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UNHCR begins to return displaced people from East Timor

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UNHCR begins to return displaced people from East Timor

8 October 1999

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) airlifted 173 Timorese to East Timor today at the start of a programme to return displaced people estimated to number 230,000 in squalid camps in West Timor.

"Today, we are making an important first step which we hope will lead tens of thousands of Timorese safely back to their homes. It is a difficult and complex process, but we are confident that with support from the Indonesian government and the international community we will be able to accomplish this," said High Commissioner Sadako Ogata.

A Transall C160 aircraft chartered by UNHCR flew two sorties between Kupang airport in West Timor and Dili, the capital of East Timor.

The first two groups were taken from the Koni Badminton Stadium in Kupang and Kupang's Assumption Church, respectively. Militias harassing refugees were reported present in the area, but the operation went smoothly without problems. Police stayed discreetly away as UNHCR staff and local officials transported the refugees in three buses to the airport.

At the airport pre-departure lounge, the returnees were given food and water. The Governor of West Timor went to the airport briefly to say goodbye to the Timorese who said their prayers and then boarded the plane for home in the largely Roman Catholic East Timor capital.

"We don't know what is going to happen to us when we return. No one can say what the future holds. It is all up to God," said Antonio Alvez, a bearded 42-year-old carpenter who wore a rosary around his neck. He is returning to Dili with his wife and four children. He said he left Dili on September 9 or 10 as the provincial capital burned and soldiers told him he had to leave for his own safety.

UNHCR staff in Dili received the returnees and provided them with plastic sheets, mats and blankets. Some of them will stay at a transit centre if they have no homes to return to. Many women said they left without their husbands, who they have not heard from since they fled a month ago.

Daily flights are planned in the coming days. UNHCR is also looking at the possibility of sending back people by land and by sea to speed up the repatriation process if the security situation permits this.

The return took place two weeks after a UNHCR mission was dispatched to West Timor to organize the urgent delivery of humanitarian assistance and look at the possibility of voluntary returns.

The High Commissioner herself travelled to Indonesia three weeks ago and secured assurances from the Indonesian President and other officials that humanitarian workers will have unimpeded access to the camps in West Timor.

This week, UNHCR began an airlift of emergency relief supplies from Darwin in Australia to Kupang. One more flight arrived today, bringing the total airlift flights to seven.

UNHCR has been able to look into the situation of some camps in the Kupang area, where around 40,000 of the 230,000 displaced in West Timor are located. But the vast majority of them - estimated at 130,000 - are in makeshift camps in towns along the border with East Timor. There, conditions are appalling and there are also reports of intimidation and harassment by militia groups.

UNHCR has sent staff to the border region to establish a presence at Atambua town and explore the possibility of returning people to East Timor by land.