Mon, Aug 07, 2006 - Page 4 News List

East Timorese refugees still too frightened to go home


More than two months after battalions of foreign troops arrived in East Timor to restore calm, tens of thousands of refugees are still living in grim camps, saying they are too terrified to return home.

Sitting under a plastic tarpaulin offering scant protection from rain and mosquitoes, Paolo Soares says he prefers to stay at a crowded convent, even though his youngest daughter contracted diarrhea and died there.

"Last Sunday, after I went past my house on a motorbike, I was hit by a rock thrown by my neighbor," said Soares, who originally hails from Baucau in the country's east.

Usually non-existent divisions between east and west were tapped into during the violence that rocked Asia's poorest nation in May, leaving at least 21 people dead.

"I and my family still want to stay here because there is no security guarantee for us," added the 43-year-old father of nine.

Soares and his family fled to the Canossian convent on April 28, when a demonstration by deserting military troops erupted into violence that left two dead and caused thousands to flee their homes.

That demonstration was followed in May by fighting between rival factions of East Timor's security forces, which degenerated into ethnic warfare. Some 3,200 international peacekeepers were rapidly deployed while an estimated 150,000 people left their homes. Barely any have returned.

Some 72,000 people in Dili are still receiving food aid, while about 80,000 people are displaced outside the capital, UN Humanitarian Coordinator Finn Reske-Nielsen said.

"There's no doubt that the international forces have reestablished peace and security in Dili, but I think there's a perception among many of the IDPs [internally displaced people] that the fundamental issues have not been resolved," he said.

East Timorese Prime Minister Jose Ramos-Horta said on Thursday that he was confident the camps would be emptied within the next two months, promising to set up security posts in each of Dili's suburbs.

But refugee Soares said he was tired of politicians pressuring them to leave.

"In my opinion, if the leaders can't lead, it's better we surrender this country to foreigners to lead. They urge us to go home, but they don't know what the reality of our lives here is," he snapped.

Soares and his family are among some 17,000 refugees living cheek-by-jowl inside the convent in Balide, on the outskirts of the capital.

Just four unarmed guards patrol the single entrance but refugees say they are safe at such religious institutions in the predominantly Catholic nation.

At least 2,000 people shelter under makeshift tarpaulin covers, with the remainder in aid-agency tents or inside the convent.

Since May, four children and an adult have died of preventable disease there, camp director Sister Gueilhermina Marcal said.

Another refugee, 40-year-old Hipolito Marques, said he was also staying as security was uncertain.

"I want to stay here because I see that the country's leaders haven't sat down together to discuss and resolve the problems in the military, and problems between the military and national police," he said.

Marcal said the sisters had tried to send some of the refugees back to their villages and Dili's suburbs.

"We have tried to advise them to return to their houses, but three to four days after they return home, the results are not good. People throw rocks at them, threaten them," the 47-year-old nun said.

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