Subject: Dili upheaval dumps children on scrap heap

The Australian 17 November 99

Dili upheaval dumps children on scrap heap


NINE-year-old Nando Freitas is one of a horde of East Timorese children who spend their days scavenging in the garbage dump just west of Dili, running after the army trucks which regularly unload plastic sacks of paper, kitchen refuse, old pieces of corrugated iron, and litter in the hot and smouldering wasteland.

"My mother, she is at home," Nando said. "I come here with different people to get food." He went to school before the turmoil in East Timor, but for the past couple of months he has been following his own agenda ­ as a child of the dump. "My school has burned so I cannot go, but I will go back some time."

John Francisco is one of the few adults at the dump. Once a worker in a coffee factory, since the arrival of Interfet in the territory he has regularly visited the dump on his bike to find food for his pigs. "These children, if they see something that's good to eat, they can eat it," he said. "The problem is that many people's houses have been burned, people come here to get any foreigner's rubbish for their houses."

Mr Francisco shrugged. "It's dirty here, but for us it's normal. Many trucks come out here every day, so many we cannot count them."

A little girl, perhaps five years old, stands in the shade of a tree playing with a condom she has just pulled out of its packet, while her friends, children slightly older than her, see a truck coming and run to be first as it unloads.

Nine-year-old Alsina, who is unsure of her own surname, stays behind with the five-year-old. Her mother was scavenging in the rubbish, her father was missing, she said. "I come here every day," she said, "I play here."

Schools are scheduled to reopen soon in Dili but, for many of these children, school is simply not an option. Some experts estimate that half the families in the city are homeless in one way or another; living with friends or relatives, squatting in other people's houses, or in the remains of their own homes. The logistics of books, pens, uniforms and transport is simply beyond them.

Age Soares, aged 14, doesn't want to go to school. He has collected a cardboard box of edibles; small boxes of cereal and long-life milk, a plastic bag of old beans, sachets of sugar, a couple of plastic water bottles. He walks to the dump every day to see what is there. "There are many things here," he said. "The best thing I found so far was fish in a bottle." -----

Sydney Morning Herald 17/11/99

Find that shook young troops

Interfet forces are discovering horror and innocence in East Timor, writes PAUL DALEY in Dili.

It was the child's body that really upset the young Australian soldiers. The villagers led them first to the remains of an independence activist, in a shallow grave. Not far away another man's body lay decomposing on top of the earth.

And inside a nearby house in the village near the East Timor town of Liquica the soldiers from the 5/7 Royal Australian Regiment found the activist's baby son.

The boy's legs had been cut off and his charred body was propped on a trestle near a religious photograph. Perhaps seven weeks after his death - allegedly at the hands of an Indonesian militia group - religious medallions still dangled from his neck.

''As a soldier you are trained to deal with this sort of thing, but nothing really prepares you for it,'' said Corporal Troy Wittwer.

''It really affected me, because I've got two kids of my own back home. It just makes you think about them - how much you miss them.''

''It's sick. You just wonder how anyone could do this sort of thing to a child, no matter who his parents were or what they'd done,'' said Private Scott Filby.

Soldiers are trained to kill. And those attached 5/7 RAR - a mechanised component of Darwin's First Brigade, which is attached to Interfet - are no different. But a child's death will always disturb those who are taught that children must be protected at all costs.

In Liquica, where Major Shane Gabriel's 5/7 RAR B-Company is based, the men have also been saving lives. Some of the lives they have saved have been those accused by their fellow East Timorese of previous involvement with the militia.

In the past 20 days B-Company has been fanning out into the hills behind Liquica, securing routes and villages and spreading the message that Interfet is making East Timor safe.

''As you'd appreciate, feelings are still running very, very high towards anyone who is thought to be associated with militia, and when people have been coming back in with the refugees there has been occasion when people have been identified falsely as militia and there have been some assaults. We have been involved in getting people out of those situations,'' Major Gabriel said.

The unit is still coming across villagers who did not know Interfet was in East Timor.

''When we've been up into the hills, some of the people we have come across in the more isolated pockets have not come across Interfet before. They're very, very happy to see us,'' said Major Gabriel.

In Bazartete, a hilltop village about 30 kilometres from Liquica, B-Company set up digs in an abandoned Portuguese villa over the weekend. Private Paul Holland, 19, immediately connected with a group of children who began telling him Bazartete's story.

Motioning to a group of children gathered around him, Private Holland said: ''I've worked out that the oldest in this group is about 16 and the youngest is four. I'm still asking about their parents. I'm basically letting them know we're here, so they pass on the word to the grown-ups that it's safe.''

While many troops entered East Timor expecting action, few admit to being disappointed that they have had little or no ''contact'' with the militia.

''I think a lot of guys thought it'd be a war zone, but really our work is more like policing,'' Private Filby said. ''Boredom can be a problem here at times, but our bosses are fantastic. They understand that and they give us our space.''

Private Scott Lehnoff said:

''From what I saw on the news before we came over, it was a bit hairy and scary to start with. I thought it would be a bit more action-packed. But in fact it hasn't been. I think that's probably a good thing, too.''

Their spirits are lifted by the continuous flow of faxes and letters from Australian well- wishers and packages from the Vietnam Veterans' Association. They are also receiving hundreds of soft toys which they pass on to East Timor's children.

While some childless soldiers admit that East Timor's children are making them think about starting families, the children also give Interfet's fathers and mothers cause to think about their families in Australia.

''These kids would break your heart,'' said B-Company's Sergeant Craig Tyson. ''After what they've been through, they've got no right to laugh and sing and smile, but they just smile all the time.''

The second in command of 5/7 RAR, Major Rohan Martin, says that the children are an invaluable source of information to Interfet.

''Of course, the thing about children is that they are very innocent. They are very honest and you get very natural reactions and responses from them. That can help our work,'' he says.

''They help us, and nobody here likes to see a kid go without a parent or without food. We don't like to see them go without anything.''

But it is evident that many East Timorese children have been left without parents, homes and adequate nutrition.

As the 5/7 B-Company discovered to its distress, some have also become innocent casualties.

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