SpecialReport: Fight not yet over for Ex-Timorese refugees

Sat, 08/15/2009 1:37 PM  |  Special Report

The events that took place 10 years ago, in September 1999, remain vivid in the mind of Mateus Guedes, a former member of the pro-Indonesia Aitarak militia in Dili.

Mateus and tens of thousands of East Timorese citizens in favor of integration with Indonesia left for neighboring East Nusa Tenggara province in the wake of an independence referendum.

In the UN-sponsored referendum in then East Timor, an overwhelming majority of people voted for independence from Indonesia.

"Our only choice was to flee," Mateus tells The Jakarta Post.

The incident 10 years ago - 23 years into Indonesia's annexation of East Timor - was bloody. East Timorese residents were split into two groups: those in favor of integration and pro-independence, with the former carrying out massacres against the latter.

The pro-integration groups were affiliated with the Integration Defenders Front (PPI), and comprised the militias Alfa (in Lautem), Saca/Sera (Bacau), Makikit (Viqueque), Ablai (Manufahi), AHI (Aileu), Mahidi (Ainaro), Laksaur (Covalima), Aitarak (Dili), Sakunar (Ambeno), BMP (Liquisa), Halilintar (Bobonaro), Jati Merah Putih (Lospalos) and Darah Merah Putih (Ermera), while the pro-independence groups joined the Timor Leste political party's military wing.

At least 100,000 pro-integration refugees fled to East Nusa Tenggara.

Some of them set up shelters in a number of areas in Belu district, while others sought refuge in North Central Timor and Kupang.

They occupied vacant land in those areas, including farmland, public land and hilly areas.

Mateus opted to live in Atambua in Belu district with his extended family, who had been living there since 1975.

Living in a new area and starting from scratch was a problem for the former East Timorese then.

Their claims to being refugees was overlooked, with the national political scene in disarray. A high incidence of violence gripped these shelters and the border area, leaving many casualties.

In a meeting in December 2000, pro-integration leaders Eurico Guterres, from the Aitarak militia, and Cansio Lopes de Calvalho, from the Mahidi militia, insisted the government handle the refugee issue more seriously.

The government eventually provided the refugees with homes through a resettlement program in a number of areas.

After 10 years, most of the refugees claim to still live in misery.

"People from the outside only see that they've been provided with 6-by-6-meter homes," says Eurico, the mastermind of the massacre and destruction of Dili just after the referendum.

"The government is being halfhearted in resolving the issue. The resettlement homes are poorly built in a slipshod manner."

In Oebelo, Kupang, the refugees live in very modest resettlement homes, with dirt floors and wooden planks as roofs.

One water pump is shared among hundreds of people there.

The land, some of them claim, was not given to them for free.

Domingus Soares, a former PPI member living in the camp, says he is still paying for the land he now occupies.

"I have to set aside all my earnings as a farmhand to pay for the house, and not for my family, for years," he tells the Post.

Illness has plagued the family of the former Aitarak militia man. One of his children, less than 5 years old, suffers from malnutrition.

Other problems the refugees claim to suffer include land disputes with local residents.

The former East Timorese also have to pay for having leased the land for the past 10 years. If they refuse to pay, they say, they face eviction.

"People don't know about this," says Eurico, the war criminal convicted by the Indonesian government.

"I want the public to know. Something must be done about this," adds the military-backed militia leader who has never served time in jail.

Similar complaints abound in Belu regency, especially in Atambua. The CIS Timor refugee coordinator in Atambua, Meri, says 20,000 refugees currently live in Atambua, 5,000 of them in shelters.

"The rest live in the resettlements," she says.

She adds former East Timorese have to deal with at least three major issues - land and property disputes, stigma as former East Timor citizens and jealousy.

"The number of institutions concerned with their plight is very limited," Meri says.

Pro-independence East Timorese will celebrate 10 years of freedom from Indonesia later this month in Dili, while their rivals who opted to remain with Indonesia and fled to neighboring East Nusa Tenggara are still camped out in refugee shelters there. The Jakarta Post's ID Nugroho and Yemris Fointuna visited the refugee camps on the border between East Timor (now Timor Leste) and Indonesia from July 17-24, 2009.


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