|Subject: JP: East Timorese refugees face
The Jakarta Post February 26, 2002
128,000 East Timorese refugees face starvation
Yemris Fointuna, The Jakarta Post, Kupang
Around 128,000 East Timorese people staying in numerous refugee camps in East Nusa Tenggara Province are facing starvation as their food supply is nearly exhausted.
More than 20,000 refugees in Naibonat and Noelbaki subdistricts in Kupang regency have nearly enough food, but a major part of more than 100,000 others in Belu regency had run out of rice because their crops were damaged during the recent flooding that hit the regency.
Antonio da Costa, 47, originally from Los Palos in East Timor, said his five-member family only had meals twice a day because of the food crisis.
"We eat cassava in the morning and a little rice in the evening. All this is because most refugees were confused about the government's decision to stop its humanitarian relief as of Jan. 1, 2002. We finally realize that they are serious now that we are facing a food crisis," he said over the weekend.
Antonio conceded that his family still had some food stockpiled from the past harvest but it would probably not last to the end of the month.
He said he had a plot of land near his camp but all rice and maize crops were damaged by the recent flood.
Yuliana Soares, 38, another refugee in Belu, Atambua, said she was not sure that her family would have enough to eat in the coming weeks, because their food supply was running thin.
"My family usually has three meals a day but soon we will not have enough to eat.
"This week we have only porridge, instead of rice, twice a day, to allow us to survive in the coming two weeks. It's impossible for us to beg from our neighbors who are also facing the same fate," she said, while adding that her family had cooked porridge mixed with noodles, instead of meat or fish.
The government has stopped humanitarian relief to the refugees because it has financial problems amid the prolonged economic crisis. The decision was also made in an attempt to encourage the refugees to go back to their homeland, which is now deemed by all to be safe.
But, so far, the refugees have yet to decide whether they will go back to their homeland or become Indonesian citizens. They have been reluctant to make a decision as they erroneously believe that the political situation in East Timor, slated to announce its independence on May 20, 2002, is still uncertain.
Some 290,000 East Timorese left the territory, some by force, some voluntarily, during the post-ballot mayhem by pro-Jakarta militias in September 1999. More than 100,000 have returned.
Johanis B. Kosapilawan, spokesman for the provincial administration, insisted that the government would not consider changing its mind on the refugees.
"The provincial administration will only provide humanitarian relief in an emergency situation but its portion will be less than was provided in the past," he said.
Kosapilawan claimed the provincial administration had asked the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to deal with the worsening situation in the wake of the government's decision to halt the humanitarian relief.
"So far, UNHCR has yet to respond to the refugees' (most recent) situation," he said without making clear what he hoped the UN body could do since the change of status.
An outbreak of diarrhea and lung and skin diseases has attacked hundreds of refugees following the recent flood, claiming at least 15 lives, mostly children.
The recent flooding has also forced hundreds of refugees to seek dry land in the regency.
Meanwhile, May. Gen. William T. da Costa, chief of the Udayana Military Command overseeing Bali and East Nusa Tenggara, said on Monday that East Nusa Tenggara had the potential for conflict since the refugee problem had been left unresolved.
"We must remain alert because the refugee problem is yet to be resolved," he said in the celebration of the East Nusa Tenggara Military District's 41st anniversary.
He admitted that the problems were triggered by the government's decision to halt the humanitarian relief to the refugees. He added that, "Most refugees have no skills while the province has no natural resources to feed them."
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