Matt Crook and Domingos Fernandes, Dili – Disgruntled Timorese living in one of Dili's camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) were told on Tuesday that the verification process that will allow many of them to return home will begin on Wednesday, although thousands more remain in IDP camps around the district.
About 100 IDPs marched from the Obrigado Barracks camp, which is located in a car park opposite the United Nations compound, to the Ministry of Social Solidarity to demand answers as to why they have been unable to return to their homes since being displaced in 2006 when clashes within Timorese security forces incited violence among local street gangs and youth groups.
The protesters congregated at the entrance to Obrigado Barracks at about 1 pm, locking the gates to the camp and leaving UN staff unable to remove their vehicles from the compound.
In a bid to draw attention to their plight, the protesters shook the gates and heckled passing government vehicles, a foreign source working for a local security firm said.
The source added that the protesters opened the gates and calmed down after it was suggested that they wait for journalists to arrive. UN Police officers and local security officials maintained the peace.
Ilidio Gayo, resident of Obrigado Barracks and head of security at the camp, told reporters that the families living there are ready to return home, but the government has been unable to give a definite answer as to when.
Some 322 families comprising 1,508 people are registered on the Ministry of Social Solidarity database as living at Obrigado Barracks.
"First we were told we could leave in June, then they told us August and now we are told we cannot leave," said Mr Gayo.
At about 2:30 PM Mr Gayo led a march to the Ministry of Social Solidarity, located five minutes' walk from Obrigado Barracks. There protesters rallied outside the entrance and demanded a meeting with an official of the ministry.
The group were blocked from entering the building by National Police of East Timor Officers while armed Portuguese Republican National Guard troops arrived at the scene and kept watch over the proceedings. After a brief standoff, seven of the protesters were allowed into the building and the remainder were escorted outside the grounds.
The seven protesters were granted an audience with Jacinto Rigoberto Gomes, secretary of state for Social Assistance and Natural Disasters. The two parties discussed the situation and Mr Gomes said that verification of displaced people living at Obrigado Barracks would begin the next day.
The Ministry of Social Solidarity has 15,000 people registered in its database awaiting verification, which is part of a five-part process leading up to IDPs returning home.
During verification, representatives from the Ministry of Social Solidarity travel to the homes of IDPs, often accompanied by members of international aid organizations, to assess individual circumstances.
Nadia Hadi, humanitarian affairs officer for the UN Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said that the verification process can take up to three weeks and is dependant on factors such as where IDPs lived and whether their homes are still standing after the conflict.
A government schedule dictates when verification at each IDP camp begins, although a source from the Ministry of Social Solidarity said that the march on Tuesday likely only brought forward the date for Obrigado Barracks by a few days.
Estimates put up to 30,000 people still living in Dili's 28 remaining IDP camps, the source added.
Some 22 IDP camps in Dili have been closed by the government and those living there have returned home or to host communities. IDPs typically receive a recovery package of between US$500 and US$4,500 per family, added Miss Hadi.
All but one of Dili's "big four" IDP camps have closed, with Metinaro the largest camp in Dili still housing IDPs, she said, adding that displaced persons living in the Don Bosco camp, previously the largest in the district, returned to their homes last week.
In 2006, up to 150,000 Timorese fled to rural areas or else into one of dozens of IDP camps around East Timor after violence erupted across the nation when one-third of the country's defence forces were laid off by the government.
The resulting tension accentuated the east-west divide in the country and bloody clashes ripped through the streets. IDP camps sprang up all over Dili after the arrival of Malaysian and Australian peacekeeping forces.
In March, IDPs began returning home when the internal security situation showed signs of improving after the death of rebel leader Alfredo Reinado, while many of the former rebels angry with the government began negotiating settlements.
Initially many IDPs were weary of leaving behind government support and relative safety to return home, particularly as many Timorese still felt unsafe in their home communities.