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Refugees Magazine Issue 117 (IDPs) - Independence deferred

Refugees Magazine, 1 December 1999

East Timor's agony sees out the twentieth century and ushers in the new ...

By Fernando del Mundo

John Maubere remembers the first time he fled his home in East Timor as dawn broke on December 7, 1975. Indonesian paratroopers fluttered down from the sky to annex the territory Portugal had just given up after nearly four centuries of colonial rule and Maubere fled with his family of 10 into the forests where he later lost a brother and a cousin in a decades-long fight for an independent homeland.

But just when that appeared imminent after an overwhelming number of East Timorese voted for independence on August 30, 1999 Maubere again found himself on the run. Rampaging militias opposed to separation from Indonesia sacked the East Timor capital of Dili and warned civilians like Maubere to run for their lives.

Several hundred thousand people did. Maubere ended up in a refugee camp in Kupang, the steamy capital of Indonesian-controlled West Timor where he was to reflect that if the original 1975 Indonesian invasion had been a brutal awakening of innocent civilians to the world of realpolitik, the events of 1999 were a far worse personal nightmare.

On the very eve of a new millennium the world was called to witness another massive exodus of refugees within a matter of months. Early in the year, nearly 850,000 Kosovars fled and were then escorted home by NATO troops in the latest Balkan flareup. Now, the world's newest country was literally in flames.

There had been indications of trouble brewing. As polling day approached militias began a campaign of terror, enlisting youths into their paramilitary operations, abducting those who refused and confiscating voter registration cards. Many men fled to the forests. Women filed into the churches. "Every night they brought with them their registration cards, along with their mats and blankets," recalled Father Andrew Wong of the Salesian-run Don Bosco School in Dili.

Race against time

Indonesia's government asked UNHCR to help an increasing number of displaced persons and had started convoys for 25,000 people by July. But as Christian Koch, head of the organization's Dili team said, "It was a race against time" which the aid agencies lost. As he tried to build up supplies, especially in the countryside, the results of the independence vote were announced ahead of schedule, violence erupted and the aid deliveries were stopped.

For a time, the world was powerless to prevent an orgy of looting, destruction, killings and deportations. Father Wong's school overflowed with 10,000 petrified civilians until a Molotov cocktail was hurled into the courtyard.

"We prayed together. I gave a general absolution," he said. "There was no time for individual confession. Then we opened the gates. We felt helpless, so we just decided they could all come and do their worst." Salesian priests in white frocks then led the evacuees to police headquarters, through neighbourhoods engulfed in flames and to the constant crackle of gunfire.

Many people were put on planes and ships and transported to West Timor. Some refugees said later they had been forced by militias and Indonesian troops to leave at gunpoint in an apparent move to discredit the results of the referendum. Others said they had simply been told they had to go or they would be killed in an expected bloodbath in Dili. Many tens of thousands of civilians took to the nearby hills.

Several thousand Dili residents headed for the headquarters of the U.N. Assessment Mission in East Timor (UNAMET) where UNHCR's Terence Pike saw babies being thrown over the compound's barbed wire fence in the mad rush to seek safety with people who had urged them to vote. "Everyone knew what the outcome would be after 24 years of intimidation," Pike says now. "And yet, when the results were announced, it seemed that responsible people were stunned. They did not seem to know what to do."

Picking up the pieces

As a semblance of order was gradually restored aid efforts also restarted, first to provide civilians with emergency supplies and then to begin coaxing people out of the mountains and returning refugees to East Timor.

Unlike in the Balkans, however, civilian repatriation has been slow and hazardous. In one early visit to assess the situation, UNHCR's Asia Director François Fouinat and legal officer Ruvendrini Menikdiwela were stoned by young men chanting anti-U.N. slogans in Noelbaki camp outside Kupang. When they sought shelter in a parked van, the mob stomped on the vehicle, smashed its windshields and set it ablaze.

High Commissioner Sadako Ogata toured the region, visiting the border town of Atambua which had been declared a "white free zone" by militias who vowed to make it a staging area to regain control of East Timor.

She received assurances from the Indonesian government that aid workers would have unimpeded access to refugees and would be able to work in safety. West Timor Governor Piet Talla also announced that civilians wanting to return to East Timor would be free to do so, but when a UNHCR field team arrived, the signs were not encouraging.

"There were times that I thought we probably would have to withdraw because we wouldn't be allowed to work," said team leader Craig Sanders. Late in the year humanitarian groups enjoyed only limited access to camps in West Timor, still largely controlled by the militias. "Go away you whites, we don't need you here," western visitors to Atambua were told recently.

But high-level meetings have begun to yield some results. By October the first refugees were en route home by air, land and sea and within a month an estimated 24,000 people had returned to East Timor.

UNHCR's Alvin Gonzaga watched the first group of returnees step off a Transall C-160 aircraft in Dili. "The atmosphere is upbeat," he said. "There was one man who stared at the ruins of his home and said 'If this is the price of freedom, so be it.'"

The repatriation of refugees will probably continue well into the new millennium but John Maubere, who first fled in 1975, is also upbeat. "If there is a beginning, there will also be an end," he said. "I believe life will be better here than before."

Source: Refugees Magazine issue 117 (1999)

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Emergency in Timor-Leste pt.4: UNHCR Sets Up Camps

With the first wave of UNHCR's air and sea operation to rush relief supplies to Timor-Leste completed, the focus is now on improving the living conditions of thousands of internally displaced people (IDPs) living in crowded, unsanitary makeshift camps around Dili.

Many of the 69,000 displaced in Dili have told UNHCR they prefer to stay near the makeshift sites where they feel safe. In response, UNHCR has begun searching for additional sites around these areas to clear ground, pitch tents and decongest the existing makeshift shelters. Not all makeshift sites are suitable for expansion, so UNHCR is moving ahead with the establishment and planning of new sites.

UNHCR has sent an assessment team to the countryside where some 78,000 Timorese have sought refuge. Many displaced are staying with relatives, while others are sheltering in huts, offices, church building and spontaneous camp sites. We are now delivering assistance to some of these people.

Emergency in Timor-Leste pt.4: UNHCR Sets Up Camps

Emergency in Timor-Leste pt.3: UNHCR's Air and Sea Relief Delivery Operation

Rushing emergency relief supplies to tens of thousands of displaced people in the strife-hit Timor-Leste has been a top priority for the UN refugee agency.

On Monday, the first phase of the air and sea operation ferrying in 200 metric tonnes of tents, blankets, plastic sheeting and kitchen sets, was completed.

Last week four Antonov-12 flights flew in 56 tonnes of supplies, and on Monday 12 June, a freighter crossed the Timor Sea from Darwin, loaded with 150 tonnes of supplies, flown in earlier from UNHCR's regional Middle East stockpiles in Jordan to the northern Australian city. There are now shelter supplies on the ground for some 17,000 people.

Working closely with partners on the ground, UNHCR's emergency team is already improving living conditions at the crowded, unsanitary makeshift camps around the capital Dili, and starting to establish planned camps.

Security is still a major concern for the displaced, traumatised by the house burning, looting and violence. UNHCR urgently needs US$4.8 million for its Timor-Leste emergency operation.

Emergency in Timor-Leste pt.3: UNHCR's Air and Sea Relief Delivery Operation

Emergency in Timor-Leste pt.1: Recent Violence

June 2006

Recent violence in Timor-Leste has displaced about 100,000 people, with 65,000 sheltering in 40 squalid encampments in the capital, Dili, and a further 35,000 taking refuge in the countryside. A UNHCR assessment team visited the makeshift camps in Dili end May and reported the most critical humanitarian needs, aside from security, were food, clean water and shelter.

In a phased response to the crisis and as part of a joint UN effort, UNHCR deployed an emergency team to reinforce staff on the ground and is now airlifting in urgently needed supplies for some 30,000 displaced. The first flight, which arrived in Dili on June 5, brought 14 tonnes of lightweight family tents, plastic sheets and jerry cans from UNHCR stockpiles in Jordan.

UNHCR and its partners will use these items to establish new, planned camps for the displaced, where they can live in better conditions and assistance will be easier to deliver, until the security situation improves and they can return to their homes.

Emergency in Timor-Leste pt.1: Recent Violence