, including most schools. Almost all the teachers were Indonesian and have left now that Indonesia's 24-year rule is over.

The school year should have already started, so aid agencies have embarked on a crash program to catch up, including accelerated teacher training and distribution of ``school-in-a-box'' kits with notebooks, pencils, chalkboards and other supplies.

In addition to the outside help, the overwhelmingly Roman Catholic territory has a crucial homegrown educational asset: the church. Convent schools will be among the first to reopen.

``The nuns got right to work,'' said Paula Claycomb of UNICEF, which is coordinating the children aid effort.

Although many children were psychologically scarred by the violence, it likely will be months before organized counseling can be started, aid workers say. In the meantime, they hope normal school activities like playing, telling stories and drawing pictures will prove therapeutic.

Just as importantly, the schools can teach a key lesson: tolerance. When adults talk angrily about revenge against the militias or those who helped them, the children are often listening.

``After what happened here, there's a lot of concern about a culture of hatred becoming entrenched,'' said UNICEF's Margaret de Moncy, a regional adviser on child protection.

In spite of everything, many children are showing a natural resilience.

Within days of the peacekeepers' arrival, wary kids began shaking off their fear of uniformed men. On hot afternoons now, in the shadow of troop transport ships docked in Dili, laughing little boys leap off the edge of a ruined pier and splash around in the harbor.

AP-NY-10-31-99 1305EST

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