WEST TIMOR: Jakarta's militia terrorise refugee camps

September 5, 2001


"Where are our missing children? We have nothing — no land, no houses, nothing to do, no materials to work with to make an income. The women here are dying from childbirth because they have no money for doctors, there is little food and in some camps little water. We cannot afford to send our children to school or to the doctor."

These were the cries of the women in the refugee camps in Kupang and Atambua that were heard by six women who visited West Timor in late July as part of an women's solidarity tour organised by the Asia-Pacific Coalition on East Timor (APCET).

The women in the delegation were from the Philippines, Malaysia, East Timor, Indonesia and Australia. The visit was to focus on the plight of the women and children refugees who were removed, forcibly in many cases, by the Indonesian military in the days after the East Timor referendum on independence in August 1999.

I joined the delegation as an independent film-maker and member of Action in Solidarity with Indonesia and East Timor (ASIET). I was interested in documenting the situation in West Timor in the same way I did on the July 1999 APCET women's solidarity delegation to East Timor. During that visit, I met with East Timorese women who highlighted the brutality suffered by women at the hands of the Indonesian military rulers.

Our mission in West Timor was to meet with the women in the camps to find out their problems and to gauge the sentiment of the women for their return to East Timor. Although the Indonesian government claims to have disbanded the militia groups in the camps, we were advised to limit our discussions to humanitarian issues only.

We visited six camps. Camp Noelbaki is 15km from Kupang and is home to around 5000 refugees. Tupaukan is 21km to the east of Kupang and has 13,000 refugees. In Atambua, we visited the Haliwen camp, located inside the stadium with 4000 refugees; Lolowa camp with 3000 refugees; the Tirta camp with 3000 and Lebur A with 2400 refugees.

In each camp, the refugees tend to come from the same area in East Timor. For example, in Haliwen, the people are from the Ermera district; in Lolowa they are from Dili; in Tirta from Manatuto; and in Lebur A from Aileu.

As we approached Atambua, the capital of the Belu district, some 30km from the border with East Timor, we were stopped by police and informed that we would be accompanied throughout our stay in the area.

They claimed this was necessary for security reasons as there has been an incident in Atambua that day where five houses had been damaged in a fight between young refugee men and the local people. The local people are unhappy about the refugees living in their area, especially as they are on land that used to be accessible to the local people. The next day the local West Timorese people were planning a protest march in Atambua and the police feared there would be more violence.

It was in Atambua last September where the militia killed three United Nations High Commission for Refugees aid workers. Since then UNHCR and other international organisations assisting the refugees have pulled out of West Timor. Atambua has been under a "high-level alert" ever since. The United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) has a security rating of "five" on the area, the highest rating.

Throughout our visit to the Atambua camps, we were escorted by four police officers. They were from the intelligence section of the regional police department, three of them has been in East Timor before the referendum. All spoke English so they could listen to our conversations.


We also met with a number of non-government organisations and religious groups and were able to talk more frankly about violence in the camps and about the recent registration process undertaken by SATGAS PMP, the Indonesian East Timor Refugees Task Force set up by the Indonesian government. In June, the Indonesian government announced that 97% of the refugees had voted to remain in Indonesia.

While in West Timor we were hosted by the Centre for Internally Displaced People's Services (CIS GAMKI-GMKI), which, to combat militia intimidation, provides humanitarian support, investigates human rights abuses, counsels women victims of violence and disseminates information to refugees on repatriation.

We also met with the district commander of Kupang, Lieutenant Colonel Aritonang.

Our meetings with the refugee women and also with Major Rudolf Roja, the commander of the Mobile Brigade in Kupang who supervised the registration process (he admitted there had been discrepancies in the voting), convinced us that the registration process had been manipulated.

The Indonesian government offered to relocate the refugees to an island off the coast, where the refugees could begin to make a new life for themselves. The refugees refused to be relocated, stating that they wanted to remain close to East Timor so they could return in the future. Major Roja was perplexed at this.

It was clear to the women in the APCET delegation that the recent registration vote in June was not a true indicator of the desires of the refugees. For example, the district commander told us that he thought the refugees were "crazy". He said that people who two days before had voted to stay in Indonesia, turned up at his office asking to be repatriated to East Timor.

Another story we were told involved a number of women who voted to return to East Timor. When the camp coordinator collected the voting papers, he was so outraged that he called a meeting of the women and intimidated them into changing their votes. There were also incidents reported in which women did not get to vote because the men filled in the voting cards for them.

Conditions in the camps

The majority of the camps we visited were without adequate housing. They were constructed with tarps and other inadequate materials and had uneven dirt floors. There was a lack of cooking facilities, privacy and adequate space. The only camp we visited which had houses was the one that accommodates the families of the East Timorese members of the Indonesian armed forces (TNI).

The women at all the camps complained about the inadequate and unequal distribution of food. The Indonesian government gives 4 kilograms of rice and 1500 rupiahs per person per day except for infants under 12 months. However, distribution is controlled by the camp coordinators, who are usually militia leaders.

The camp coordinators give the money allocated by the government to the heads of the families, which in most cases are men. The women complained that the money generally was used for the activities of the men, such as drinking and gambling. Money and rice were given at irregular intervals, sometimes monthly or even longer. We heard that two days before the registration process, there had been deliveries to all the camps of rice and money.

The women explained that they and their children had many serious health problems, but there were no doctors in the camps and they could not afford to pay to see a doctor outside or pay for medicines. Many of the traditional midwives had returned to East Timor leaving the women without assistance during childbirth.

At one camp, the deaths of 10 women from childbirth complications in the month of June were reported. In another, five women had died in one month. Each visit to a doctor costs R100,000 and the women have no way of getting the money.

The low level of nutrition in the camps was clear from the appearance of the women and children who displayed a number of diseases and most had dull eyes.

Due to resentment by the West Timorese of the refugees' use of land that was previously used by the locals, refugee children are not attending local schools.

Where the Indonesian government had provided schools near the camps, the women complained that it was compulsory for the children to wear a uniform that costs R25,000 and they have to pay R10,000 fees per month for each child. This prevented children from attending school.

The women expressed frustration at the fact that they have nothing to do. Those with agricultural skills have no land to cultivate. Those with handicraft and weaving skills have no materials to work with. The women all expressed the desire to be trained in new skills which would allow them to generate an income to help overcome some of the problems they face.

Except for the camp that housed the families of the East Timorese TNI, all the camps have inadequate toilet and sanitation facilities. The women expressed concern at the health risks this was creating.

The women also talked of the inadequate clothing available to them. A lack of underwear for themselves and decent clothing for the children was seen as a major problem.


In one camp, women cried as they talked about their missing children, left in East Timor or their whereabouts unknown. A UN worker in East Timor informed us that they had located a large group of children in Central Java who had been removed from East Timor by the Indonesian authorities. They were negotiating their return to East Timor.

While we were unable to discuss openly the violence they experience, we had some discrete discussions with individuals and we were able to discuss the issue with the West Timorese NGOs working in the camps.

Outside the camps there is conflict with the local West Timorese communities and the refugees. Often the water supply outside the camps, used by both communities, has been the source of tension. Land access is another.

Tensions and conflicts in the camps often results in violence among the men, and between different camps.

The incidence of violence against women, including domestic violence and sexual assaults, are rife in the camps. Sexual violence includes rape, forced marriages, husbands having many wives (up to 11 in some cases), the making and distribution of pornography, and the incidence and spread of sexual health problems. Payment for prostitution is as low as a packet of noodles, indicating the desperation of the women for adequate food.

The high incidence of adultery meant that many women suffered abuse by men who were not their husbands as well as their husbands and this was also a source of conflict among the men.

In all cases, men perpetrate the violence. The Indonesian government organisation SATGAS, which carried out the registration process, told us that the militia were still operating in the camps. The women in the camps generally referred to them as the "elites" running the camps and controlling the distribution of food, materials and money.

This situation has created a climate of fear, which has continued throughout the two years most of the refugees have been in the camps.

This causes a great deal of stress on the women and children. For many of the women it is a continuation of what they experienced in the past two decades in East Timor under Indonesian military occupation. This reminded me of the women we met who had suffered repeatedly under Indonesian rule.

Escape difficult

The social construction of the camps means that many people are unable to escape. The outer houses surrounding the camps are occupied by the families of the East Timorese TNI, in the next circle live the members of the intelligence service and plain-clothes police, and the next circle is inhabited by militia families.

Inside these live the rest of the refugees. It is not possible to pass through the camp to the outside without the knowledge of the camp coordinators. We were told stories of people who had walked out of the camps, saying they were going up the road to get water and the escaped by foot to the border without their possessions.

The UN has a border area set aside for refugees who want to return to East Timor where they can be assessed and their repatriation facilitated quickly.

Many of the women we met were wives of the militia and TNI. They expressed their desire to return to East Timor after the constituent assembly election but they have been told that violence would disrupt the elections. Some of the men told us they would only return to East Timor when they knew what would happen to them.

Militia members who have returned to East Timor have in many cases been sentenced to community work for their crimes. The harshest sentence has been 12 years' jail.

In one camp, the men interrupted the women and told us that they would only return with guns in their hands and with the Indonesian flag. It was here that we got the real sense of the situation in the West Timor camps.

Since the Indonesian military were forced to leave East Timor, the people there have returned to a normal if somewhat poor existence. The communities have been rebuilding their houses and their lives and are in no mood to tolerate being lorded over by the militia. Therefore many militia-linked men are content to remain in West Timor where they can continue to control more than 100,000 or more refugees.

When we returned to Dili, in East Timor, the APCET delegation held a press conference to announce its findings and make a number of recommendations, the most important being that the Indonesian government must disband the militia. The UN and international NGOs should take control of the camps, solve the social problems and facilitate the repatriation of the majority of the refugees. People who wish to stay should be given houses and the camps closed down.

[Visit the ASIET web site at <http://www.asiet.org.au>.]

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