Subject: AP: Humanitarian crisis looms as thousands flee in East Timor

Humanitarian crisis looms as thousands flee in East Timor

First posted 00:01am (Mla time) June 02, 2006

Associated Press

DILI, East Timor -- Angelita Gonzales, heading into the ninth month of her third pregnancy, has been sleeping on the floor of a basketball court for almost four weeks.

When the labor pains come, "I don't know where I'll go. I should be at home," said the distraught housewife, who fled her home in East Timor's capital, Dili, when violence began last month.

Like thousands of others, Gonzales and her family have sought refuge in community centers and churches from weeks of uncertainty, fighting between government and rebel troops and open gang warfare in the streets.

Thousands of others have fled the city altogether to stay with relatives in outlying villages or in camps.

More than 70,000 refugees are staying in makeshift camps surrounding the seaside capital and 30,000 others are in camps outside the city, said Kym Smithies, a spokeswoman for a group of 30 aid agencies working in East Timor.

Some 3,000 women in the camps are pregnant, she said.

At Don Bosco, a Roman Catholic community center in Dili, families huddle together under plastic sheeting shielding them from the tropical sun. The sound of children coughing can be heard throughout the camp, though aid groups say there is no sign of any outbreak of serious disease.

Smithies said at least 13,000 people are staying at the center -- the largest camp in the city.

Some people venture out into the city during the day to collect firewood for cooking fires. They are too scared to leave the camp at night.

"The situation is not good," Smithies said. "We need the security situation back to normal as soon as possible. We don't want people to die because of the political situation."

The group she represents includes several UN bodies, the International Organization for Migration, the International Red Cross and other agencies.

A dispute between about 600 disgruntled former soldiers and the government brewed for weeks before it erupted last month into armed clashes. After the rebels took up positions in the hills surrounding the capital, machete-wielding gangs took to the streets, fighting, looting and burning houses.

A foreign peacekeeping force of more than 2,000 personnel has so far failed to secure the city, though the violence has become less frequent.

Father Adriano de Jesus, head of Don Bosco's training center, said security was his greatest concern.

"At night a gang was at the gates banging, terrorizing the people," de Jesus said. "We need protection."

Gonzales said in her neighborhood, Comoro, dozens of houses have been torched.

"I am too scared to go home, where I should be in this condition," Gonzales said. "I have too much pain to move. We will stay until things are safe and that is not the case now."

Others in the camp are too terrified to venture out despite dwindling supplies.

"We don't have enough food. We are running out of water," said Carlos Carvalho, as he peered into the street where two gangs of armed men roamed.

"Many people are afraid to go to town, and even if they did the shops are closed," he said.

Others said the loss of their houses was a distant concern while gangs still roamed the streets.

"I am afraid to return to my neighborhood," said Marja Saja, 37, who is staying at the Don Bosco center with her husband and two children. "My house was destroyed. That's OK, but I fear for my life. Many young people were fighting with machetes."

On Thursday, East Timor President Xanana Gusmao visited a camp of displaced people across the street from the main U.N. compound. There, he met 72-year-old Alfredo Soares, who said his 32-year-old son, Joao, had been killed earlier that morning after believing it safe to return home.

"My son's body is still in his house," said a distraught Soares. "Mr. President, please help us take his body for burial."

Gusmao embraced the weeping man, and said he would ask his assistants to help recover the body.

"At the moment, I cannot serve one family," he said. "I have to go around and talk to the people."

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