|Subject: AU: 9000 East Timor refugees 'disappear'
Date: Sat, 24 Jul 1999 12:13:48 -0400
From: "John M. Miller" <email@example.com>
The Australian 22 July 99
9000 East Timor refugees 'disappear'
>From SIAN POWELL in Dili
THE humanitarian crisis in East Timor casts a lasting shadow over the coming ballot on independence.
Among tens of thousands of refugees driven from their villages by anti-independence militia violence, many may have been moved on, away from the prying eyes of the press and aid agencies.
One aid worker with a local humanitarian organisation said 9000 refugees who had fled to Liquica, 40km west of the capital Dili, had disappeared and attempts were being made to find them.
One possibility was that they had been taken to coffee plantations to harvest the crop.
"For a long time in Liquica there were rumours that people were going to be moved," another aid worker said.
An Australian religious sister and volunteer aid worker who requested anonymity said she suspected that refugees were often moved by the militias.
"This is a major hostage crisis," she said of the flight of thousands of East Timorese.
"They call them internally displaced persons, but they are hostages to the militias. They have been told that if they vote for independence, they will be killed."
Refugee camps near the West Timorese border that the sister had visited recently were found to be empty a few days later by the UN. The refugees did not return to their villages voluntarily, she said: "They were too frightened."
Even so, many refugees in Dili which is now home to 11,000 displaced people want to go back to their villages to register for the referendum on independence, scheduled for August 21 or 22. One plan is that convoys of trucks will return hundreds to their homes in the rural towns of Ainaro and Bobonaro, where they will be registered.
A local aid agency said some refugees did not understand they could register anywhere so long as they voted in the same place, rather than have to return to their homes.
Although their repatriation is ultimately desirable, the agency questioned whether returning to burned houses, missing livestock and devastated crops will only further strain aid resources.
The Australian sister said the recent havoc wrought by the militias had disrupted the harvest of the first good crop the province has seen in years. "Before this crisis there was the drought," she said. "These people have been suffering for many years."
Health problems plague refugees in some areas and medical aid is urgently required. Tuberculosis, malaria, diarrhoea, scabies and infected sores are exacerbated by poor nutrition.
When a local aid agency visited a group of 700 refugees near Sare recently, 500 were found to have malaria.
Although a result of a high-level meetings last week between Indonesian authorities and the UN mission was that aid agencies would be given access to the refugees, progress has been halting.
Vehicles seized following the attack on an aid convoy to Liquica on July 4 have either been confiscated or damaged. Nevertheless, it is understood that another aid convoy is planned by local aid agencies.
One aid organisation puts the total of refugees in East Timor at nearly 60,000, while the East Timorese Council for National Resistance, CNRT, estimates the total at more than 44,000.
Aid agencies reported that refugees were still arriving in Dili from the troubled district of Maliana as well as from the towns of Liquica and Ermera.
"Dili is full of refugees," an aid worker said. "And they will continue to come until the militias disarm."
The Indonesian Task Force for East Timor yesterday dismissed as a "forgery" an alleged government document that said it expected fresh violence if Timorese voted for independence.
The document, released by pro-independence activists on Monday, also said evacuation plans for pro-integration supporters were being prepared.