Subject: ST in Atambua: W. Timor's 'refugee' town feels the strain

Straits Times [Singapore] Monday, April 23, 2001

W. Timor's 'refugee' town feels the strain

Tension is high in Atambua where residents find they still have to share their land with more than 200,000 East Timorese refugees



ATAMBUA (West Timor) - Tension is running high in this border town 2 1/2 years after the influx of over 200,000 East Timorese who fled the post-ballot violence in their homeland.

The crime rate is on the rise and communal relationships are tense, while ex-militia members threaten fellow East Timorese refugees against returning home.

Life has not been the same for locals here either.

The local authority and Atambua residents in the regency of Belu, where refugees make up 19 per cent of the 324,000 population, have to cope with social problems as the repatriation process carries on slowly.

Besides having to share their land, the West Timorese have to deal with gun-totting former pro-Jakarta militiamen-turned-criminals and hungry East Timorese who they say understand little of their culture.

A minor dispute between locals and refugees, for example, may end up in a communal brawl.

'A large-scale conflict is simmering,' said Belu Police Chief Nender Yani.


EVER since the riot last September, when pro-Jakarta militiamen brutally killed three UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) personnel following the murder of one of their leaders, local leaders have been alarmed over how easy it was for the refugees to take over the town.

They are concentrated in just about every major spot, including just outside the police station where 1,000 refugees are sheltering, and near the regent's office.

The September incident prompted the UN to withdraw its humanitarian aid altogether, leaving some 142,500 refugees in the care of Jakarta, which is already struggling to cope with its weak economy and thousands of other victims in conflicts and natural disasters across the country.

But at refugee sites, rice ration and food allowance from Jakarta have not arrived in the last four months and the people have had to live off corn or sweet potatoes they have planted on the small plots of unused soil left.

A few have managed to find odd jobs at construction sites to feed their families.

Some refugees go for the regency's only green area, the protected Betun forest.

The local government said they have destroyed over 750 ha of forest, replanting the land with food crops like corns, yams and bananas.

During a recent aerial viewing of the forest, The Straits Times observed from a helicopter at least six spots which were being razed.

'We understand they are hungry, frustrated, and feel abandoned by Indonesia,' said Police Chief Yani. But on the other hand, locals feel they have the worse deal.

The predominantly Catholic West Timor, home to almost 4 million people, is one of Indonesia's poorest and underdeveloped regions.

Its barren soil and dearth of natural resources lure very little investment to the area.

Governor Piet Tallo said last week: 'How would you feel if you have guests who are supposed to stay for two months but are still hanging around after two years?'


THE biggest threat to security is not the bulk of hungry refugees, but the gun-totting men who were former members of pro-Jakarta militias and who wield control over refugees at campsites.

These men, trained and nurtured by the Indonesian Army as 'pro-integration fighters' in East Timor, have been wreaking havoc, using their weapons to discourage refugees from returning to their homeland.

Said an official for the government's refugee repatriation programme: 'They do not want the refugees to return, because the aid money is channelled through them as camp leaders - less refugees means less money.'

While their fellow East Timorese are starving at thatch shacks, militia leaders spend their money on gambling tables at their nice houses. Their members also resort to crime for a living.

Last year's crime rate went up 33 per cent, from 360 cases in 1999 to 480 in 2000, records from the Belu district police show.

The armed refugees committed 70 per cent of the crimes and topping the list were robberies and assaults.

In some instances, a group of 40 or more militiamen would go to a village in the day and rob the villagers.

Atambua Bishop Anton Paen Ratu said: 'We gave them our land, they take away our cattle, our pig, our belongings.'

The Bishop has also been receiving complaints about sex crimes perpetrated against women refugees as well as locals.

The 519-strong Belu police force has limited power to cope with the militias while the military, with its strong border presence, is perceived to have difficulties reigning in the militias because of emotional ties.

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