East Timor refugees languish in camps, too frightened to go home

UCANews

DILI, East Timor (UCAN) \u2013 Alfonso do Rego lays listlessly on an old, dirty mattress. His father, Julio do Rego, says the nine-month-old has a respiratory infection.

“He is coughing a lot and has a fever,” the father told UCA News as he prepared a bottle of milk to feed his baby.

In May, Julio do Rego brought his wife and four children to Canossian Centre Balide in Dili, which has become a crowded refuge from the street violence.

The mutiny of the 1,400-strong army, resulting in armed clashes and gang violence pitting locals from eastern and western parts of East Timor, turned the seaside capital of the fledgling country into an anarchic playground for machete-wielding, unemployed youth.

The street violence has ended, but troubles persist for thousands like the do Rego family taking refuge in Church and NGO-run shelters. Tens of thousands keep languishing in poor conditions and are compelled to depend on handouts.

The country has a new prime minister, Jose Ramos Horta, who took over on July 10 from Mari Alkatiri. However, even if the atmosphere on the streets has improved, many are still fearful.

Young children like Afonso are at the greatest medical risk in the camps. Afonso’s father Julio, 40, is a daily-wage construction worker with a family to support. Now, he has no work and no home.

Julio comes from the east, and his wife Marta Gomes, 36, from the west. They were living in Dili’s Bairopite district, an area where many houses were torched. “My home is burned, so how can I go home? And my baby is sick, who wants to help me?” Julio asked UCA News on July 19.

Marta added that baby Afonso has received treatment from Cuban doctors who visit them a few times a week, but he still coughs and cries. According to a local doctor, about 500 Cuban doctors serve in clinics and hospitals of the country, which has a poor medical infrastructure and few doctors.

Living conditions in the camp are a concern. Canossian Sister Madalena Soares, along with 21 other nuns, cares for the 1,500 refugees in the camp. She told UCA News on July 17 that the children are at risk from disease.

“Living conditions are the biggest cause of children getting sick,” she said, “because they sleep in the open, play in the dust and the bad hygiene makes them vulnerable to disease.”

Sister Soares pointed to a corner where some small girls were playing with dolls in the dust. “Look at them, I have warned their parents not to let the children play in the dust, but it does not stop,” the nun said, adding, “Then I realize these children need to play and miss their playtime.”

Sister Joana Araujo confirmed that many children in the camps are getting sick. “Every day, at least two more children get sick here,” she said. She added, however, that they now have regular contact with the hospitals and the doctors, so there is no problem to get medical attention for serious cases.

Flora, 7, has respiratory problems like those of Afonso. According to her mother Laura Ximenes, 30, the girl has been coughing for two days and her condition persists despite the medicine she has been taking.

Doctor Luis do Reg, a Timorese, reiterated the nuns’ concerns. He told UCA News on July 17 at the Guido Valadares National Hospital in Dili that “the children easily get sick due to the living conditions.” Even the medicine may not work if not complemented with good living conditions, he said.

He said the national hospital’s mobile teams treating people in the refugee camps see many children becoming ill due to the climate change, from rainy season to the current dry season, and also because of the poor hygiene.

The camps offer food but, more importantly, a place to take refuge. Some people guard their homes during the day and return at night to sleep in the camps. Nighttime is a time of fear, they say.

Father Apolinario Aparicio, vicar general of Dili, told UCA News the Church is helping the refugees to reintegrate back into their communities, but little can be done for those whose homes were burned.

“The Church encourages them to go home and do their daily activities, but the Church cannot force them,” Father Aparicio said. He added that the refugees worry about security, and according to his estimate, at least 12,000 people continue to take refuge in 12 Catholic churches and centers in Dili.

For baby Afonso’s father, security and a roof over his family’s head are key concerns, and Father Agostinho Soares, who heads the Justice and Peace Commission of Dili diocese, understands the problem.

Father Soares told UCA News on July 20 that the main reason people stay in the camps is security. “Most people in the refugee camps are from the east,” he said. “They are afraid to go home unless their security is guaranteed.”

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