Subject: AFP: Malnutrition and diarrhea epidemics still plague East Timor refugees

Malnutrition and diarrhea epidemics still plague East Timor refugees by Victor Tjahjadi

SOE, Indonesia, April 19 (AFP) - Lack of food and a rapidly spreading diarrhea epidemic since the disappearance of foreign aid workers are making it harder for East Timorese refugees in this West Timor town to decide whether they want to return to their homeland.

Magdalena Bria, a 22-year old mother of a three-month old infant living in the Kobalete refugee camp here, said her weak physical condition was making her think twice about going back to her home in Same, East Timor.

"We have not received medical and food assistance from anybody since the foreign workers fled West Timor" in September of last year, Bria told an AFP reporter during a military-sponsored visit this week to Soe, some 110 kilometers (68 miles) east of the provincial capital of Kupang.

Some 400 foreign aid workers fled West Timor after three unarmed refugee workers were brutally murdered in their office in the border town of Atambua by a mob of former pro-Jakarta militiamen in early September last year.

The United Nations has yet to announce a decision on whether it will allow the aid workers to return, saying it needs concrete action against the militia, not just verbal assurances from the Indonesian government.

Bria, and her hometown friend Yustina da Costa, are among some 250,000 to 300,000 East Timorese who were forced over the border by the pro-Jakarta militia in the wake of East Timor's vote for independence in August of 1999.

Bria, who was supposed to receive a daily stipend of 1,500 rupiah (15 US cents) and 400 grams of rice rations from the local government, said the last time she received financial assistance was "three months ago."

Soe regent Willem Nope earlier admitted that his administration was facing "a frustrating problem of slow distribution of food and financial assistance" from the provincial administration in Kupang.

"I don't mind working away from the camp but my background is farming and there is not enough land here for us to grow anything but corn," Bria said while holding her baby whom she said was "surviving on my breast milk and water."

Yustina da Costa, who said she gave birth to her now four-month old son at the Kobalete camp, also said she "only ate some corn and a little bit of rice today."

"I can survive by just eating corn but babies, they need milk and vitamins...and we have not received either one in the last three months," da Costa said, adding that "the sooner foreign aid workers return here, the better it is for us."

The East Nusatenggara administration which oversees the squalid camps holding the refugees said on Monday that around 119,000 refugees still live in the West Timor camps while up to 170,000 others have been repatriated since October 1999.

"I would like to return home to Timor Leste because I don't want to die while waiting for food and medicine," da Costa added.

An Indonesian government taskforce is working to register the refugees so they can be repatriated or resettled in Indonesia. It has tentatively set May 21 as the latest of several postponed dates for the start of the socialization process of the repatriation.

The repatriation of those who want to go should start about a month after that.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has recently complained of intimidation by the militias against refugees wishing to return to East Timor where the first general elections are due to be held in five months.

vt/kw AFP

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