Subject: In Indonesia, Woman Bear Burden of Lives As Refugees

Inter Press Service July 13, 2001


By Andi Asrun


East Timorese women in refugee camps across Indonesia are being prevented from returning to their homes by either their husbands or community leaders, researchers have found.

Data from the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs say about 1.26 million people are now in various refugee camps, including those in West Timor, Aceh in the north, Maluku island and West Kalimantan.

The situation is the result of an outbreak of ethnic and religious conflicts in many parts of Indonesia, a country of more than 200 million people, since the strongman Suharto stepped down in May 1998 after 32 years in power.

In most cases, say researchers, the women, many of whom fled their violence-stricken communities with their children and elderly relatives, considered the refugee camps the safest places they could find.

But research conducted jointly by the Commission for Missing People and Victims of Violations (Kontras) and the West Timor Humanitarian Aid indicates that East Timorese women taking shelter in camps in West Timor would be willing to return home if only their husbands or community leaders allowed them to.

East Timor, which was annexed by Indonesia in 1976, voted for independence in 1999. It is now under United Nations management and will hold its first elections in August, as part of the process of reconstruction and becoming an independent state.

The study notes that the East Timorese are prevailed upon by very different circumstances compared to the rest of the refugees, with the commander of the pro-Jakarta militia having the final say on whether or not they can return to their homes.

Munir, chair of the Kontras' Board of Founders, says that the husbands also dictate where their wives will take the rest of the family. More often than not, the decision is for the family to stay in the camps.

In some cases, Munir says: "If the wife insists on returning to East Timor, then the husband will kick or punch her in public."

As it is, the research cites as many as 217 cases of violence against women in several refugee camps.

Munir believes that the pro-Jakarta militia wants to keep its status as "victims of an international conspiracy" supporting the 1999 ballot in East Timor, which led to the ouster of Indonesia from the territory.

That, he argues, could be partly why in a refugee registration last month, 95 percent of the 224,000 East Timorese still in 200 refugee camps in Indonesia said they wanted to stay in Indonesia rather than return to their homeland.

About 400,000 East Timorese left their homes following the 1999 referendum, some voluntarily and others forced by the pro-Jakarta militia to head for Indonesian-controlled West Timor. Since early last year, almost half that number have returned to East Timor.

Majority of the East Timorese still in refugee camps are women and children. Experts say similar demographics can be found in other refugee camps sheltering other ethnic groups.

But Adnan of the South Aceh branch office of the Center for Referendum Aceh (SIRA) says there is no doubt that at the moment, the women in the other refugee camps would really rather stay put where they are.

Among the Acehnese refugees, three out of five are women, he says. Adds Adnan: "The number of women refugees is bigger than that of the men because the women try to protect their kids and the elderly. The most safe place (for them) is the refugee camps."

Adnan is in the capital Jakarta campaigning to bring to justice the military officers that he says were involved in the killings of civilians since last year in Aceh.

Located in the northernmost part of the country at the tip of Sumatra island, Aceh has for decades been a battleground for rebels fighting for an Islamic independent state.

At least 185,000 Acehnese have left their homes since the military launched a massive operation against the rebels there. Adnan says among the first to flee were the elderly men.

He says that "in the mind of the soldiers, all elderly Acehnese are rebels" and that only way to safety was through the jungle.

Adnan also says that the soldiers would often use the Acehnese women as "human shields" as they combed the area for rebels. But he claims that several soldiers ended up killing the women -- shortly after raping them.

He says his group has recorded some seven women killed by the military during a raid in the village of Buloh Buereughang in North Aceh just last March.

"The soldiers shot the women who were looking for a safe place (to hide)," he recalls, adding that the local military commander later confirmed the deaths of only two women.

Observers say the high count of fatalities among the women in conflict-ridden areas was due to the fact that female members of the communities are often left behind to take care of the rest of the family while the males went off to seek the rival group.

The irony is that often, the women are left with no weapons they can use to protect themselves and their families.

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