Connect with ETAN
Like ETAN on Facebook Follow ETAN on Twitter ETAN on Google+ ETAN email listservs ETAN blog ETAN on LinkedIn ETAN on Pinterest ETAN on Instagram Donate to ETAN!

Date: Fri, 12 Jun 1998 06:18:30 +0000
From: "ETISC" <>


This outline is based on a report given to us by a group of people who visited East Timor in March 1998. March is close to the end of the normal 'wet' season and near the onset of the 'dry' - so conditions as far as crops and water supply have probably worsened overall since the time of these observations. Some specific details have been removed to protect anonymity where it is felt necessary.

"During our trip to East Timor, we traveled through regions where villagers were experiencing extreme scarcity of food, bordering on starvation. We were also aware of a general food shortage almost everywhere we went due to drought, crop failure and the economic downturn. The following notes give some details.

"From Dili to Suai. The first stage of the journey took us through Kaisa'e, Liquiça and Maubara. All people - men, women and children, looked extremely thin and undernourished. Occasionally, along the roadway, we came upon various small stalls where some person was trying to sell a few bananas, cucumbers or chokos.

"At Karimbala we saw men up the side of the mountain digging rock out with crowbars. We stopped to speak with them - they were extremely thin and exhausted by their hard work. We continued through Loes where we met a fisherman who had been out in his boat to catch fish for his family. He told us that they had to rely on fish as food because there was no corn or rice. He had no money to buy other food. We shared what food we had with him.

"We travelled on to the village of Beakau and then to Megir. It was here that we were shocked by the plight of the people. We saw the corn growing near the homes and villages but there were no cobs on it. On the ground were rows of something which we found out was sago. The people told us they have been surviving on 'akar' - sago. They told us how their corn crops had failed and that there had not been enough rain to plant rice. They explained the process involved with the sago. They cut it and then it takes 4 days to dry out. Then they pound it and mix it into a cake-like form with water. The reality is that there is no nutritional value in sago. It fills them up and but does not give them back the energy required to pound it. They told us that rice was Rp65,000 a bag and that they couldn't afford to buy it.

"We travelled on into the Suai district via Atambua. We were told there that it is estimated 20,000 people were suffering severe hunger. We were told us that in the nearby village of Efudin, just over the border in West Timor, between Kefa and Oecussi, 85 people had died of starvation in four days of the previous week and that there were only 3 people left in the village. The story was similar to Megir and other places where the people are trying to survive on sago. In this entire region, two corn crops have failed. The first did not grow because of lack of rain. Then in January when a little rain fell, a second crop of corn was planted but it produced no corn. As we passed one village, a woman called out to us, "Batar mate moos - our corn died clean". Another serious aspect of the situation is that in some places they have been forced to eat the seed making it impossible to replant.

"Since our return to Australia we have heard that some rice has been distributed to these areas through the Church. We have not yet been able to ascertain if this help is on-going or widespread.

"Another aspect of drought, of course, is the shortage of water. All through this north-west region as for almost everywhere in East Timor, water is carried from some source maybe a great distance away. We saw constantly, people, mainly women and children carrying containers of water on their heads. Much of this water is polluted.

"In this area also we noticed a lot of skin disease particularly among the babies and children. Many people also had some bodily deformity.

"Although we did not go to areas east of Baucau, we were told by reliable sources that this area was severely affected by the drought. The areas around Iliomar were particularly mentioned.

"We are aware also that the people of the island of Atauro are in the grip of famine and that some relief (we do not know on what scale) has been organised for them."

To complement the comments above, we have included a piece published in the Jakarta Post on 26th March 1998 on the same subject. This follows :

"BOBONARO, East Timor (JP) About 5,000 people in four coastal villages here are enduring food shortages after a dry spell since January caused massive crop failures, a local official has confirmed.

Fransisco Martins Dias, the chief of the Atabae subdistrict some 140 kilometers west of the provincial capital of Dili, said yesterday that Aidabalete village was the most severely affected.

Villagers said many people were only able to eat once daily in the past three months after their crops of corn, rice and cassava failed.

"Now we are surviving by just eating sago. And for that we have to go deep into the forest to find the sago palm tree," a housewife told The Jakarta Post at the Loes beach yesterday.

"We used to eat three times a day, but now we have only one meal a day. If we can stand it,-we try to not eat for the whole day. "

Many villagers appeared gaunt and pale.

"There is no food at home. We have substituted sago for rice, but finding a sago palm tree is not easy," said another villager. "Worse, it's also hard to catch fish in the sea."

Some people dissolved into tears as they recounted their hardships.

Francisco said the villages of Atabae, Rairobu and Hatas in the subdistrict were also facing a scarcity of food.

"But these villages still have food stocks for another three months, unlike Aidabalete, which has completely run out of food except sago," he told the Post."


Severe hunger and malnutrition is endemic in East Timor and has been for a long time (Editor's note : chronic malnutrition is well recognised as a contributing factor to some of the diseases common in East Timor such as TB. It probably also contributes to many other common illnesses there such as parasitic infections, diarrheal illnesses in children and the extremely high peri-natal mortality rates ). It is obvious everywhere. We believe that this exacerbates the famine situation. Some observations to back up this position are:

· The Indonesian policy in force since 1975 and still enforced to this day, that villagers may not move any distance from their homes (we were told 50 metres!) has severely restricted their traditional gardening methods. This, of course, is to stop the accessibility of food to the resistance fighters. It has also imposed enormous hardship on the villagers who eke out an existence on what food they are able to produce.

· Many people, too, have been relocated to camps in less fertile places away from their traditional lands. In some cases their villages no longer exist so people who have survived have been forced into the Dili environs, where they grow a few vegetables which they try to sell in the markets. We met older people, women in particular, who looked like skin and bone squatting in the markets with their few melons or chokos or green vegetables, trying to make a sale.

· In Dili, people are desperate for money because of the rising cost of food and medication. They either have no where to live or they have sold off their land to transmigrants or other Timorese, or they are allowing others e.g. family members to share their land. Hence they have little or no room for gardening.

We came across many families living in what we might call the "slums" of Dili, Many were sharing their meager resources with those who have nothing. One impoverished household consisting of mother, father and two small children was sharing a roof and whatever food they had with an old man suffering from cancer and three young men who were driven away from their mountain home by the military. The children of another family were almost all suffering from T.B. They had no money to buy food or medication.

We particularly noticed the condition of the older people (they looked very old but maybe they are not much past middle age) and the children. Many of the older people are like skeletons. They are mainly sick and receiving no treatment. In one area we visited about 8 households. At least 4 older members were blind. The children look thin and needy. They would be very fortunate to have one small meal a day.

Such closely confined space is often in low lying, damp, swampy areas. It is home for animals as well as people and often features open drains and stagnant water. Altogether an unhealthy habitat. Without food or nourishment it proves a death trap!

· Often these families depend on others for food e.g. relative or the Church. Many families are totally impoverished. They have no "breadwinner" - the man of the family is perhaps dead, unemployed or demoralised. Often families depend on children for sustenance e.g. we met a 17 year old girl who since she was ten has worked from 5 am. until 6 p.m. daily in the market trying to support her younger brothers and sisters.

· The cost of food and other items such as medication has trebled or by this time probably quadrupled. Medication has always been out of reach of the poor but now it is almost totally unattainable. Food is also now in that category. Most people, even those who may be considered a little "better off" are finding it very difficult to pay the high prices for food. The destitute have no chance at all.


There are areas in East Timor, as we saw , where the people are suffering extreme shortages of food bordering on famine. They need assistance now and until such time as there are new crops of corn, rice and other vegetables. Hunger and related diseases are widespread both through country and city areas and should not be overlooked.

The Timorese have suffered so extensively from food shortages and malnutrition over the past 23 years, including the famine of the '80's when so many died of starvation, that maybe they regard this present situation, which is so badly affected by drought, as just another episode which they have to battle out alone. After all, who has helped them in the past? When we asked one parish priest if the people came to him for assistance in this food crisis, he replied "The Timorese are not like that".

Also, propaganda has lead the outside world to believe that there is no problem with famine in East Timor. While we were there the Governor was on television standing near a pile of bagged rice stating that there was no food shortage in East Timor. As one person near me whispered "He's lying!"

How is aid to get into East Timor? How will it reach the people in the seriously affected areas? It would need a well-organised plan of distribution as with army assistance in PNG . Alternatively, it could be organised through the Church in East Timor. We have heard that some rice has been distributed through the Church there although we have not been able to get definite information about this and whether or not this was a once only or a continuing famine relief effort.


ETISC, 11/6/98.

ETISC -East Timor International Support Center PO Box 651 N'cliff, Darwin Australia 0814 email:

Back to June Menu
Back to Main Postings Menu