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Growing up with barely a meal a day

Jakarta Globe - December 11, 2011

Ade Mardiyati – Out of love for Indonesia, Dominggus da Costa, along with his wife and children, decided to leave his hometown of Dili, East Timor in 1999, the year that marked the end of Indonesia's nearly 25-year occupation of his homeland.

At the time, the Indonesian government was offering two options for East Timorese: They could remain Indonesian citizens or become citizens of the newly independent nation.

"I chose Indonesia because I loved this country that gave us life and also because I simply thought that life would be better than if we stayed in East Timor," he said. "I was wrong."

The Indonesian government, Dominggus said, had promised that each family that migrated to West Timor, which is part of Indonesia, would receive a house. Twelve years later, however, Dominggus, as well as other former East Timorese who are now spread throughout East Nusa Tenggara province, still have yet to receive what had been promised.

Some 115 families, including Dominggus's, made the jump, living first in a refugee camp in Tuapukan. There were no proper houses for them to live in, he said.

"All we had was this five-by-six meter house where 10 families, or about 70 people, were squeezed in," Dominggus said. "We struggled just to find space to sleep. There was garbage everywhere and water was scarce. Many suffered from diseases like dengue fever and diarrhea, as well as skin problems. Others died. We lived like that for four years. The government has never given us the houses it promised."

In 2003, the refugees were relocated to Naibonat village. Three years after that, they finally began a new chapter of their lives when the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees provided the families with homes and a block of land for their livelihoods in Manusak village.

However, like many other former East Timor refugees in the province, Dominggus's life today is far from comfortable. Much of East Nusa Tenggara is unsuitable for growing crops.

To survive, the father of seven plants yams and corn on his plot of land and sells them only on the rare occasion that he has a surplus. "It is usually only enough for our family to eat once a day," he said. "We rarely take the yams and corn to the market to sell.

"On a daily basis, we eat yams or corn with any edible leaves we can find around here. Rice is too expensive for us, which costs Rp 7,000 to Rp 8,000 (80-90 cents) per kilogram. Sometimes we trade yams for rice when we want to eat it. We hardly eat fish, let alone meat. They are just too expensive."

For years, thousands of ex-East Timorese refugees in East Nusa Tenggara have had to cope with countless problems, most notably the lack of proper housing.

During a recent visit, sponsored by the European Union, to some locations, the Jakarta Globe found that the houses in which the ex-East Timorese refugees, referred to as "new citizens," live do not meet the basic standards of home.

In camp areas, people reside in modest dirt-floor houses made of dried wood and leaves. Each home has a separate kitchen and bathroom, but neither meet common standards of decency. Typically, animals such as chickens and pigs are kept in a barn just meters away from the house.

Clean water is unavailable in many areas, forcing residents to walk long distances to get what they need for the day.

"A well was included in the housing package UNHCR gave us, but it is too dry here," Dominggus said. "We have to walk 700 meters to get water. Children can normally manage to carry a two-liter container, while adults can carry back 10 liters. We don't have electricity either. We use kerosene lamps at night."

The residents' right to the land is also in dispute because they were resettled in areas where other people had been living for generations.

Through the Aid to Uprooted People program, the EU has provided assistance to address the issues in East Nusa Tenggara and other parts of Indonesia. As much as 5 million euros ($6.7 million) has been allocated to the project, which helps refugees and internally displaced people obtain better access to land, homes, health care, education and jobs.

"We want to help them meet their basic needs and achieve social integration with their communities," said Muamar Vebry, the EU's project officer for post-disaster reconstruction. "We also want to ensure that this help is aligned with the Indonesian government's priorities through a close cooperation with the Ministry for the Development of Disadvantaged Regions [PDT] and the provincial government."

The head of the Kupang region, Ayub Titu Eki, said the central government will provide funds to build 1,000 homes and renovate 750 units in the area in the near future. However, he said, the availability of land remains a problem.

"There is not enough land to build these homes, and locals will demand high prices for their land because they know it is in high demand," he said.

While it is unknown when the homes will be built, thousands of ex-East Timorese refugees are in urgent need of proper housing. "We are also human," said Marcelino Rai, 29, who lives in a campsite in Noel Baki village. "We have the same rights as other Indonesian citizens."

As for Dominggus, opting to remain Indonesian is a decision he said he regrets. "Everything is difficult now," he said. "I worked as a security officer in East Timor and although I earned very little money, I had a house and a little land where I could grow some vegetables. I just thought life would be better here."

Dominggus said he was disappointed that the Indonesian government had broken its promises to the loyal East Timorese who migrated. "But I am not angry," he said. "I am proud that I am still an Indonesian," he said. "I can only pray to God to let me have these hands and eyes for as long as I live so I can keep working for my family."

Growing up with barely a meal a day

Isak Sarmento, 9, was not yet born when his parents, Alasi da Pintu and Alfredu Piris, decided to leave East Timor amid the conflict in 1999. He knows nothing of the chaos that once engulfed the region.

He has no idea that where he lives in Noel Baki village is a campsite where ex-East Timorese refugees, including his parents, resettled years ago. Like most children his age, the second grader enjoys playing with his classmates.

The home where he lives is a semi-permanent structure with two bedrooms and earthen floors. The walls are made of bebak, the midrib of the native lontar tree (Borassus flabellifer), while the zinc roof raises the temperature in the house.

Despite the hardships, Isak seems to be comfortable in his bedroom, although, "There are a lot of mosquitoes here, especially at night," he said.

His mother works on someone else's farm picking and selling vegetables in the market. His aging blind and deaf father stays at home most of the time, performing occasional work as a cattle caretaker for others.

Although children need proper nutrition to develop properly, Isak typically eats just once a day because his parents are too poor to provide anything more. "I wait for my wife to come home from work. If she brings food, then we can eat. If not, we just forget about it," said Isak's father, Alfredu.

Isak's two elder brothers now live in orphanages in Java and Sulawesi. "They can have a better life there," said Alasi, Isak's mother. Inside their house, there is a special corner where they have placed a statue of the Virgin Mary and a cross.

"We put it here so we can pray," Isak said. "In my daily prayers to Mother Mary, I say 'Please give our family food to eat, at least once a day.'?"