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

Agence France Presse — English

October 12, 2007 Friday 3:05 AM GMT

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.”

str-nsh-bs/sb/lod

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