Subject: SMH: Race to get last refugees back to East Timor

Sydney Morning Herald March 22, 2001

Race to get last refugees back to East Timor

Photo: Aitarak militia leader Elly Pereira overseas the repatriation of refugees at Kupang Port.

Militias are still in control, Herald Correspondent Mark Dodd writes from Kupang, West Timor.

It was an eerie sight. In the tropical afternoon, the Patricia Anne Hotung nudged away from Kupang wharf with 500 Timorese refugees lining the deck. Heading into open water, another ship came into view - a listing old freighter barely seaworthy, its hull streaked with rust and its decks crammed with refugees, Christian Indonesians, fleeing religious violence in Ambon.

The two vessels passed close by, the refugees staring at each other in silence with a shared sense of uncertainty.

Clutching a sheaf of identity papers to prepare him for a new life in his East Timor homeland, 50-year-old Manuel Soares reflected on what had driven him to leave the militia-run refugee camps in Indonesian West Timor.

"It's no good, the life here. There is no money, too little food - it's a hard life. I will try for any job when I get back, I'm just homesick," he said inside the Fatululi transit centre on the outskirts of Kupang, the provincial capital.

Had he heard of national elections scheduled for August? "No, I don't get much news in the camp," he replies. "Is there any intimidation?" I ask. Mr Soares drops his voice, glances around him, pauses for breath: "No," he replies unconvincingly and walks away.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and its partner, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) believe otherwise. They say intimidation in the camps remains rife as pro-Indonesian militias, faced with dwindling support from Indonesian authorities, try to keep a grip on their shrinking constituency, the refugees.

But some former militia leaders and cadres are co-operating with the UNHCR and the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET), perhaps in the hope of avoiding prosecution for war crimes committed before and after the August 1999 ballot for self-determination.

But time is running out as the agencies aim to repatriate most of the remaining refugees before August 31, when UNHCR says it will shut down operations in East Timor.

It is not known exactly how many refugees remain in the West Timor camps. It is believed that about 250,000 East Timorese fled or were deported after the 1999 violence. About 176,000 refugees have returned home so far, leaving 74,000.

The Indonesian Government, which receives generous donor assistance for the refugees, claims a figure of 130,000.

IOM's head of operations, Mr Chris Gascon, estimated the number wanting to return home may be as low as 30,000 - the same figure used by the East Timor independence leader, Mr Jose Ramos Horta.

Mr Gascon said an expected flood of refugees - after militia violence in the border town of Atambua last September left three international staff dead - did not eventuate. "There was every reason for those people to come back and there was ample opportunity for them to come but they did not take advantage of the situation and this was very surprising," he said.

About 20 per cent of East Timor's estimated 400,000 eligible voters supported integration with Indonesia in the 1999 ballot. That translates into approximately 80,000 people, and may explain the reluctance of many to return to East Timor.

Despite more than 700 refugees leaving the camps this month, UNHCR's chief of operations, Mr Bernard Kerblatt, said overall returns were "no more than a trickle". He said ignorance about the situation in East Timor, and Indonesian delays in settling pension payments to former civil servants also could be hindering the repatriation process.

Nobody wants the issue resolved more than UNTAET's chief, Mr Sergio Vieira de Mello, who says he supports new initiatives to empty the camps.

These include using Indonesian security forces to close the camps, and ensuring refugees who want to return home are given the opportunity before June 20, the cut-off date for voter registration.

But Mr Vieira de Mello says the tight timetable could result in East Timor having 10 per cent of its population stranded in a foreign country but less than five kilometres from the nearest ballot box when voters go to the polls on August 30 this year to elect their first democratic parliament.

All involved in refugee repatriation agree that the Indonesian army could resolve the issue in an instant.

The appointment of Major-General Willem da Costa, as Indonesia's commander for the country's eastern region or Udayana Command, brings hope of more co-operation from the military. General da Costa is a Timorese native whose father was born in the East Timor enclave of Oecussi. UNHCR and IOM say he engenders more confidence than his predecessor, Major-General Kiki Syhanakri.

But revelations that a former deputy commander of the Dili-based Aitarak militia is serving as a provincial level army intelligence officer with access to the names of returnees raises concerns about the continuing influence of the militias at the highest level of repatriation operations.

Mr Elly Pereira, or Mr Eliziarou Dalus as he is now known, was able to brush past 250 police and soldiers at Fatululi earlier in the month - soldiers hired by UNHCR and IOM specifically to ensure that former militia leaders were kept outside East Timor. Mr Pereira's presence means refugees such as Mr Soares are afraid to tell the truth. "His presence at Fatululi illustrates why this refugee problem can't be solved in the current way," said an IOM spokesman, Mr Chris Lom.

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