Subject: E. Timor refugees dying from diarrhoea epidemic in fetid camps: aid group

East Timor refugees dying from diarrhoea: aid group

JAKARTA, April 9 (AFP) - East Timorese refugees are dying from a rapidly spreading diarrhoea epidemic in fetid camps in Indonesian-ruled West Timor, a Catholic aid group said Monday.

"We found a boy and an old lady dead in Tuapukan camp last week. In the last week of March we found five refugees dead from the epidemic -- teenagers and adults," Father Edi Mulyono, director of the Jesuit Refugee Service, told AFP by phone from the West Timor capital Kupang.

"Another six teenagers are being treated in the local health center right now," he added.

Diarrhoea and vomiting was spreading rapidly through the Tuapukan camp, on the eastern outskirts of Kupang, the priest said.

Another 10 refugees had died in March in the nearby Noelbagi camp, some from diarrhoea and some from old age, he said.

"People are still dying," Mulyono said.

"It's the rainy season, the camps are muddy, sanitation is poor, there's no running water, and malnutrition is rife.

"Since all the foreign aid workers left, there is no-one looking after them any more. Babies are born tiny and undersized, because their mothers are so undernourished."

All foreign aid workers fled West Timor after three UN refugee workers were killed in their office in the border town of Atambua by an anti-independence East Timorese militia mob in early September.

Foreign aid workers have never been able to count the exact number of refugees. Estimates range betweem 50,000 and 100,000.

The refugees are the remnants of some 250,000 to 300,000 East Timorese who were forced over the border by pro-Jakarta militia in the wake of East Timor's vote for independence in 1999.

Local Indonesian authorities have been supplying rice sporadically to the camps. Refugees have also been battling mud to try to cultivate their own vegetables.

In desperation in mid-March, camp coordinators approached West Timor authorities to ask for more rice rations.

"They hadn't received any rice since January. After they asked, the government distributed some rice on March 20," Mulyono said.

Cash-strapped authorities in West Timor, part of one of Indonesia's poorest provinces, have complained that they are too under-funded to keep feeding the refugees, citing the desperate conditions of their own people.

Mulyono said the Jesuit Refugee Service had no statistics on recent deaths, but considered the number was higher than merely of those they had witnessed.

"The camps are enormous. We can't cover the whole of them," he said.

The Jesuits' 22 aid workers run primary schools and playgroups near the Tuapukan camp, give food to children, run a correspondence service between the camps and East Timor, and help register those who wish to return home.

A delegation of UN officials from East Timor, including UN High Commissioner for Refugees and International Organisation for Migration (IOM) representatives, are in West Timor this week to bring information to the refugees and encourage them to return home.

Led by the UN East Timor administration's chief of staff, N. Parameswaran, the team is carrying videos and pamphlets about conditions in East Timor, and bringing Easter messages from the territory's two senior bishops, urging the refugees to return.

Mulyono said many of the refugees were able to distinguish between anti-independence militia propaganda about East Timor and genuine information.

"However a lot of them feel there are no guarantees for their security if they return, because they had a different opinion (to those who voted for independence), or they took part in crimes," he said.

"They feel threatened, they're scared there'll be new conflicts and that they'll be forced to flee back here again."

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