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More misery rains on Timor refugees

Agence France Presse - December 22, 2006

Nelson da Cruz, Dili – Baby Xestalino Soares lies fast asleep on a mat, sharing a cloth blanket with one of his older brothers, while his mother tries to cook as rain lashes the tarpaulin tent that has been their home for the past six months.

Days of heavy tropical downpours heralding the start of the monsoon season have brought fresh misery for thousands of refugees still holed up in makeshift shelters after fleeing deadly violence which rocked tiny East Timor in April and May.

"My youngest son, 18-months-old, has been suffering from fever since the rains began to fall, and he often has fits of coughing during the night," lamented Adizinda Soares, pointing to the skinny Xestalino, the youngest of her brood of six.

Huge letters spell out "UNHCR" on the sides of the tarpaulin tent that has been their home since they fled Baucau district, 250 kilometres (156 miles) east of Dili, after her husband Carlos was shot dead by soldiers on April 28.

Soares and her children are among some 6,000 people sheltering in a tent city and sports hall at the Dom Bosco refugee camp, a school and community centre close to the Nicolau Lobato international airport.

A large banner near the gate still optimistically proclaims "Love Timor Leste, let us go to school."

About 155,000 people, or 15 percent of East Timor's population, fled their homes during the violence in April and May that followed the dismissal of about a third of the country's fledgling military forces, who had deserted citing discrimination among the ranks.

At least 37 people were killed as the country descended into chaos after initial street protests by the dismissed soldiers quickly degenerated into street violence involving gangs of youths.

Most people have returned home since the deployment of Australian-led foreign peacekeepers, but the UN says there are still about 28,000 internally displaced people (IDP) in camps across Dili. Up to 16,000 have nowhere to go as their houses were destroyed.

Acting UN envoy Finn Reske-Nielsen said the government had prepared emergency sites for people to move to avoid outbreaks of disease when the rains come.

"We know from other IDP situations elsewhere in the world, that if people live in flooded areas for an extended period of time, diseases will break out and you could have epidemics that will affect not just the IDP population but the wider population in the city," Reske-Nielsen said.

But many are reluctant to move from the camps because they have nowhere to go or are still worried about the security situation. "Me and my children cannot return home yet because it is totally destroyed. I have no choice but to stay here, otherwise where will we sleep?" said Soares.

Ermelinda Amaral, 51, said she was afraid to return home because of continuing gang fights near her house.

Three people, including a UN interpreter, were killed earlier this month in a resurgence of violence between rival martial arts gangs.

"We don't want to go anywhere, because it is not really safe out there. The problems... are not over yet and now we have the martial art groups' fights. I am afraid and have not returned home since I took refuge here," she said.

But life in the camp has not been easy. Soares said she struggled to cook in an open air kitchen as the rains poured down.

"I have now to share a cooking spot with two other families under that tarpaulin because my stove can no longer function with the rain water that got into it," Soares said, pointing to a makeshift blue tarpaulin roof strung over a raised sand platform with a stove and some kitchen utensils.

An elderly woman was already busy cooking, the strong smell of fried fish competing with the stench from a series of latrines just a few meters (yards) away and towering piles of rotting garbage left in the open.

Some other refugees were busy repairing their tent, already partly turned into a kiosk selling basic essentials.

Antoninha Abrantes, a 20-year-old housewife originally from Lurumata village, said the rain was making life even harder. "Our stock of rice is rotting because of the rainwater that can go through the tarpaulin," she said.

The mother of two shares a tent with her elder sister, brother-in-law and five other people. The walled compound remains mostly deserted during the day.

Among the rare signs of life are the shrieks of a group of skinny barefoot boys playing basket ball in the sports hall under the benevolent gaze of the patron saint of the Salesian congregation that owns the place.

Some 20 families also shelter in the open-sided sports hall, leaving only half the floor for the boys while the rest is buried under mounds of gunny sacks of rice and personal belongings.

Ermelinda Amaral shares a corner of the sports hall with her daughter-in-law and six grandchildren. And when the rain pours down in the evening, she says even getting to sleep is hard.

"Rainwater blown by the winds drenches the corner we occupy. After the rain, we have to mop the floor dry before we can spread the mattress and sleep," she sighed, crouching on top of a sack of rice belonging to a family occupying the spot next to hers.

The government says it plans to soon move the refugees to more adequate accommodation. "The rains have begun to fall and this has come to our attention. We have opened new refugee shelter camps," Prime Minister Jose Ramos-Horta told AFP.

"If the rains pour down heavily, it is the duty of the armed forces, the UNPOL and the state to take the children, the women and the elderly to drier places. It is an obligation for the state to give them protection in time of hardship."

Despite the inconveniences of the camp and threat of disease as the rains set in, refugees say they are reluctant to leave because of the security situation.

"We do not want to be moved anywhere. With the church, we feel much safer," said grandmother Amaral.