Children of war: Feverish and scared, refugees return to East Timor

  • @kathymarksoz
HIS FACE twisted with anxiety, Dasenio Aldes pushed his way through the crowd queuing under the sun-bleached awning and motioned imploringly at the limp bundle in his arms. It was his 11-year-old son, Marcelino, and he was in a wretched state. Feverish, eyes glazed, the boy groaned weakly as he was placed on a stretcher and a needle was inserted into his scrawny vein.

Five minutes earlier, a convoy of trucks had arrived and disgorged hundreds of people, including Marcelino and his family, on a parched piece of waste ground that serves as a transit site for East Timorese refugees returning from camps in West Timor.

After surviving a murderous rampage by pro-Jakarta militia in his birthplace, Liquicia, and more than three months in acamp in Atambua, Marcelino nearly died on his way home last week. He was in the throes of malaria and badly dehydrated when he was brought into a field clinic that has been set up at the site in Batugade, just over the border.

With the Indonesian army gone from East Timor and the country secured by troops from Interfet, the international peace-keeping force, thousands of refugees are pouring back over the border, crossing to Batugade and to Suai, in the south. After months spent crammed together in insanitary conditions, many are sick and some, such as Marcelino, are dangerously ill.

The children and babies, vulnerable to disease and malnutrition, are suffering the most. Malaria, which can befatal if it is not treated, is prevalent among those emerging from West Timor; so are measles and pneumonia, two other big killers of the young.

For East Timorese people deposited in Batugade - where UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) trucks wait to transport them on to the capital, Dili, and other towns such as Maliana and Bobonaro - the clinic is often their first contact with medical services since they fled their homes in September during the violence that followed the vote for independence from Indonesia.

The clinic, run by Timor Aid, an Australian charity supported by War Child, has been staffed for the past fortnight by an Australian doctor and nurse, Gerard O'Reilly and Julia de Jonge, and an East Timorese interpreter, Sanchez Cosme.

Theirs are usually the first friendly faces encountered by refugees returning from Atambua. After leaving the camps, where many were harassed and intimidated by militia fighters, they are driven through a bleak no man's land of burnt-out and deserted villages before reaching a heavily sandbagged checkpoint where they are simultaneously frisked and welcomed by Interfet soldiers.

Finally, around mid-morning, they arrive at the transit point in Batugade, dazed, exhausted and apprehensive, for lately the militia have been spreading scare stories to deter them from leaving, telling them that Interfet troops have been raping their women and killing their babies.

A unit of Falintil, the East Timorese resistance group, has just moved into the border area. As the refugees crouch in the shade of plastic tarpaulins, tracing shapes in the dust, Falur Rate Laek, the local field commander, moves among them, reassuring them that they are safe.

There are thought to be 90,000 to 130,000 East Timorese still in West Timor. On one day last week, 1,500 people crossed to Batugade, and 90 of them found their way to Dr O'Reilly.

Conditions at the clinic, set up to identify and treat people unfit to travel, are not ideal. Every few minutes, a megaphone announces the departure of a truck to Dili or another destination, provoking agitation among refugees waiting for a consultation.

After the ordeal of recent months, they are desperate to get home, and some forgo the chance of medical care for fear of missing their connection. "They would rather die on the trucks than risk getting left behind," one aid worker said.

Families are reluctant to be separated, and parents often choose to carry their sick children on the next leg of the journey rather than permit them to be taken to hospital.

Malnutrition is common. So is malaria; up to 40 per cent of refugees seen by Dr O'Reilly are infected, and one of the first things that he does is to feel a patient's abdomen. An enlarged spleen is a reliable indicator of the disease.

As well as screening refugees at Batugade, Timor Aid runs two mobile clinics in the area: one in the nearby village of Palaka, and one in Beaku, just over the next mountain. It also operates a clinic in Dili, where its three doctors each see 100 patients a day.

At Batugade, there is no time to assess the psychological impact on children of witnessing their homes burnt to the ground, of being transplanted to a strange place and, in some cases, of seeing members of their family murdered.

The adults, too, can only be patched up physically. Dr O'Reilly says it is difficult to gauge how traumatised they are. "There are people who come into the clinic who have nothing physically wrong with them," he says. "They just say that they have a pain here and point to their hearts."



ON 30 August, after a 78.5 per cent vote for independence in the UN-brokered referendum on East Timor's future, armed pro-Indonesia militias embarked on a systematic campaign of violence and destruction against the East Timorese people.

Thousands of East Timorese were murdered, mutilated, raped and displaced. At least a thousand people are thought to have been killed during 1999. These atrocities were committed by anti-independence militia groups, working with the complicity of members of the Indonesian army and police.

According to the UNHCR, only 7,000 out of 250,000 East Timorese refugees have so far returned to their homes. There is concern that refugees in West Timor may be prevented from returning to East Timor by the militias in the area.

After pressure by Amnesty International and other groups, Britain imposed a six-month ban on the export of arms to Indonesia. The Indonesian authorities were collaborating in the brutalisation of the East Timorese - making it likely that British arms would be used to commit human rights violations.

Amnesty International: