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Friday, August 27, 1999 Published at 13:29 GMT 14:29 UK

World: Asia-Pacific

Eyewitness: Remembering 1975

An East Timorese refugee family: Thousands have fled the violence

As East Timorese around the world await the outcome of the territory's referendum, one woman spoke to BBC News Online's Dominic Casciani about her hopes and fears for East Timor's future:

Lita Ramsey does not regard herself as a refugee even though she has not returned to her home, East Timor, for 24 years.

But even today she still feels a sense of loss born out of being a victim of events out of her control.

East Timor
In August 1975, Lita, then 15 years old, and her family were among the first to flee, as the former Portuguese colony slid inexorably into civil war and a bloody annexation by Indonesia.

"I used to think of myself as a refugee," said Lita, who now lives in Hong Kong. "But as the years pass you try and get on with your life, you make another place your home. But Timor will always be my country."

Despite having settled in Australia, where she later married, Lita and her four brothers and two sisters have remained involved in the international campaign to highlight the plight of their people.

Fighting in the streets

Their flight to safety began in August 1975 as the political situation in East Timor began to spiral out of control.

[ image: East Timorese wait to register with Unamet]
East Timorese wait to register with Unamet
Political parties had formed in the wake of Portugal's coup. The pro-independence Fretilin was armed amid growing fears that Indonesia would annex the territory.

During those summer months, Lita, who is half-Portuguese, stayed with her uncle, the administrator for the town of Hatolia.

The Timor Democratic Union, a rival political grouping, announced that they were taking over the town and the orders to her uncle were clear, she remembers.

"They came to us and said, 'We don't want to hurt you, leave and go to Dili.'"

The simple instructions said all that was needed. Faced with no choice, the family fled, only to find that when they arrived in the capital the situation had already deteriorated into pitched fighting in the streets.

'We left with what we could carry'

"We had already applied to leave for Australia but we were told to leave immediately and head for the port. It was what my father had been expecting.

"He just woke us up one morning and said we had to go. And we left with only what we could carry.

"We just didn't know what was going on. We just couldn't do anything right. Whatever we did, someone else had us marked."

In the rush to leave, the family were forced to split.

[ image: Watching a pro-independence campaign rally]
Watching a pro-independence campaign rally
Two of Lita's brothers could not make it to Dili in time to join one of the first transports to Australia, a Swedish tanker carrying 2,000 people.

The journey was horrendous, she recalled, as the cargo of refugees slept in cramped holds for two days without any food. They waited a further five days in Darwin before Australian authorities allowed them to join other members of their family.

Back home, Lita's two older brothers were attempting to find a way out of the fighting.

As the situation worsened, one of them was arrested and beaten under interrogation before they were taken in by the then Bishop of Dili. He provided shelter until it became clear that their lives were in danger if they stayed any longer.

Lita said: "With the situation with Indonesia getting worse, a family friend who was a member of the Fretilin leadership told my brothers that it would be no good just staying and dying.

"They had to get out and fight for Timor from the outside. It was going to be a long war."

Campaigning for freedom

As the sheer scale of the conflict in East Timor emerged, with tens of thousands of deaths in the first years following the annexation, Lita's family became campaigners.

One of Lita's two brothers who escaped at the last minute is a senior figure in Fretilin's Australian organisation, work which has made any return for the family currently impossible.

"I think it was something which came with my age, but I believed that the world would come to our aid," said Lita.

"But the rest of my family didn't share that view. They knew that it was going to be bloody. When the rest of the world had done nothing after two years we knew that Fretilin had been right."

Lita says the fate of those thousands who fled is a "great injustice" - not necessarily to the young who have built new lives, but to people like her parents.

"They lost their entire lives when we were forced to leave. After all they had worked for, they ended up with nothing."

'We have to be cautious'

"The big question for us is whether or not the Indonesian army will accept the vote," said Lita.

Another fear among campaigners is that the international community will lack the will to act if Indonesia ignores the result.

But she said that there are many like her who want to play their part in the future, even if they have families raised in another culture, as her two young children have been.

"I won't go back right at the beginning but I will be trying everything that I can to help build a new country.

"Every night I have heard Xanana Gusmao on the news and I think could it really be possible?

"It has been very emotional over the last weeks, last night I was almost in tears when I started to think about what we could be about to achieve.

"But then I think again, and decide that we have to be restrained. We have to be cautious."

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