CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Saturday, 7 September 2019

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Timor-Leste exiles with nowhere to go

ATAMBUA (UCAN): Twenty years after having left their homes, many East Timor exiles who became Indonesian citizens are still struggling hard to eke out better lives.
 
Many have not acquired any land of their own to build houses or farms. As a result, they just move around, building huts on land owned by other people, which can be taken from them at any moment.
 
This happened recently to more than 50 people in Leun Tolu, a village in West Timor’s Belu Regency.
 
They were forced to flee into a nearby forest on July 16 because the place on which they had settled soon after leaving what is now Timor-Leste,  during the 1999 United Nations-sponsored independence referendum, was taken back by its owners after a prolonged period of harassment.
 
They are currently living under tarpaulins for roofs, with coconut leaves serving as walls.
 
One of the evicted people is Azia Borromau. She said that she and 55 others had to flee into the forest because their eviction came without warning and there was nowhere else to go. “We were often mocked and ignored over a long period and then suddenly expelled,” she said.
 
She said they struggled for the past 20 years to try and get a decent place to live and better assistance, but all efforts had failed. In that time they survived by working as farmers and cultivating other people’s land, earning just enough to buy food to eat each day.
 
“We worked for people and most of the time we didn’t get what we expected. But we had to live with it,” she said.
 
She said that afer more than two weeks in the jungle, what they badly needed was food in order to survive.
 
“We have not received any type of assistance, including from local authorities,” Borromau said, adding that the only officialdom they have met were Indonesian soldiers.
 
“We told them we were hungry and in need of food and water. But no aid has been forthcoming,” she said.
 
Borromau said they hoped a human rights organisation would take up their cause. “We have sought help from the Church but have had no luck there either,” she said.
 
Borromau’s community is sadly not alone. In 2017, thousands of former Timor-Leste refugees staged a protest in Kupang, the provincial capital, to demand government assistance.
 
They demanded the right to housing as well as decent work and education for their children. Despite promises, nothing has been done to try and help them.
 
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), about 250,000 people fled to Indonesia’s East Nusa Tenggara province in 1999 when the country fell into political turmoil due to the independence referendum.
 
More than half settled in Belu or nearby Kupang district. Borromau said it’s been the same old story of neglect for the former Timor-Leste residents now living in 13 regencies.
 
“We are treated inhumanely. We feel that the Indonesian government is slowly killing us,” she said.
 
Franciscan Father Yohannes Christoforus Tara, parish priest of the Sacred Heart Church in Laktutus, a town near the Indonesian border with Timor-Leste, said the Indonesian government must take full responsibility for what has happened to the former Timor-Leste people.
 
“They are now Indonesian citizens. They have sacrificed their old way of life and given up their homeland to be part of Indonesia,” he said.
 
“The government must ensure their basic rights are met, at least a decent place to live. It is the responsibility of the national, provincial and regional governments,” he added.
 
Father Tara said there are former Timor-Leste residents that own land and houses in his parish, but they are few in number and that it was purely the result of their own efforts.
 
Responding to Borromau’s case, the head of Belu district social services, Ely Rambitan, voiced surprise, saying that no one sought help from his office. He denied the woman’s claim that local government had not helped them. He said many former Timor-Leste residents have received assistance from the government including those that were in Leon Tolu, where Borromau and those who were evicted lived.
 
“Many ex-Timorese people in Belu district received assistance from the Department of Social Affairs in the form of food assistance for families,” he said.
 
However, he did not deny that some people did not get help, adding they were not registered with the department. “We give assistance based on available data. So if a name is not in the list, they will not receive anything,” he said.
 
As for housing assistance, many ex-Timorese residents are living on land owned by the East Nusa Tenggara provincial administration, so they cannot build homes on it, Rambitan said.
 
Aprianus Halle, a newly elected member of the Belu regional council, said addressing the problems ex-Timorese residents face in his district required strong political will. He said a special team should be formed to reach out to people who are facing difficulty. “This is crucial to helping these people. If not, the problem will persist,” Halle said.
 
He said they should not be left to fend for themselves because there are people who deliberately take advantage of them for personal gain.
 
He noted that if these people are not properly handled, any kind of assistance directed at them will fall into the wrong hands and in the end, like Borromau, they will remain neglected and displaced.