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Tuesday, 29 August, 2000, 16:11 GMT 17:11 UK
Timor refugees' hard path home
120,000 East Timorese are unable to return home
By Richard Galpin in West Timor

A year after East Timor's independence referendum more than 15% of the territory's total population are stuck in camps across the border in Indonesian West Timor.

It's very difficult here, we're suffering. It's hard to meet our basic needs

Refugee, West Timor
The vote was marred by a massive outburst of violence in which many independence supporters were killed by pro-Jakarta militia gangs backed by the Indonesian army.

Although many East Timorese have been successfully repatriated, the remaining refugees are being prevented from returning home by the same militia gangs.

Struggle to survive

The journey back to East Timor is a hard one
The sheds of the Noelbaki camp just outside Kupang, the provincial capital of West Timor, are home to more than 7,000 refugees squashed together in appalling conditions.

The camp is just one of 250 spread across this region.

In the searing midday heat, children along with their parents venture out from their makeshift homes for water - a precious commodity here.

It is estimated that a majority of the 120,000 refugees from East Timor still left in these camps wish to return home. But it seems they are now in effect prisoners inside Indonesia.

"It's very difficult here, we're suffering," says one woman in the camp.

Campaign of intimidation

"It's hard to meet our basic needs. Rice is the most important thing but we don't receive enough, especially as we have to barter half of our ration just to get oil and sugar."

Fleeing refugees
September 1999: Thousands flee rampaging mobs
The anti-independence militia gangs which terrorised the people of East Timor last year during the UN-sponsored referendum on independence are now inside these camps, continuing their campaign of intimidation and violence.

They want to stop the refugees returning home.

They are even prepared to attack international aid workers.

Our job is risky but there comes a point when the risk becomes too risky

Jake Morland, UN refugee spokesman
Jake Morland, spokesman for the UN refugee agency in West Timor, says the militias are putting up roadblocks to prevent the repatriation convoys getting to the border.

"They are physically pulling refugees off the convoys," he says. "They are threatening them and they are terrorising refugees in the camps.

"They also prevent us from doing our work. We cannot work in an insecure environment. Our job is risky but there comes a point when the risk becomes too risky."

Many refugees lost relatives in last year's violence
The militias are clearly operating with impunity in West Timor.

Aid officials say they have seen both the Indonesian military and the police stand by as attacks and intimidation occur.

Militia leaders such as Eurico Guterres, who has been accused of gross human rights abuses during the violence last year, are free to roam the streets of the provincial capital, Kupang.

He remains unrepentant.

"The problem is that half of the people of East Timor do not agree with independence," he says.

"In that case I think it will take some time to achieve the peace which the East Timorese people desire."

'No militias'

The provincial government seems far from concerned about the whole issue.

Pro-Indonesian militia remain active and violent
We caught up with the governor, Piet Tallo, at a regatta and I asked him about the recent spate of attacks on international aid workers, which has now led to a suspension of their refugee assistance programmes.

"I would like to clarify that these attacks are actually being carried out by ordinary refugees who are not happy about the way that they are being treated," the governor said.

"As far as I am aware, there are no armed militia gangs in the camps."

Porous border

It is not just the refugees who are suffering at the hands of the militias.

On the border between East and West Timor United Nations peacekeepers have now stepped up patrols.

In recent months there has been an upsurge in the number of militia members infiltrating East Timor from the camps in the West and two peacekeepers have been shot dead.

Scorched earth
Those refugees that can return have found much of the land destroyed
The head of the United Nations administration in East Timor, Sergio Vieira De Mello, says they will never be able to stop the militias coming across the border.

"This border is porous," he says.

"All borders of this kind are porous - mountainous, with thick vegetation. It is impossible to seal this border. But if they decide to come in, they will have to choose - either they surrender or they will be dealt with."

The international community has pressured the Indonesian Government to take immediate action to disband the militias.

The government has finally responded by pledging to close down all the refugee camps within the next five months.

But many such pledges have been made in the past and no action has been taken.

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See also:

16 Aug 00 | Asia-Pacific
Timor security stepped up
14 Aug 00 | Asia-Pacific
Indonesia to close Timor refugee camps
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