Timor Emergency Update
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.
A Transall 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 (94) and Assumption Church (79) in Kupang. Despite the reported presence of East Timorese militia who have harassed refugees in West Timor, the operation went smoothly. UNHCR staff used three buses to transport the refugees to the airport.
In a press release issued in Geneva, High Commissioner Sadako Ogata called Friday's flights "an important first step which we hope will lead tens of thousands of Timorese safely back to their homes." She added: "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."
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.
Further regular flights are planned including two on Saturday and two on Monday. 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. UNHCR staff have gone to the border region to establish a presence at Atambua and explore the possibility of returning people to East Timor by road.
One more flight of emergency relief supplies from Darwin in Australia arrived today in Kupang, bringing the total number of airlift rotations to seven.
Cheering crowds greeted returning East Timorese as they moved from the Dili airport through the streets of the capital. The enthusiastic welcome from fellow East Timorese continued as returnees received food and relief items and underwent medical screening at the stadium, which aid workers have turned into a transit centre.
Like their send-off in West Timor, UNHCR Dili staff said the reception of the first planeload of East Timorese went smoothly. All 94 passengers on the first flight from Kupang immediately found relatives or were able to go straight to their homes, and all were found to be in good health, including two wheelchair-bound individuals.
As the second rotation of the chartered Transall aircraft set down in Dili with another 79 Timorese, UNHCR staff reported that the transit centre had already emptied.
On Thursday, 7 October, UNHCR joined a convoy of eight vehicles to Baucau. Agencies delivered aid that the Bishop's office in Baucau had requested most urgently. This included 15 bales of UNHCR blankets, hundreds of bars of soap, and barrels of diesel fuel. Future convoys will take plastic sheeting which is needed to repair warehouses as well as for private homes.
Staff members said on return to Dili that traffic along the road between East Timor's two largest cities had increased. Many residents were busily trading small merchandise in Baucau in another sign that everyday activities are slowly resuming.