Subject: Thousands of E. Timorese get their own homes in Indonesian W. Timor

Received from Joyo Indonesia News

Agence France Presse

January 18, 2004

Thousands of East Timorese get their own homes in Indonesian West Timor



Thousands of former East Timorese refugees have been given homes of their own in Indonesian West Timor after more than four years of living in decrepit refugee camps and other temporary accommodation.

The 850 houses funded by the European Union have provided accommodation for 4,000-5,000 of the former refugees, said Robert Ashe, regional representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

"The majority moved toward the end of December," Ashe told AFP in a recent interview.

They are among about 28,000 East Timorese estimated by Indonesian officials to have remained across the border early last year, when they ceased to be officially considered refugees.

At that time, Ashe said UNHCR preferred the East Timorese be resettled away from the border "to avoid potential problems in the future". But things have changed since then, he says.

"I think it's true to say that we feel the conditions in West Timor have improved quite a bit. The tension has reduced," he said.

Most of the refugees were linked to the former Indonesian regime that occupied East Timor -- former militia, military, police, government officials and their followers.

Those still in West Timor are the last of more than 250,000 East Timorese who fled or were forced from their homeland after the Indonesian military and the militia proxies they created carried out a scorched-earth policy after the August 1999 UN-sponsored ballot in which East Timor voted to secede.

"We're trying to get a handle on how many remain," Ashe told AFP in a recent interview.

Jhon Atet, chairman of the local legislative Committee for People's Welfare in the West Timor border district of Belu, said few of the remaining refugees had shown an interest in going home or being resettled to other parts of Indonesia, as the government had originally planned.

However, a lot are interested in the housing program, he was quoted by the state Antara news agency as saying.

"If the international community which cares about the future of the former East Timor refugees helps in the way the UNHCR and EU have with these 850 units, it's not impossible that in 2004 the problem of the former refugees is dealt with," Atet said.

Ashe said some of the remaining East Timorese were moved to Kalimantan, some to the eastern Indonesia island of Sumba, while a few hundred went home to East Timor, which has been independent since May 2002 after a period of UN stewardship.

Those who have moved into the new houses get a space six-by-six metres (20-by-20 feet) divided into two rooms with a tin roof and glass windows, Ashe said.

"Each house comes with a latrine out the back as well," he said.

Nine housing settlements have been built, five of them in the border city of Atambua, Ashe said.

"Because of the resettlement funded by the UNHCR and European Union, the biggest refugee camp at Tulamalae, Atambua, has been taken apart," Maksimus Murrah, a Belu legislator, told Antara.

Many West Timorese had become fed up with the lengthy presence of East Timorese, blaming them for violence, theft and other problems like deforestation.

Agio Pereira, chief of staff for East Timor's President Xanana Gusmao, told AFP that moving the former refugees into more solid homes did not necessarily mean they would stay over the border permanently.

"I think it's more in the context of resolving local conflicts," he said.

He said Gusmao did "not at this stage" see potential security problems by keeping the former refugees near the border.

East Timor's Nobel Peace Prize winner Bishop Carlos Belo this month urged the United Nations to extend its mandate in the fledgling nation beyond June 2004 because armed militias still posed a threat to the territory. Speaking in Portugal, he said the militias were still active in areas just across the border with former occupier Indonesia.

Ashe said more housing may be built but that that was not the only option. It was still possible, he said, for the East Timorese to move elsewhere in Indonesia -- or to return home.

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