Return to Timor
After more than four hundred years of
colonial rule and weeks of violent clashes, East Timor is on a
new path to independence. Its inhabitants, however, have not
yet seen the end of their suffering. The challenges ahead are
immense, not least the return and the security of its people.
11 a.m., Dili. The sun is beating down, but this does not
seem to deter the crowd amassed since dawn at the gates of
the football stadium. The crowd is dignified but tense. Everyone
is waiting anxiously for the return of relatives and friends
forced to flee to neighbouring West Timor, following the wave
of violence unleashed on East Timor in September after the
announcement of the results of the referendum on the territory's
autonomy. In the midst of the throng, 17-year-old Enrique
strains to make out the shapes of his elder brother, Victor,
and his mother, uncles and cousins, who could be on one of
the trucks arriving from the airport. Since receiving a Red
Cross message three days ago informing him that his brother
was in Kupang, Enrique has been in a state of alert, attempting
to glean any scrap of information he can on his family by
questioning those who have already managed to return from
West Timor. Beside him, a young girl who has just spotted
members of her family waves, sobbing.Enrique would give anything
to be in her place. "Will there be another plane from
Kupang this afternoon?" Nobody knows, and soon night
falls. People shake their heads and sigh. That will be all
The following day at 6 a.m. Enrique is already waiting at
the port. There, in the shade of the trees lining the quay
another crowd is gathering. The cries of cigarette vendors
mingle with the occasional car horn. In an attempt to keep
curious bystanders at bay, soldiers of the multinational force
(INTERFET)1 have unrolled barbed wire around the perimeter
of the reception area for the returnees. For today is a big
first: the Lambelu, a boat from the Indonesian merchant navy
chartered by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR),
has just docked with some 2,000 people on board. After a brief
security check by INTERFET soldiers, the passengers, weighed
down with luggage, disembark into the reception area where
Médecins du Monde has set up a first-aid tent and a children's
vaccination centre. It is here that an ICRC delegate is waiting
to take delivery of two unaccompanied children who will be
reunited with their moth- er in hospital. Nearby, UNHCR representatives
have begun a distribution of rice and blue plastic sheeting.
There, in the queue, Enrique finally catches sight of Victor
holding a baby in his arms, followed by his mother and the
rest of his family. For Enrique, it is as if an enormous weight
has been lifted from his shoulders. From now on, whatever
problems may arise, he feels he can overcome them. Victor
makes a small sign with his hand and smiles at Enrique, for
the first time in weeks...
Enrique elbows his way through the dense mass towards the
perimeter exit, where the barbed wire is stretched out to
create a passage for the new arrivals. There is a sudden surge
in the crowd - a sort of rugby scrum punctuated by screams.
Enrique is forced backwards along with several others, stumbles
and recovers. He has just enough time to make out a young
man, barely older than himself, who is running for his life,
with a mob on his heels shouting "militia! militia!"
Caught, the young man is thrown to the ground and kicked and
punched in a cloud of dust. At this point, three Brazilian
INTERFET soldiers appear on the scene, their machine guns
pointing in the air, to separate the protagonists. The fugitive
stays lying down, his face bleeding and already swollen. "Someone
recognized him. This man set fire to houses. He's a bastard
of a militiaman!" "Where is the person who recognized
him?" demands one of the soldiers. Silence. The Brazilians
disperse the crowd of onlookers and take the suspect away
to safety to be questioned. As with all persons detained for
more than two days by INTERFET, this man, whose life just
a minute ago was hanging in the balance, will be visited later
by ICRC delegates whose job it is to check on detainees' treatment
and living conditions.
ICRC is active throughout the island of Timor, in particular in the fields
of medical assistance, food relief, rehabilitation, restoring family links
and visits to security detainees. Its main partners are the Indonesian Red
Cross (PMI) in West Timor, and various National Societies in East Timor,
most of which are involved at Dili's general hospital. In total, more than
50 expatriates and 300 local staff contribute to the smooth operation of
Forces for tomorrow
As for Enrique, he's not sure what to
think of his reactions, which he understands only confusedly.
Like many other Timorese who suffered the destructive violence
and militia raids after the results of the referendum were
announced, he does not accept automatic impunity, despite
the pleas for calm and reconciliation from the authorities.
He has not forgotten either those who are still in the hands
of the militias over in West Timor. Yet, he can't help thinking
that maybe that person who was set upon before his eyes was
perhaps innocent and that it could just as easily happen to
his brother Victor... or, who knows, even to himself.
For the time being. Enrique tries his
best to get his brother and family into the dilapidated taxi
- its rear doors missing - that he has managed to commandeer,
not without some difficulty, at the entrance to the warehouses.
"We'll have to make two journeys," says Uncle Eduardo,
who stays behind on the roadside to keep an eye on their belongings.
So delighted to be back, the children hardly seem to notice
the devastation of the town, in which only a few houses were
spared vandalization. In front of the ruined facades and in
the midst of the rubble, people forage for materials, mostly
corrugated iron. Passing by the central market, which is slowly
flickering back to life, the taxi driver sighs: "First
our houses are burned down, now prices are going through the
roof. Three thousand rupees for a bag of washing powder, would
"And how is our house?" Victor
finally dares to ask without looking at Enrique.
Enrique pauses for a moment before replying
quickly: "They took everything. Every last thing. There
is nothing left but the walls."
His niece Maria interjects: "They
even took the cups?"
"They took the cups... and the
spoons and the sugar and the coffee. They took everything,
destroyed everything. But there is one thing they didn't manage
to take," adds Enrique with sudden solemnity.
"What's that?" asks Maria,
"Our trust in the future."
ICRC editor of Red Cross, Red
|1 In January 2000, peace keeping forces of
the UN Transitional Authority in East Timor (UNTATE) took over
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