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Return to Timor
Jean-François Berger

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 for today.

Close shave

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.

The 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 these projects.

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 you believe!"

"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, intrigued.

"Our trust in the future."

Jean-François Berger 
ICRC editor of Red Cross, Red Crescent magazine. 

1 In January 2000, peace keeping forces of the UN Transitional Authority in East Timor (UNTATE) took over from INTERFET.

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