For East Timor’s displaced, the return home is slow

Agence France Presse — English

October 12, 2007 Friday 3:05 AM GMT

For East Timor’s displaced, the return home is slow

Nelson da Cruz

DILI, Oct 12 2007

Jacinta Barros, an East Timorese mother of eight, sits on a bed in her new temporary home, a one-room affair that sleeps 13 of her relatives, refugees from unrest last year who still cannot go home.

By day, the spartan room bakes in the searing tropical sun and by night it gets chilly as a wind blows under the eaves where ceilings should be.

It is a step up from the camp they have moved from, but only just, as tiny, impoverished East Timor still struggles to shift thousands of people displaced by the violence that flared among security forces back to their homes.

Some 155,000 people, or about 15 percent of East Timor’s population, were estimated to have fled their homes amid the sudden bloodshed that followed the sacking of deserting soldiers.

Divisions arose among people from the east and west, dividing previously harmonious neighbourhoods. At least 37 people were killed.

According to government figures, 62,000 are still living in camps in Dili and across the predominantly Catholic nation.

The 60 families at this complex of three-by-three metre (yard) rooms are in a kind of limbo, moving from the camps ahead of the onset of the rainy season, but still lacking homes or fearing security is too lax for them to return.

Their plight illustrates the ongoing difficulties East Timorese authorities face in coping with the displaced despite the presence of thousands of international peacekeepers and UN police despatched in the wake of the unrest.

Barros’ home and shop were torched and her family evacuated with nothing but the clothes on their backs. The bed she sits on is one of just two pieces of furniture her family managed to salvage from their home — by paying neighbours to retrieve them.

“We had to flee because there were serious threats to our lives, because we come from Baucau” in the east, Barros said. “Every night we have to sleep together, the 13 of us, in this small space. My children have to sleep on plastic sheets as we have no carpet,” said Barros, describing the room as little more than a “stall at the market”.

The room, adorned with a poster of the Virgin Mary, is built of a traditional bark and while there are roofs, they lack ceilings for insulation, Barros said.

“When the wind blows, dust enters the room making our things dirty and my one-month-old baby cough,” she complained.

The family cooks in the open, in front of their room, sharing the space with five neighbouring families, while they share a bathroom with one other family.

Neighbour Antastacia Wonga, 29, is from Indonesia’s Flores island. She shares her room with her husband, mother-in-law and four children.

“This room is okay, I guess. It is just a little bit better than that in Canossa (the convent where they sheltered previously), because we can now be protected from the rain and wind,” she told AFP.

“The problem is our family has to eat, change clothes and sleep in the same room.”

Wonga and her East Timorese husband also fled Dili with nothing but what they were wearing.

“Everything else was burned along with our home. Even our pets were killed or stolen,” Wonga said.

The complex is just a few hundred metres from a church and a police station, and a UN police patrol vehicle is parked nearby, but still rock-throwing sporadically breaks out, residents said.

Such low-level violence persists in erupting between rival groups — it is not always clear just what the disputes are — across Dili and other areas of the country, disrupting the lives of ordinary people.

Temporary homes were built at three locations in the seaside capital last year and provide shelter for 300 families, said Joaquim Paulo, an official who assesses the potential of reintegrating people into their old neighbourhoods.

No more will be built, however, as the monsoon will soon hit, said manpower and community reinsertion minister Dominggas Alves.

“The IDPs (internally displaced people) themselves also do not want to stay in these transit places because what they want is to return to their own places,” he said.

Many homes however were destroyed, or security remains a concern, but the government plans to help them, he said.

“But as to how we will do that I cannot tell you yet.

“If we can return them all to their homes next year, that would be great. But we have to see that their numbers are great, therefore priorities will have to be set.”

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