Subject: Tempo: Refugees - Learning From the Evicted

Tempo Magazine October 9-15, 2001

Refugees: Learning From the Evicted

Repatriation may be the best solution to the East Timor refugee problem. But one must first understand the root of the problem and then be willing to follow up promises with concrete actions.

Dry wind scatters forth mahogany leaves on the mountain of Motabuik. This dry season, an atmosphere of desertion permeated the East Timor refugee camp located in Fatkbot, Atambua, in the East Nusatenggara. The United Nations (UNHCR)-owned blue tents are less full than they were a few months ago. Since East Timor's Loro Sa'e refugees were given the choice to either return to their native land or to remain in Indonesia, the number of refugees living in Motabuik has greatly diminished.

Jose de Oliviera and his family are among the people remaining in the Mahoni camp (the name given to the Motabuik refuge due to the abundance of mahogany trees lining the area). "I still want to be an Indonesian citizen," Jose told TEMPO reporters last Wednesday, October 3.

Jose, 39 years old, told his story at length while chain-smoking a packet of cigarettes until it was half-empty. Jose told of how he and his wife Aurelia Sarmento and their three children were evicted from their village of Soibada, in Manatuto, East Timor.

As one may have suspected, armed violence and destruction broke out in Jose's fishing-village, following the announcement of the results of the East Timor referendum on September 4, 1999. After this, many villagers were either killed, driven into the jungles, or escaped themselves. Jose decided to stay, although at that time he thought he might have to die there. One morning, an army truck arrived and took the remaining inhabitants of Soibada to Motabuik.

Jose's choice to remain an Indonesian citizen was not easy. Following the registration process which took place on June 6, 2001, the deputy police chief for the East Nusatenggara, Chief Comr. Gories Mere, insisted that the remaining East Timorese refugees residing in the East Nusatenggara return to Loro Sa'e. "Tell the refugees to return home. And please write in large print that Gories has spoken," demanded Gories. Law enforcers even threatened to shoot and kill anyone who obstructed the process of refugees returning to Loro Sa'e.

Eurico Guterres, deputy commander of East Timor's Pro-Integration Troops, accused both Gories and Chief of Udayana Military Command, Maj. Gen. Willem da Costa, of intimidating East Timorese refugees into returning to Loro Sa'e. (Under international humanitarian law such enforced returns are termed refoulment.) Eurico challenged both the East Nusatenggara police and military to shoot and kill any pro-integration supporters in the open if they were found to be guilty of obstruction.

What was the cause of Gories' wrath? According to Gories, formerly a member of the Greater Jakarta Police, the East Timorese refugees had begun to treat the East Nusatenggara population as strangers in their own land. Gories claimed that the East Timorese refugees acted as they pleased, disregarding tradition and hanging out in gangs. "They need our help, but they don't want to be regulated," said East Nusatenggara Governor, Piet A. Tallo, to TEMPO reporters last Tuesday. According to Governor Tallo, since regional autonomy was established throughout Indonesia last January, East Nusatenggara no longer received any assistance from Indonesia's central power base.

Last June, the Indonesian government conducted a registration process for East Timorese refugees designed to ascertain where they wished to reside. The results of the registration process were announced on June 6, 2001. Almost all the refugees (98.02 percent) elected to remain in Indonesia. The results of the registration process triggered a dispute between law enforcers such as Gories and pro-Jakarta militia such as Eurico. Law enforcers were pushing for repatriation, whereas pro-integration militia pointed to the results of the registration process, which showed that the majority of East Timorese refugees wished to remain in Indonesia.

The root of the problem actually stemmed from the force with which the East Timor population was driven out of East Timor, following the referendum in September 1999. East Nusatenggara was the obvious choice for setting up refuge camps, since it shares a border with Loro Sa'e. However East Nusatenggara, which is characterized by a grassy savannah terrain, is relatively poor and doesn't have sufficient resources to cater for the approximately half a million refugee migrants.

Consequently, East Nusatenggara has become a casualty of the East Timor refugee problem. Following the murder of UNHCR workers in Atambua in September 2000, numerous violent incidents involving East Timorese refugees took place, ranging from the burning of Rote Island residents' houses to demonstrations staged by refugees and gang fights between refugees and local populations. These incidents have contributed to an attitude of resentment among local populations against East Timorese refugees. "The refugees were initially given assistance, although the people of East Nusatenggara themselves are poor," said Basyiruddin Yusuf, chief of the Task Force for Solving the Problem of East Timorese Refugees in East Nusatenggara (Satgas PMP).

The seeds of conflict had been planted for two years. Consequently, the attempted repatriation of East Timorese refugees, which in theory should have lessened the conflict, instead created new problems. Some people tried to obstruct East Timorese refugees from returning home (on the other hand, law enforcement institutions were accused of driving the refugees out of East Nusatenggara). Many refugees were also prevented from taking the possessions they had acquired during their period of eviction. According to Carlos da Costa Richardo, refugee camp coordinator, following the registration process, refugees had to endure various acts of intimidation. (Carlos was unwilling to disclose the names those of who had committed such acts).

A stalemate situation arose—namely "damned if you do, damned if you don't," causing refugees residing in West Timor to refuse to voice their decision as to whether to return home or whether to remain in Indonesia. Yuliana Soares, refugee camp coordinator in Tuapukan, East Kupang, for example, refused to say where she lived. Yuliana was concerned that it could come back to haunt her.

So why were attempts to repatriate East Timorese refugees so problematic? According to Basyiruddin, the problems could have been avoided if law enforcement institutions and the government had understood the psychology of the East Timorese refugees. According to Basyiruddin, who lived in East Timor for 21 years, the refugees were confused about voicing their choice because they were not certain whether their safety could be guaranteed if they returned to their hometowns.

According to Basyiruddin, if the refugees were certain that their safety could be guaranteed, they would surely return home. The people of East Timor are not nomadic; they always prefer to be close to the land of their ancestors. "Proof of this, after they were assured that they could return home safely, they immediately returned to their home villages," said Basyiruddin. Recently the repatriation process has run smoothly. From the 500,000 East Timorese refugees temporarily residing in East Nusatenggara, approximately 180,000 have returned to their hometowns.

The remaining problem is how to assure the remaining refugees that they may return home safely. Satgas PMP for example, have tried to facilitate reconciliation by organizing meetings between social groups from villages in Viqueque or Baucau, with refugees originally from these villages. Satgas PMP plans to organize meetings between East Timorese and West Timorese populations and populations from the villages of Bobonare, Ainaro and Baucau, this October. "Then it is up to them to negotiate among themselves by means of traditional methods, closed meetings, or even sharing drinks together, until they reach an agreement," said Basyiruddin. Basyiruddin himself has already accompanied refugees to the Loro Sa'e border on several occasions.

The situation for those East Timorese refugees who have chosen to remain in Indonesia and look for work is dire. According to Jose, food rations were only routinely distributed for one year. After that, Jose was forced to ask for assistance from local residents domiciled near the refuge camp. Fortunately for Jose, a local resident named Egidius Hale allowed Jose to take some of the produce of his field, including taro and bananas. Jose is now working for Egidius on his field. Unfortunately, not many people are so lucky.

It is clear that the problem will not be solved by merely unleashing anger and ordering refugees to return to Loro Sa'e, as Gories Mere attempted. The current problems have evolved over the past two years. One of the causes—suspicions that the food rations allotted to the refugees were not distributed in full. "This is very painful for us," said Carlos, refuge camp coordinator. Another cause—armed militia intermingling with the refugees, inciting trouble not only with the local population, but also threatening refugees themselves.

Viewed in a broader context, any solution to the East Timor refugee problem—especially successful repatriation—can be used as a stepping stone or model for future attempts to find solutions to similar situations in other restive regions in Aceh, Maluku, Poso or even Sampit. The total number of refugees spread throughout Indonesia's provinces has reached approximately 1.3 million.

The Indonesian government, through the department of social affairs has admitted that it is prioritizing the problem of refugees. Minister of Social Affairs, Bachtiar Chamsyah, said that Rp1 trillion in funds has been allocated towards solving this complex issue. But, reflecting on the confusion surrounding the East Timor refugee problem, the government will have to work extra hard. At the very least, promises must be followed by concrete actions.

Bina Bektiati, Cyriakus Kiik (NTT)


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