Inside East Timor's Refugee Camps


When the Australian Federal Police (AFP) fired tear gas towards the refugee camp, the young men who had launched the initial attack with stones and bows and arrows had already fled. But they had run away from the refugees in the opposite direction and not towards the camp. Some but not all of the young men living inside the camp had reacted by throwing rocks in retaliation. These small details are important, as will become apparent later.

Next door to the most expensive hotel in East Timor, in a park which has seen both Portuguese and Indonesian citizens sit and relax, live some of the capital’s most destitute residents. They have been sleeping under tarpaulins as refugees for the past four months. Despite repeated requests to the UNHCR, they have not been provided with proper tents, as has happened in most of the other camps where the UN agency’s name acts as both universal signifier and logo.

A steady stream of diplomats, UN bureaucrats, opposition politicians and Portuguese school teachers sit and drink espressos and eat pasteis de nata in Hotel Timor’s chic bistro. But the refugees or in aid-speak, ‘internally displaced people’ who live in a parallel geographic world, have nowhere to go. Their houses have been burnt down and their possessions stolen.

While schools, the public service and government all function by day, by night many public servants, members of parliament and even government ministers return to sleep under tents. People are beginning to question whether the four-month-old crisis will ever end and importantly, how East Timor’s leaders will resolve the present impasse.

Dili is in limbo. Its leaders and many of its residents have staked all of their hopes on the release of the report of the International Special Inquiry Commission into the events of April and May 2006, which is due in the next week. Not everyone will be satisfied, and unconfirmed reports of guns secretly moving across the Indonesian border to the Western districts have been doing the rounds for the past few weeks. The situation remains unstable, despite the fact that East Timor has dropped off the international media’s radar.

On Thursday 28 September, when the AFP, the Portuguese Guardia Nacional Republicana (GNR) and Malaysian police launched their joint attack on the refugee camp, it was hot and life in Dili was going on in its usual soporific late afternoon way.

The Malaysian police, bearing sawn off semi-automatic rifles, repeatedly attempted to stop me from filming. It was laughable really, and in the end they had to give up. They turned their attention to knocking down makeshift tables and kicking over chairs while some refugees sat and impassively watched the arrest of young men.

Malaysian police called the East Timorese ‘dogs’ and AFP officers described East Timor as ‘this fucking nation’ according to refugees I spoke to immediately after the attack. The GNR told the refugees they were there ‘to maintain calm and security’. Unfortunately they only spoke Portuguese and not one Tetum-speaking translator was working alongside any of the police forces.

Other refugees were vocal in their criticisms. They claimed that the wrong young men were arrested. They wanted to know why tear gas was fired so close to a refugee camp, where most of the residents are women with small children. ‘What have we done wrong?’ a young woman asked me, ‘it was the young men who came here and provoked the attack by firing bows and arrows. The police haven’t done the right thing here.’

‘The only thing the Government knows is how to divide the people,’ another woman told me. ‘They don’t know how to look after the people, all they’re interested in is money. People have no rights. Some people were just sitting quietly. We’re only ordinary people here. Our possessions are all gone and we’re still suffering.’

Twenty-eight young men were arrested on 28 September. Three days later they were all released.

The first time I visited this camp was in mid-June, when I sat and watched the local news with Elizaria, a high school teacher in her late 40s who is from the Eastern tip of East Timor. Alfredo Reinado, the renegade police military commander, was beginning to hand over his weapons to Australian soldiers in Maubisse. Elizaria was happy that Reinado no longer seemed to be a threat but she told me sadly that she could not return home as her house had been burnt down.

Now, four months later, Reinado is on the run again. According to sources, he freely travels around the western-most part of East Timor. He is still armed, as is the ‘Rai Los’ group (led by Vicente da Conceição, who claimed on ABC TV’s Four Corners that Alkatiri ordered him to set up a hit squad to wipe out opponents), which is based in Liquica and staying at the coffee estate of the President of the Social Democratic Party, Mario Carrascala.

Elizaria no longer works as a high school teacher as she does not feel safe in her school. Her 20-year-old son was wounded by gunfire during an attack by ex-East Timor National Police officers on 1 September at the camp opposite the hotel. He is waiting to be evacuated to Australia and the bullet is still lodged in his back. Elizaria visits him everyday in the hospital.

‘Young people are traumatised,’ she told me. ‘That is why they are involved in these activities. I feel very sad and I often feel like crying because our leaders are not interested in our plight.’

Today I visited Elizaria and her son in the hospital. Dili’s National Hospital has also become a refugee camp. In the past few months it has been attacked by different gangs. Some people no longer felt safe seeking treatment there. There is no running water and the families of patients must queue at the front gate and fill their buckets and containers with water from a pipe which runs continuously. Up to 10 days ago even the city’s taxi drivers were too afraid to enter its main entrance. Now East Timorese security guards stand at the different entrances but if there is a sustained attack they will be helpless to stop it.

For Elizaria and her son and the other refugees in the hospital, these conditions are now a reality of everyday life.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.