Subject: Church Mediates To Help IDPs Return Home

TIMOR LESTE Church Mediates To Help Refugees Return Home

July 30, 2008 | TL05440.1508 | 594 words

DILI (UCAN) -- Martinho Gusmao's former neighbors do not want him back and refuse to allow him to rebuild his home, razed to the ground by rioters two years ago, he says.

So Gusmao and his family remain in a refugee camp near the Dili airport. "I am very sad, disappointed and suffer a lot because this kind of situation has forced me to live in tents for more than two years. I miss my home but how can we go home? Our neighbors do not accept us," he told UCA News on July 25.

Such animosity has its roots in the communal violence that erupted in Timor Leste in mid-2006, following the dismissal of more than one-third of the country's army. The dismissed soldiers, from the western part of the country, alleged discrimination. Tensions sparked by the dismissal degenerated into clashes between groups claiming to represent "easterners" and "westerners."

Groups armed with machetes, swords, knives and sticks fought on the streets, and at least 20 people died. Meanwhile, around 100,000 people, mostly in the Dili area, fled their homes to take refuge with relatives or in makeshift refugee camps, many of these set up at Catholic churches and centers.

Fear of youth violence haunts many of the people, mostly easterners, still living in the remaining camps. The Ministry of Social Affairs, Labor and Solidarity puts their number at 64,367, in 44 camps. These people say they worry that violence awaits them should they return home, if their house was not burned in the rioting. Many say westerners have occupied their homes.

The social services program of Dili diocese has found this reality a major challenge since it began a reintegration program last year. Father Aniceto Maia da Costa, program coordinator, told UCA News on July 14 that the diocese is working together with the government on this matter.

One solution proposed by the government for the problems Gusmao and others face is to build transitional shelters to accommodate people whose return their former neighbors oppose.

However, Father da Costa does not think building transitional shelters will solve the problem. "That is why the Church is trying to mediate with neighbors to accept the refugees, through visits and counseling," he said. "Those people must return home, and the Church is continuing to mediate so they will be accepted and live side by side in harmony."

The government has provided refugees with the equivalent of up to US$4,500 to rebuild their homes, but, again, Father da Costa says this will not suffice.

"The refugee problem is complex. The refugees must be well-accepted by the locals once they return home," he explained. He pointed out that the Church program aims to reconcile these people and bring them together as soon as possible. "Every week we visit, talk and encourage the neighbors to accept the others."

The priest acknowledges that healing the wounds of people on both sides who suffered will take time, but he maintains that in order to gain peace and prosperity, people must forget the past and look forward with hope.

"If there is still revenge in people's heart, peace will never come. Only forgiveness will allow all refugees to return home and live side-by-side in harmony," he said.

The Church efforts have already paid off for some. Lorenco da Silva returned recently to his neighborhood and the burnt ruins of his home. "I am so happy that my neighbors welcomed and accepted me like family," he told UCA News on July 20.

Timor Leste has a population of about 1 million, 95 percent of whom are Catholics.

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