Too scared to go home, Timorese in limbo

The Age

27 July 2008

By Ben Doherty- THERE is food now, for the markets are open, and the men have found work on local farms.

But Dominges Enriques has lived too many — nine — of her 34 years at Noelbaki to believe it will last. Her family has no land of its own to work, and without it she must buy her food. Soon it will be expensive once more. She knows her children will go hungry again.

Ms Enriques is proudly East Timorese, but she has not been back to her homeland since the violent birth that gave her country its independence in 1999. As she was married to an Indonesian, East Timor was not safe for her at emancipation, and she fears it is still not: “Timor Leste now, it has many problems, and it makes me afraid to go back.”

So she finds herself still in Noelbaki, an ad hoc refugee camp built abutting a bus terminal on the outskirts of the port town of Kupang in West Timor. She has lived here for almost a decade.

Noelbaki is a shantytown of tumble-down lean-tos, half-tarpaulin-half-corrugated-iron shacks, and traditional one-room thatched huts. At its peak immediately following the independence violence it housed about 20,000 people. Now, it is home to about one-tenth that number.

It remains a bare and desolate place. Concrete floors are rare. Electricity and running water are unimagined luxuries. There is no grass. During the dry season, the earth is baked hard, turned to dust. During the wet, homes are filled with water for days at a time, and the land is unworkable mud. Outbreaks of dengue fever, malaria and chicken pox sweep through the camp with depressing regularity, aid workers say.
“The children don’t have many fruits and vegetables and they don’t get healthy from eating,” Ms Enriques says. “Some-times they are very sick.”

But Dominges Enriques is not a unique case. There are more than 20,000 refugees (former refugees, officially) in West Timor, but almost the entire population of 1.6 million is vulnerable to famine and rising food prices.

A five-year drought was broken this year by flooding rains that swept away or ruined almost every crop.

A study in May by aid agency World Church Service of nearly 5000 families in West Timor found 91% of homes are classified as “food insecure”, meaning they don’t have regular, affordable access to safe, nutritionally adequate food.

As a result, the survey found, 61% of children aged under five in West Timor are chronically malnourished and suffering from stunted growth. Thirteen per cent of children under five are classified as suffering acute malnutrition — ttheir bodies are wasting away for lack of food. Fifty-eight per cent are suffering from anaemia, 80% of those under two. About 50% of West Timorese children are underweight, more than twice the figure in Africa.

There is concern from aid agencies that the current situation could result in a “lost generation” of West Timorese due to the irreversible damage to cognitive and physical development caused by malnutrition.

The Australian Government’s aid arm, AusAid, has a long-standing presence in West Timor, running programs to tackle infant mortality and help the fledgling provincial government administer its funds.

But aid workers say while the problems of West Timor are myriad, it is the food shortage that is most pressing, exacerbated this year by crop failure and imported food prices pushed up by the cost of oil. Even rice subsidised by the Government is too expensive for some.

There is despair all around in Noelbaki. Winston Rondo, co-ordinator of CIS Timor, an NGO which has helped East Timorese refugees since 1999, says few in the camp can see a way out. “The people here do not know what is their future,” he says. “They are just like water flowing; they will see what will happen tomorrow.”

Most of the men here are farmers, and, without the prospect of getting any land, have no skills to parlay into an income. Some are drunk when The Age visits, as they watch preparations for another cockfight on a blood-stained patch of bare earth.

The police are called. They come this time, but not always. This is not a safe place. Domestic violence is common, according to Mr Rondo, as are sexual assaults.

But the residents of Noelbaki are trapped. These people are not refugees but “new citizens”, according to Jakarta. But it provides precious little support. Save for a bare primary-level schooling at a half-converted bus shelter and rudimentary health checks at village health posts, they feel ignored by a distant Government.

Their relationship with their homeland is equally fraught. Most at Noelbaki supported East Timor becoming an autonomous region of Indonesia in 1999 rather than an independent nation. But with the vote for secession overwhelming, the non-believers were driven out of East Timor, attacked in the streets, their houses razed.

Few believe their “problems” are forgotten back home, nor do they trust life has improved there since 1999. And so they remain, neither one, nor the other.

They carry a past they cannot leave behind, and a future that, for many, is without hope.

It is this that troubles Filipe de Araujo. Three of his four children were born at Noelbaki. They know no other life. He desperately wants to take them back to East Timor but cannot say when he will.

“For me, right now, it is too hard,” he tells The Age through an interpreter. “I am afraid of the situation (in East Timor), afraid for my children to be safe. It is not OK for us there.”

But he says life in the camp offers his children little hope: “We have given up. This is our life, this is our future, but what is there? We have given up.”

Ben Doherty travelled to West Timor as a fellow of the Asia Pacific Journalism Centre.

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