Subject: AFP: Fears for pregnant women amid crisis in East Timor

Agence France-Presse (AFP)

Fears for pregnant women amid crisis in East Timor

by Paul Peachey

DILI, July 3, 2006 (AFP) - When gangs began looting and burning near her home, Rosita Malek walked for four hours to take refuge in a mountainside cave in East Timor despite being pregnant with her third child.

Surviving on hastily snatched food and grubbed-up vegetables, she hid out for a week with her family watching the smoke rise from burning homes in the capital Dili until she thought it was safe to return. When the fighting sparked up again, she did the journey all over again.

"I was scared for my life," said Malek, 25, at a Dili hospital where she was days from giving birth. "There was some pain but I had to go. It was heavy walking."

Fighting between factions of the security forces and widespread gang warfare sparked a national crisis that has seen the premier resign, government paralysed and a crisis for hundreds of pregnant women.

With midwives failing to come to work and a shortage of ambulance drivers, problems became acute for the estimated 1,500 pregnant women inside Dili, with many too scared to go to hospitals.

Health officials last month set up a tented maternity camp at Dili's main hospital where women, particularly those with complicated pregnancies, can stay in a relatively stress-free environment with medical help on hand for the final month before giving birth.

The government and aid agencies ensured the women received supplementary food despite cuts in rations for those in refugee camps because of a lack of money from donors.

The UN estimates some 150,000 have been displaced by the fighting, half of them children. At least 21 people have been killed since the crisis began in March.

Some 35 women and their families have stayed at the maternity camp since it was set up in mid-June, with 10 having given birth. They return to their homes, or refugee camps, a week after delivery.

"I joke with them that they must deliver a girl as it's the men who are causing the problems," said Dr Gad Ahmad, a gynaecologist working for the United Nations. "You have to raise their morale -- they are broken."

Like many women and their families, Ernestina Soares, 28, who has had three previous miscarriages, was staying in a tent in the grounds of the maternity ward camp.

Health officials found her at a large refugee camp at Dili's airport where she had stayed for several weeks to avoid the fighting.

"We were so happy when she became pregnant again," said her husband Apoli. "But we couldn't have continued living like that until the baby was delivered. It was very full. It was extremely worrying.

Lines of tents had been put up for the women and their families, and many sat outside watching television. Rudimentary stalls had been set up selling sweets and other items.

"Of course these are not the same conditions as at home but she's near the hospital," Apoli said.

East Timor, which gained independence in 2002 but remains among Asia's poorest nations, has a high infant mortality rate with nine percent of babies dying in the first year of life.

About three-quarters of women give birth without any trained medical help, according to UN figures.

"Women are more vulnerable in camps. At the beginning there were no mosquito nets, not shelter or some food items," said Dr Sevinj Huseynzada, a UN adviser to the health ministry.

At a refugee camp for nearly 3,000 people in Dili, Francisca Lucia, 19, had just returned from hospital with her two-week-old son Pedro Paulo, another child of the crisis.

He was given the name of the saints who look over the Catholic seminary where his pregnant mother found refuge after mobs burnt down a neighbour's home. They now stay in a library at the seminary that has become her makeshift living quarters.

She had no idea when they would eventually go home, with the UN saying many of those displaced by the fighting were likely to remain in camps for months.

Four women have given birth in the refugee camp at the seminary over the last month, according to officials.

"They are psychologically upset because they have been displaced from their homes at a time when there are many changes to their bodies," said Dr Hari Banskota of Care International while visiting the site.

ppy/sm/sst/ns AFP 031015 GMT 07 06

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