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East Timorese Refugees Returning To Dili

RETURN OF REFUGEES GAINS MOMENTUM

New Zealand Defence Force

The return from West Timor of displaced East Timorese is gathering pace as border crossing points are being opened up and boatloads of refugees begin arriving in Dili.

It is estimated that over 50,000 refugees have now returned but fears remain for the 150,000 still remaining in the camps around Atambua in West Timor.

There are reports of increased militia activity around these camps seemingly focused on the intimidation of refugees to dissuade them from returning to East Timor. This includes not only physical intimidation of both refugees and humanitarian aid workers but also an active misinformation campaign denouncing the operations and intentions of INTERFET.

UNHCR spokesperson, Arianne Quentier said that, “The situation is very tense and UNHCR representatives in West Timor report that the security situation is deteriorating by the day. There are no plans at this stage however to withdraw our staff from West Timor.”

United Nations agencies and INTERFET remain clearly focused however, on facilitating the return of the refugees and talks continue with Indonesian authorities to ensure that this continues to happen. There are indications that the volume of refugees returning will increase significantly over the next few days and plans are now in place to ensure that this happens as smoothly as possible.

New Zealanders are closely involved in the process of repatriation. Colonel Andrew Martin, the Deputy Chief Military Liaison Officer of UNTAET, has been involved in discussions with Indonesian military authorities to ensure that workable procedures are in place on both sides of the border crossing points to cope with the increased flow of refugees. Dili Command, commanded by Brigadier Martyn Dunne, is responsible for the security of refugees returning to Dili and is also working hand in hand with UN and other humanitarian agencies to ensure that assistance is provided to these people quickly. The New Zealand battalion group in the Kova-Lima district is also actively engaged in locating groups of displaced people that are still hiding in the hills and directing them to areas where help can be provided.

The arrival of refugees in Dili presents a scene that is both tragic and uplifting. Families, including the very young and very old, carrying all their worldly possessions in rice sacks, returning to try and rebuild there lives. Often exhausted, sometimes ill, they emerge from the ships and gather their bundles around them, awaiting further instructions. Their initial apprehension quickly turns to elation however, as the realisation dawns that they are safe and will be looked after, and that the worst of this nightmare is over.

Story by Major Bede Fahey, NZDF MSU, East Timor.

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