Subject: UCAN: Dili refugees fear going home due to new hostilities, intimidation

October 5,2006

Dili refugees fear going home due to new hostilities, intimidation

DILI (UCAN) -- The thousands of people still sheltering in makeshift refugee camps around Dili would rather risk disease than the violent streets of the capital.

Months after the May crisis, many of the internally displaced people still fear that violence would await them should they return to their homes.

So they stay in the camps and wait for politicians, international peacekeeping troops and the United Nations to solve the simmering divisions in this small Catholic-majority country of just under a million people. Recent gang clashes on the streets and the escape of a rebel military leader from jail in August have reconfirmed their fears.

Paolo Soares, 35, is one of about 2,000 people living inside the Canossian convent compound in Dili. He grieves for his year-old daughter, who died of diarrhea in the camp in June, but is too afraid to leave.

"My family and I still want to stay here because there is no guarantee of safety for us (outside)," Soares told UCA News Sept. 20, standing amid the tents that have replaced homes for some of the refugees.

"I do not want to see more people die because of illness, especially the kids. We are suffering enough," said the construction worker and father of three. "To die for independence is an honor for us, but we do not want to die after independence. We want to enjoy what we fought for."

Timor-Leste, or East Timor, became an independent country in May 2002 after more than 400 years of Portuguese colonial rule, 25 years as part of Indonesia and two years under a transitional U.N. administration.

Other people at the Canossian center also say they are staying put. Luis Freitas, 35, feels somewhat safe in the nuns' care. "We are not really concerned about security because people respect and listen to the sisters and priests," he said. Recently, he recalled, two groups of youths living near the convent clashed repeatedly over several days, but the nuns reconciled them.

The relative safety behind the gates does not make the violence on the streets any less worrying for Sister Guilhermina Marcal. But sanitation conditions inside the compound are a pressing concern. She told UCA News Sept. 20 that four children and an adult had died of preventable illness since May.

"We have had people with us for almost five months already, so it is difficult to maintain sanitation facilities," said the 48-year-old nun in charge of the convent. "We have six mobile toilets plus 30 (fixed) toilets, but most are already broken because many people do not know how to use them," she explained.

In Sister Marcal's analysis "political interests" are influencing the country's leaders and petty criminals are being incited to create instability. "I'm pretty sure that some political leaders are playing behind the violence," she said.

The problem could be solved, she continued, if the government opened itself to discussions with other institutions and civil society. "We are facing a big problem that is taking too long to solve," she stated.

Sister Marcal also wants East Timor's leaders to find the courage to confess to the public that they are to blame for the situation. Forgiveness, acceptance, reconciliation and justice are necessary in dealing with the people who have committed crimes, but more importantly, she said, political leaders and parties should show political maturity in solving the problem.

In another camp, set up in the parking area of the U.N. headquarters in Dili, some 4,000 refugees claim they feel unsafe.

"We have been attacked with stones, arrows, and even homemade Molotov cocktails, but they (the culprits) are gone when the international forces arrive," Liborio dos Santos told UCA News Sept. 21. Still the 30-year-old camp manager agrees with many others that going home is not an option. People "chase me away from my house as if I'm a thief," he said.

On Sept. 21, a taxi driver was stabbed at Colmera shopping center. "I saw a man plunge a knife into the driver's stomach, then he ran quickly into the camp," someone claiming to be an eyewitness told UCA News Sept. 21, pointing to a refugee camp near the shopping center.

Meanwhile, at least six homes were torched and eight people injured due to a conflict between easterners and westerners in Comoro, behind the U.S. Embassy.

"Today, we received eight injured people. Two people were stabbed, four were shot with arrows and the other two were hit with stones," Antonio Caleres, director of the National Hospital in Dili, told UCA News Sept. 27.

According to media reports, at least 200 people have been injured in gang conflicts since international peacekeeping forces arrived in May.

These incidents have shaken the city and its surroundings after the May crisis appeared to have died down. That crisis came after then-prime minister Mari Alkatiri dismissed 600 soldiers from the country's 1,400-member army when they protested what they said was discrimination against soldiers from the west. The tension degenerated into clashes between groups claiming to represent easterners and westerners.

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