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Forgotten victims of East Timor's independence

Melbourne Age - June 16, 2009

More than 20,000 East Timorese live in dire poverty over the Indonesian border

Miki Perkins – Maria Augusta Martins doesn't know why her son died. For two days the 18-year-old had an intense pain at the base of his skull, but refused to go to hospital. The motorbike journey would kill him and the family could not afford medication, he told his mother. On the third day, Honorio Martins was dead.

Sitting in the wooden hut she shares with her husband and five remaining children, Mrs Martins clutches her son's portrait. "Now, when I sit down alone, I feel really sorry I could not do something to save his life," she says through an interpreter.

Mrs Martins and her family are East Timorese refugees, part of an exodus that fled the post-referendum bloodshed to the Indonesian province of West Timor in 1999.

Almost a decade later, they are forgotten people. More than 20,000 remain in limbo in about 60 refugee camps dotted along the border or near the West Timor capital of Atambua.

Most of them voted for East Timorese autonomy, rather than independence, and fear reprisals if they return, so they eke out a life in grinding poverty with no land and little support.

In 2002, Indonesia said the refugees could stay and dubbed them "new citizens". But many long to return to their home.

The East Timorese Government says refugees – regardless of political affiliation – are welcome to return. But repatriation is difficult; the land they owned is now farmed by others and their old homes are occupied.

In East Timor, Mrs Martins and her husband (who didn't want his name used) owned a small coffee garden in the Ermera district and ate three times a day. Now they live in the Haliwen camp, he collects firewood and they have one meal. If he misses a day of work, they do not eat.

"As human beings we are all the same... we still have a hope, we still try to fight for a better life," Haliwen camp spokesman Saturnino Do Rosario said.

Bureaucratic buck-passing means many of the refugees who should get a free identity card that gives access to subsidised rice, gas and education, are forced to pay. The 25,000 rupiah ($A3.05) cost of the ID card is almost a week's income.

The Indonesian Government has built about 80 settlements to house the refugees. Conditions are better than in the camps but there is no running water or electricity and residents say the wooden houses are beginning to disintegrate.

When The Age visited the 1600-strong Aitaman-Manleten settlement, plain-clothed military intelligence officials mingled with the crowd and tried to influence the discussion. Refugee advocates later said residents were too scared to answer questions openly.

CIS Timor Association of Volunteers director Winston Rondo has worked with the refugees for 10 years and said the most pressing issue was a lack of farming land.

The complicity of Australia in the Indonesian invasion of East Timor meant it owed a debt to the country's refugees, regardless of political affiliation, he said. "Nobody accepts responsibility and the refugees don't know what to do in the future. They have become hopeless."