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East Timor refugees return but funds not enough

ABC News - August 28, 2009

Sara Everingham – Thousands of refugees in East Timor displaced during the 2006 military crisis have been moving back to their communities, with only a few remaining in makeshift camps around Dili.

The East Timor government paid the refugees to move back to their towns and villages, but some say they still do not have enough money to rebuild their homes. Others say they have not been accepted back.

But East Timorese President Jose Ramos-Horta says the refugee return program has been a huge success and overall life in his young country is looking up.

"More than anyone in this country or outside this country, I know the problem. I've dealt with it," he said.

"I had internally displaced persons live in my own home; hundreds of them. I know what was the problem and I can say looking back to 2006, 2007, it has been a complete success, thanks to the very proactive and the generous compassionate attitude of the Prime Minister and his cabinet."

Tens of thousands of people were displaced by the unrest in 2006, sparked by a mutiny which split East Timor's army.

Augusta Pinto, 15, tries to keep the front yard of her home clean. Her house is not much more than a few brick walls, with tarpaulins the only roofing in some parts. Her father Manuel Gueterres say they returned last month from one of the makeshift camps set up in Dili during the security crisis of 2006.

"It was a very difficult life. We stayed three years in the refugee camps, there were no jobs. We were lucky because the government subsidises rice," her father said.

Mr Gueterres says he is happy to return home, after being given about $AU53,000 to rebuild his house. But he says it is not enough. "Security is no longer a problem. The problem we face is how to re-build our house. Materials have become expensive," he said.

In other areas it is not money but community tensions causing problems. Ivo Noel, a 25-year-oold student, says his return from a camp has not been easy. He say at first his neighbours threw stones, but now the situation has eased.

"I am not accepted but I have no choice. This is the reality I have to face," he said.

Care International works in an area of Dili which had the second highest number of internally displaced people. The country's director, Diane Francisco, says the experiences by those who return vary greatly.

"I think that the experiences are probably as varied as the number of IDPs that have been returned; from IDPs that have been warmly welcomed back into their homes, to people who are still a little unsure, maybe wary," she said.

"I think for a variety of reasons some families may have used some or all of the money to meet more immediate needs. But I do know from our experiences that some of the money is certainly being used to rebuild houses."

This weekend East Timor prepares to celebrate 10 years since its independence referendum. Mr Ramos-Horta says people in east Timor are reconciling their differences. He says the country is still young but the economy is growing.

At his home, Mr Noel says he hopes the days of violent conflict in East Timor are over. But he says the Government must create more jobs and training for young people to avoid that.

"To unite is easy but now the leaders must put more young people into training and school," he said. "If everyone is busy and has something to do, we won't be able to go onto the streets and cause problems."