Nearly forty thousand refugees have fled across the border from the eastern half of the island of Timor, which is Portuguese, into the western part, which is Indonesian.
Nearly forty thousand refugees have fled across the border from the eastern half of the island of Timor, which is Portuguese, into the western part, which is Indonesian. They began coming after the two weeks' fighting in August, in which the most radical group in Portuguese Timor, FRETILIN, won virtual control of the whole territory. After a lull, the fighting has flared up again in the past few weeks, with the other two parties, U.D.T. and APODETI, recapturing ground near the Indonesian border.
One of the main centres where the refugees have congregated is Atambua a small market town that normally has about ten thousand inhabitants. Now it has suddenly grown to sixteen thousand. Many of the refugees have been camping out in the open. The rush is now on to get them under cover before the monsoon season starts this month.
The Indonesian Government is allowing each refugee 400 grammes (about one pound weight) of rice a day. Altogether, this alone is costing Indonesia five million rupiahs (GBP5,500 sterling) a day. Clothing and medical supplies are also having to be provided. International charities, such as the United Nations Children's Emergency Fund, the Roman Catholic relief services and the Red Cross, are also helping; so are private Indonesians. Nearly every newspaper in the country has been running an appeal. But Indonesian officials think that Portugal should have done more to help with a situation which has arisen because of conditions in a territory for which she is still responsible.
The Indonesian authorities are encouraging the refugees to grow food for themselves, both to keep the cost down and to give them something to do. But for the most part, they are not country people, but middleclass townsmen from Dili, the capital of Portuguese Timor, and do not take kindly to farming. The only money they were able to bring in was in Portuguese escudos, which they can not change. Some of them are trying to earn a little locally by such tasks as repairing cars.
Education is also a problem. In Atambua, the school has been taken over as a refugee camp. so the local children, as well as the families of the refugees, have been having their lessons out in the open. This will have to come to an end when the monsoon starts.
There is no knowing when the refugees will be able to go back home. The political outlook for Portuguese Timor is still obscure. The Portuguese and Indonesian Foreign Ministers have just had talks in Rome, and agreed that the future of East timor is entirely for Portugal to settle; and the Portuguese have undertaken to call a meeting of the rival groups, and try to put an end to the fighting, and work out some way of decolonising the territory and giving it a stable political future.