Sun, May 28, 2006 - Page 4 News List

Convent offers refugees sanctuary


Sister Gui Luxermina may strive to display the patience of a saint, but the Dili nun admits her temper is being tested by the violence that saw her convent inundated with fearful refugees a month ago.

Gui and eight other nuns from the Canossa order are struggling to provide services for thousands of refugees jammed into a downtown convent compound designed to house 200 female student boarders.

The once immaculately tended gardens have become a quagmire as families shelter under tarpaulins, drains are more like open sewers and straw sleeping mats cover every square centimeter of floorspace in the convent's corridors.

"We're really stretched very thin now," Gui said. "It's been 29 days now and we're still getting people coming in from new areas where there has been fresh violence."

"It's a difficult thing because we don't know how long we can continue to look after these people. There's only nine of us [nuns], so it's almost a 24-hour job and we need to find more water, rice and oil," she said.

Gui's ire is aimed not at the refugees but at rival military factions behind the violence and the politicians who allowed the grievances to fester.

"These people are too scared to go home," she said, gesturing to the groups lining up for rice rations distributed from blue UN buckets. "They want the government to tell them that they won't be in danger and they're just waiting and waiting."

While the violence in East Timor has often been ferocious, warring factions have so far avoided taking the fighting into the convent grounds.

Anna Maria, 37, moved into the grounds because she feels safe there, which she does not in her own home.

"I moved in here following the April 28 shootings because I feel truly unsafe and particularly this morning there was heavy shooting outside the convent but not a single person has tried to get in here yet," she said.

Gui said the convent exhausted a year's supply of water in the first week of the crisis and other basics were becoming increasingly scarce.

"The world needs to know because we don't know how long we can go on," she said.

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