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Thursday, 11 April, 2002, 23:11 GMT 00:11 UK
East Timor's refugees head home
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Richard Galpin,  BBC reporter
By Richard Galpin
BBC correspondent in East Timor
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The Indonesian town of Atambua lies little more than an hour's drive from the border with East Timor.

It is famous for two things: refugees and murder.

It is in this area that the majority of the remaining East Timorese refugees are living in camps.

East Timor refugees arriving at a camp in Batugade
There has been an upsurge in numbers returning

It is estimated there are 60,000 left out of the 250,000 people who first arrived in September 1999, fleeing as East Timor was systematically destroyed.

In August that year the population had voted by an overwhelming majority to break away from Indonesia in a referendum organised by the United Nations.

The Indonesian army and their militias took revenge by killing more than 1,000 people and burning down entire towns and villages.

Home coming

Now, with East Timor due to become an independent nation in May, and after a long period in which very few refugees had been returning, there's suddenly been an upsurge.


I think everyone will go home by May

Willem da Costa, military commander of refugee region

We watched as a large convoy of trucks set off from the centre of Atambua. On board with all their belongings were almost 500 refugees clearly excited to be finally going home.

"We're now seeing ever increasing returns," says the United Nations' refugee agency spokesman Jake Morland.

"March was the largest return month in two years. We think that April and May will break the record over and over again."

In the first 10 days of April, 3,500 people have gone back - almost as many as for the whole of March.

Election

Xanana Gusmao on horseback
Xanana Gusmao wants East Timorese to come together

Sunday's presidential election in East Timor seems to be one important factor prompting refugees to return.

Former rebel leader Xanana Gusmao is expected to win by a landslide and become the new nation's first leader.

Last week he took time out from his election campaign to visit the refugees in Atambua and other towns in West Timor.

Thousands turned out to greet him at rallies in which he appealed to them to come back.

"All of us must join hands and work together to rebuild East Timor," he said.

"In terms of security I can reassure you that no one who returns will be killed."

East Timor refugees
Some refugees still fear reprisals by militia leaders

Many refugees believe they could be the victims of reprisals if they do go back home.

There are reported to be up to 5,000 members of the militias living in the camps, along with their families.

Militia leaders have told them, and all other refugees, it would be dangerous to go back to East Timor.

But now it seems their power is declining.

Indonesia's army is also throwing its weight behind the campaign to get refugees back home as soon as possible.

"I've been going from camp to camp to tell the refugees they should either go back or be resettled in other parts of Indonesia," says regional military commander, Major-General Willem da Costa.

"We'll see what happens after the Presidential election but I think everyone will go home by May."

'Gentle persuasion'

While that may be over-optimistic, UN officials believe the majority will be back by the end of this year.

Xanana Gusmao (left) and his only challenger, Francisco do Amaral
Mr Gusmao is expected to win a landslide victory

For many, life in the camps has also become increasingly difficult in recent weeks. Local Indonesian authorities cut off all food aid in January.

And the land which refugees used to be able to cultivate is now being reclaimed by the local population, at times sparking conflict.

But the return of this final batch of refugees will bring to the fore the issues of justice and reconciliation.

Among the returnees are likely to be many members of the militias, responsible for so much of the 1999 violence.

Jake Morland says: "The people of East Timor are keen for reconciliation, but firm that those who committed serious crimes will face justice".

And yet, according to some UN officials, even those responsible for serious crimes could eventually be treated leniently if they are prepared to go before the courts in East Timor.

For example, they may serve much shorter prison sentences than expected.

The need to heal this traumatised society seems to stand above the desire to punish.

See also:

04 Apr 02 | Asia-Pacific
Gusmao calls East Timor refugees home
26 Feb 02 | Asia-Pacific
Australia pledges $3m to East Timor
25 Feb 02 | Asia-Pacific
E Timor, Indonesia sign accords
21 Jan 02 | Asia-Pacific
East Timor launches truth commission
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