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Last Updated: Sunday, 28 May 2006, 15:42 GMT 16:42 UK
Refugees tell of East Timor's torment
By Phil Mercer
BBC News, Dili

The children cheered and waved as the Australian Blackhawk helicopters flew over the troubled city of Dili.

Refugees at Dili airport
The violence has forced thousands out of their homes

Along with their families, these young East Timorese have sought sanctuary at the main United Nations compound in the capital.

Tens of thousands of people have either fled the city or have moved in to makeshift camps.

The sight of peacekeepers overhead provided a rare moment of hope and excitement for dozens of the children.

Their lives are being held hostage by dark forces that have caused their country to disintegrate.

Their broad grins were in stark contrast to their gruesome surroundings.

'No alternative'

Despite the squalid and cramped conditions, there is at least some security within the camp's steel fences.

The UN depot is full of makeshift shelters and tents. People cook over open fires and sanitation is at best basic.

There is barely room to move. There are hundreds if not thousands of people here. The ground is packed with the displaced and dispossessed.

East Timorese man, armed with spear
Houses have been burnt in a cycle of tit-for-tat attacks

Nina Marquez has been here with her children for four difficult days.

"We came because people attacked our village and were shooting everywhere," she told the BBC. "I think our house has been burnt down. I have lost everything."

"Near my place people from east and west were attacking each other," she added forlornly.

Another man had a depressingly similar story to tell.

"We are here for security because our house has been burnt down," he explained. "We have no alternative but to come here. It is safe here."

I asked him how long he thought he would have to stay inside the compound.

"Maybe one week - maybe one month. Who knows?" he asked.

Threats of vengeance

The East Timorese Foreign Minister Jose Ramos Horta admitted that conditions inside these emergency camps were "horrendous".

These people have no security at home
Catholic priest

The international military intervention was ordered after brutal clashes between government troops and disaffected former members of the security forces.

A rash of communal violence followed. Homes were ransacked and torched. Panicked residents fled.

The BBC witnessed at first hand the bitter ethnic and regional rivalries that have boiled over here in recent days.

Gangs armed with machetes, knives, axes and home-made guns took control of parts of Dili.

In one suburb we heard gunfire ring out and heard young men promising to avenge the destructive attacks on their communities by rival groups.

It was a frightening example of how far this young nation has sunk just a few short years after celebrating independence.

'Fraught situation'

The arrival of hundreds of foreign troops has had an obvious calming effect here but there are still parts of Dili where the law no longer exists.

Australian soldiers patrol Dili
Australian forces have yet to bring calm to Dili

Authority has melted away and desperation has also fuelled the unrest.

On Sunday, hundreds of people smashed their way into a state-run warehouse in Dili.

They said they were running out of food following days of unrest and bloodshed.

Most shops and restaurants in the city remain firmly closed.

Church leaders have reported food shortages at special centres they have set up for displaced East Timorese.

One Catholic priest told the BBC that his church was housing almost 1,000 people and the situation was becoming increasingly fraught.

"These people have no security at home," he said. "Here they are safe but we have no sanitation, no water and only very small amounts of food."

Old grievances

East Timor is facing its biggest crisis.

The tensions affect everyone from the youngest children to those at the very top, including the President Xanana Gusmao.

The peacekeepers are gradually restoring a semblance of order but massive challenges remain.

Just how does this fledgling nation soothe and resolve those deep-seated ethnic and regional grievances between those from eastern and western districts and how do its elected leaders stop East Timor tearing itself apart?


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