East Timorese leader in a bid to speed up refugee returns

East Timorese leader Xanana Gusmão and UN refugee agency officials this week paid an unusual visit to the West Timor town of Atambua, in an unprecedented joint attempt to encourage East Timorese refugees to go back home.

Nearly 60,000 East Timorese still remain in squalid camps across West Timor. © UNHCR/F.Pagetti  © 

Atambua, West Timor, April 5 (UNHCR) - During an unprecedented trip to the West Timor town of Atambua - once a stronghold of anti-independence militia - East Timorese leader Xanana Gusmão met on Thursday with thousands of East Timorese refugees still unsure whether they should head home.

UNHCR officials, who accompanied Gusmão on the trip, said a total of 11,000 refugees listened to Gusmão's messages of reconciliation and encouragement during meetings in Atambua and nearby Kefa. Gusmão handed out 4,000 handwritten postcards from the people of East Timor, encouraging their compatriots to come back.

An estimated 260,000 people fled from East Timor to the neighbouring Indonesian province of West Timor after East Timorese voted for independence from Indonesia in a UN-organised referendum in August 1999. Many were intimidated into leaving by anti-independence militias, which destroyed much of East Timor during a several-days-long rampage that followed the vote.

Nearly 200,000 East Timorese have since gone back, but up to 60,000 remain in a string of squalid camps across West Timor. Over the past few months UNHCR and partner agencies have stepped up efforts to instil more confidence in East Timorese still unsure whether to go back or not. The confidence-building measures include go-and-see-visits and border meetings.

The pace of return to East Timor, which at times slowed down to a mere trickle, has picked up over the past few weeks, with 2,000 people returning this month and as many as 400 heading home on Thursday, April 4, alone.

UNHCR officials said they expected even more people to head back following Gusmão's visit to Atambua on Thursday. UNHCR workers said many East Timorese also want to go back home in time for the presidential elections on April 14 and celebrations marking East Timor's formal acquisition of independence on May 20.

"By next week, the total number of those who have gone back is likely to top 200,000," said UNHCR spokesman Jake Moreland, who took part in the Atambua trip.

Moreland said Gusmão joined UNHCR officials in Atambua for a wreath-laying ceremony outside the former office of the UN refugee agency, where three UNHCR workers were brutally murdered by a mob of East Timorese militiamen in September 2000. The murder prompted UNHCR to pull out all its international staff from West Timor.

Moreland, who worked in West Timor at the time of the murder, described the wreath-laying as a "symbolic show of reconciliation, not only between East Timor and Indonesia, but also UNHCR and Indonesia."

"Prospects for voluntary repatriation and reconciliation have never been better," he said.