Subject: Refugees Face Starvation in West Timor

The Jakarta Post December 22, 2001

Refugees face starvation in West Timor

Yemris Fointuna, The Jakarta Post, Kupang

Some 1,480 East Timorese families taking refuge in Noelbaki, a remote village in Kupang regency, face the possibility of starvation after their farmland was damaged by a flood that hit the village recently and several charitable foundations stopped giving aid to the refugees.

Many women and under-age refugees have moved to Kupang, the East Nusa Tenggara provincial capital, to beg in housing complexes, markets and government offices to survive the economic hardship.

The increasing number of East Timorese beggars in the city has caused problems for the local administration and the city's residents, especially since many of them have become involved in theft and extortion, and majority of them sleep on verandas of shops and of government offices at night.

The displaced East Timorese are shocked at the government's decision to stop humanitarian aid, in the form of money and rice, as of Jan. 1, 2002.

"We have no hope. Our world looks feels a prison in which we can't do anything to control our own lives. We are now waiting for God's help to save us from the threat of starvation," Zeka Mudjiano Lay, coordinator of the refugees in the village, said in an interview with The Jakarta Post recently.

Zeka, a resident of Lospalos in East Timor, said the refugees could not survive on Rp 45,000 and 12 kilograms of rice per person per month and their living conditions would worsen if the government went ahead with its decision to stop aid to East Timorese refugees in the province.

"The refugees sold their livestock such as chickens, goats and pigs to cover their daily needs and to celebrate Christmas. Afterward, we don't know what we'll to do and, I think, the refugees will be a serious problem for the local community and the administration," he said.

Previously, the refugees enjoyed free health services provided by the foundations, but these have since been terminated for unclear reasons.

"We are refugees, but we are also human beings who need a decent life," said Zeka, who looked distressed.

Zeka's disappointment is justified. Since the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) stopped its aid in October 2000, all forms of health services previously rendered by the foundations and the local administration have been terminated.

As a result, there are no doctors or nurses at the public health center. If a refugee needs medical attention, he or she has to go to private clinics to beg for medical service.

"We find it hard to get something to eat, let alone enjoy health care. We, therefore, deeply regret that humanitarian institutions and the government no longer provide us with health services," Zeka said.

Simon Sersan, 37, said most refugees wanted to return to East Timor but would not so for fear of being killed or tortured upon arrival because there were no security guarantees, either from East Timor leaders or from UN Transition Administration in East Timor (UNTAET).

"Refugees do not believe in East Timor leader (Jose Alexandre) Xanana (Gusmao), who visited us recently, because of the lack of reconciliation efforts among warring factions.

"Xanana came here recently to reconcile with former leaders of former pro-Jakarta militias who are taking refuge with us in the province. The refugees will follow suit if our leaders return home," he said.

Simon, who lived in Oekusi in East Timor, said that to resolve the East Timor issue permanently, religious leaders and UNTAET should mediate a reconciliation between the two warring factions.

According to him, the absence of other East Timorese leaders -- such as Dili Bishop Carlos Felipe Ximenes Belo and the East Timor Constitutional Assembly chairman -- in Xanana's entourage shows a lack of political will to resolve the issue permanently and has discouraged refugees to return home.

Of the 295,000 East Timorese refugees in the province, some 140,000 have returned home, thousands have joined the government-sponsored resettlement program and the remaining 143,000 have yet to decide whether they will go back to East Timor or stay in Indonesia.

The government's decision to stop the humanitarian aid as of Jan. 1, 2002 is a bid to speed up the repatriation program.

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