Subject: Shame of Timor's forgotten people; horrific conditions in refugee camps on our doorstep

The West Australian

July 26, 2008 Saturday

Shame of Timor's forgotten people; Horrific conditions exist in refugee camps on our doorstep. Dawn Gibson reports

As the mini-bus pulls to a stop, a swarm of excited children press their faces against the windows, all big brown eyes and grins.

Their T-shirts are grubby but not puffed out by swollen bellies, the tell-tale sign of malnutrition. While there are no obvious signs of rampant child neglect in Noelbaki, one of the main camps for East Timorese refugees on the outskirts of the bustling West Timorese city of Kupang, appearances are deceiving.

The stench of human desperation is not as pungent as in African refugee camps, but there is no question that these children are among those who the world has chosen to forget.

Most know no other life except for Noelbaki, a ramshackle "village" of corrugated-iron shacks and traditional thatched-roof homes built hastily on the site of a former bus station. They are the poorest of the poor in one of the most destitute parts of Indonesia, Nusa Tenggara, an arc of islands a short flight from Darwin where infant mortality is high even by Indonesian standards. In the province of West Timor, more than half of all children under five are underweight or stunted.

The families of Noelbaki fled East Timor to escape the bloody aftermath of the vote for independence in August 1999, when militias supported by the Indonesian military massacred about 1500 people and burnt most of the houses and buildings in the capital Dili to the ground.

In June 2006, Dili again saw violence as gangs torched buildings and hit refugee camps.

The plight of the East Timorese attracted a fresh ripple of global attention this month when the Indonesia-Timor Leste Joint Commission for Truth and Friendship released a report critical of Indonesian military involvement in the bloodbath.

However, it is hard to see how the report will make a difference to the people of Noelbaki and its two sister camps, which Indonesia is trying to shut down.

Winston Rondo, who has worked for several international aid agencies assisting refugees, said about 150,000 people fled across the East/West Timorese border to camps near Kupang in late 1999. Other groups estimate 250,000 people left East Timor.

Almost a decade later, about 5000 people remain in the camps, including about 2000 in Noelbaki. Some fear violent retribution from neighbours if they return to East Timor because family members were involved in the violence or they were among the minority who voted for autonomy rather than independence. Others believe they have nothing to return to.

Mr Rondo, the co-ordinator of refugee support group CIS Timor, believes the camps have become a sad footnote to the 1999 conflict.

The Australian Government, through AusAID, runs programs in Nusa Tenggara, including a $49 million project to cut the mortality rate of babies and mothers.

However, because the Indonesian Government wants to close the camps, international aid agencies have been discouraged from giving direct support to the refugees, relabelled as "new residents" of Indonesia.

While conditions have improved as residents have faded, malaria and dengue fever remain all too common in the camps. There is no clean drinking water and sanitation is all but non-existent. Most children will not be educated beyond primary level.

It is hard to believe this camp is less than a 15-minute drive from Kupang, a former Dutch trading port that has sprawled into a bustling centre of more than 300,000 people.

The grime and heavy traffic that characterise Indonesian cities is offset in Kupang by a plum coastal location which attracts international businessmen and a stream of tourists, who enjoy seafood feasts in ritzy restaurants and stay in opulent hotels.

For Noelbaki residents, leisure is a rougher affair. A couple of beaten-up pool tables take pride of place near the community square, while cock fights are popular. Bemos adorned with decals of sexy women honk their way through the camp, blaring Eminem and Indonesian boy bands.

John Magno Dearaujo, at 77 one of the oldest refugees, is one of many who believe there is no way home to East Timor. With the help of a translator he explained that while he felt an ancient tie to his homeland, he would stay in West Timor because he voted against independence.

Those who refuse to return to East Timor are persuaded to relocate to "re-settlement areas".

In one such area about 20 minutes from Noelbaki, about 200 people live a hand-to-mouth existence farming corn and cassava. Though the single row of stone and wood homes is not dissimilar to those found in villages all over Indonesia, Mr Rondo said the refugees did not own the small patches of land they farmed and they could not access Government subsidies.

Even so, they were one step up from the camp dwellers.

"When you ask about the children born in the camps, their future is just like water flowing," he said.

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