Subject: The displaced still waiting

The displaced still waiting

Jesse Wright, correspondent * Last Updated: May 20. 2008 11:58PM UAE / May 20. 2008 7:58PM GMT

East Timorese who fled violence two years ago sit in the camp at Metinaro hoping for a chance to return home. Jesse Wright / The National

DILI // Six years ago, the United Nations formally gave East Timor ­ a tiny half-island to the west of Australia ­ back to the Timorese.

Long political speeches, concerts, military processions and parties were held yesterday to mark the event in Dili, while smaller festivities took place in towns and villages.

For most people it was a happy day, a day off from school and work.

But for 5,000 internally displaced people, living in a camp 45 minutes east of the capital, yesterday was yet another day spent in homeless uncertainty; another day hacking down precious coastal mangroves to sell as firewood bundles.

It is the second year that the people of Metinaro have marked the country’s independence as homeless, and their plight highlights the turbulent road East Timor has travelled in its transition from Portuguese colony to independent country.

Full independence came slowly to East Timor, also known as Timor-Leste. After a bloody 24-year struggle against Indonesia in which 200,000 Timorese died, the United Nations supported a referendum in 1999. The vote itself was beset with violence, as proxies of the Indonesian military tried to bully and intimidate East Timorese into voting against independence. The vote passed, but East Timor still was not fully independent. Two years of UN management followed.

Finally, on May 20 2002, the United Nations handed the reins to the Timorese and the world watched as the fledgling nation took its first, small steps.

Until two years ago, East Timor was considered a good example of a developing country. In early 2006, the country was still far from perfect ­ 40 per cent of its one million population lived on 55 US cents a day (Dh2) and many had no access to clean drinking water ­ but for most, it seemed life was improving.

In Dili, Antonio da Silva, a father of three, was middle class for the first time in his life. Mr da Silva had grown up on his family’s farm, eking out a living from the land in the far east of the country. In 1991, a bachelor and with youth on his side, he decided to leave the farm for Dili, the capital, where he hoped to find employment.

“At first, I washed cars for the Indonesians for US$25 a month,” he said. But in 1999, as the tide of sentiment was moving against Indonesia, he moved to selling vegetables, even though it was not as lucrative.

Throughout that year, as Jakarta realised it was losing its grip on East Timor, youth gangs backed by the Indonesian military operated a scorched earth campaign, burning homes, beating, terrorising and killing civilians. The worst attacks followed the independence vote in August.

Fearing for his life, Mr da Silva and his family ran to the hills behind Dili where they lived in the woods for several months. His home, like many others, was burned down and he lost everything.

When he came down from the hills, the Indonesians were gone and Mr da Silva and his family moved into an abandoned home in their old neighbourhood and he began to plan.

“When we won independence I thought I would continue to sell vegetables and maybe open a kiosk,” he said. “I did open a kiosk and then in 2000 I opened a small restaurant.”

Business was good. He bought a television and could afford to send his kids to school. He enjoyed his life away from the fields.

“I bought a truck because I needed it to help me sell vegetables and because I had a kiosk and a restaurant,” he said. “I put all that money together and I bought my truck.”

That truck now sits idle outside his shack made of palm leaves and branches in Metinaro. The battery is dead and the car’s registration papers have been lost, but for Mr da Silva, it represents the glory days two years past.

What happened to Mr da Silva happened to tens of thousands of other Timorese. In April and May 2006, the city erupted into an orgy of violence after a renegade band of soldiers mutinied and factions brawled on the streets. The police force and the military, when they were not attacking one another, were in chaos and unable to protect or serve.

So Mr da Silva, and everyone else in Metinaro had no choice but to run as their homes, their kiosks and their restaurants were burned.

That was two years ago. In the interim, the country has had its first parliamentary election, its second presidential election, an assassination attempt on the president and the prime minister, sought ­ and caught ­ the leader of the armed rebels and dealt with food crises and natural disasters.

And, to an extent, the government has tried to tackle the problem of the displaced. In July 2006 there were 100,000 internally displaced scattered in camps throughout the country, but those numbers have fallen considerably, thanks mainly to government efforts to send the displaced back home.

Through cash offers and neighbourhood dialogues, many communities are slowly re-establishing themselves.

A half dozen camps in Dili have been cleared and thousands of former homeless have been taken back by their communities ­ at which point the government will give the returnees money to rebuild their homes and lives.

Luis Esteves, a UN worker assigned to Metinaro, said a number of those families are simply not welcome back to Becora because they are perceived as having been part of the earlier troubles.

“We hoped for independence for our country, but what we hoped for hasn’t become a reality,” said Manuel Bovida, 58, in Metinaro. He said he could not even grow corn to eat.

“We have independence, but the state is still fractured. So what can we do? We’ll just wait and see.”

* The National

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