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East Timorese refugees await transport at the border.

A Long March Home
From squalid refugee camps in West Timor, a steady trickle of East Timorese is striking out for the border
By ANASTASIA VRACHNOS Junction Point Charlie

The tanks are in place at Junction Point Charlie, just east of the border dividing East and West Timor. "We're expecting a large group within the half-hour. Up to a 100," advises Major John McCaffrey, the Australian in charge of the United Nations peacekeeping unit stationed there. Soon a small column of figures appears on the horizon, snaking down an embankment in the glittering morning light. As the convoy moves beyond the red and white Indonesian flag and the thatched hut — the last it will see of Indonesian soil — individual forms begin to take shape. A young girl clutching her younger sister. A soldier helping to push a loaded wagon. A man carrying a rickety red chair. A woman straining under the weight of a rice-sack of belongings. They wade across the shallow Malibaka river and suddenly they are home.

These are the people known as "spontaneous returns" in the jargon of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). They are East Timorese leaving refugee camps in West Timor more than a year after they fled, or were driven from, their homes. Up to one quarter of East Timor's 800,000 population crossed the 170-km-long border when pro-Indonesian militias, backed by factions of the military, responded to last year's independence vote by reducing East Timor to rubble. While Indonesian authorities dither over what to do with the estimated 120,000 refugees — many of whom supported Indonesian autonomy — camp conditions deteriorate. Even before the UNHCR withdrew from the province in September after the murder of four aid workers, the displaced were said to be living on the fringe of survival. Now, with no aid coming in, the steady trickle of returnees is increasing at Junction Point Charlie and similar border crossings.

Why are they coming back now? The short answer in many cases is because they can. Refugees say the recent removal to Jakarta of notorious militia leader Eurico Guterres has loosened the various militias' grips on the camps. (Guterres was incarcerated last month after he and his followers stormed a border town police station to take back weapons they had surrendered.) No one knows whether the militias have withdrawn to consolidate forces or to avoid an Indonesian military operation designed to disarm them. But a small window of opportunity has opened in the border camps and a growing number of refugees is climbing out.

Some, of course, prefer to stay in the makeshift shelters. Until aid workers left, subsistence needs were being met — and a regular meal was deemed more attractive than an uncertain future starting from scratch. Remarkably, others continue to collect their Indonesian pensions, which will be withdrawn if they return. Those with militia links remain fearful of reprisals and unwilling to budge. The pro-Indonesian umbrella group UNTAS, or Union of Timorese Patriots, says the number of refugees in West Timor corresponds to the proportion of East Timorese who voted for autonomy. Aid agencies disagree. They estimate that up to 60% of camp dwellers are being kept against their will by militiamen. According to Bernard Kerblat, the UNHCR chief in East Timor: "100,000-plus are there in a hostage-like situation, where there is no longer an international presence to monitor what is happening."

Life in the camps is hell. While numbers are impossible to verify, those now back in East Timor tell of rampant intimidation over the border. They say there are nightly roll calls by militias who patrol with machetes. They claim many refugees are forced to leave behind relatives when they go to market as insurance that they will come back. Rumors circulate that peacekeepers rape women and beat men who cross the border. Fernando Noronha arrived at Junction Point Charlie with his wife Francisca, five of his nine children, the family dog and a cartload of belongings. He says militiamen told him: "If you want to go back, please do. But when UNTAET [the U.N. Transitional Administration in East Timor] leaves, we will kill you all."

For Noronha, a rice and corn farmer, the decision to head for home was triggered by waning food supplies in the camps and the beginning of the rainy season, which will worsen conditions for future crossings. He also deemed his 7-month-old child, born in West Timor, old enough to travel safely. His four grown sons went ahead to their village some months ago to prepare for the family's homecoming. Like the Noronhas, an uneven stream of refugees has completed the morning's border trek. Ten here, 70 there. Children, goats, pigs in tow.

The Indonesian government claims it is trying to help but admits that its limited resources are already stretched by crises in other parts of the archipelago. It says it needs the international assistance that it allowed to be driven away by militia violence. The Coordinating Minister for Politics, Security and Social Welfare, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, has announced that Indonesia will begin registering refugees this month. They will be given the choice of repatriation to East Timor or resettlement. Indonesia also says the militias have been disarmed and disbanded, and that it is safe for the U.N. to return. But U.N. refugee chief Ogata Sadako describes West Timor as a virtual no man's land and other officials say the disarmament program is merely cosmetic. The U.S.-based Human Rights Watch has pleaded with Indonesia to delay registrations until safeguards against intimidation can be established.

On the East Timor side of the border, the Noronha family is searched for weapons by U.N. peacekeepers with metal detectors. Fernando Noronha, like all other men aged over 18, is screened and questioned to determine if he is a militia member. Officials say some militias are now infiltrating more deeply into East Timor. The Noronhas are given a modest rice supply, a blue plastic sheet, two jerry cans and one day's meal. Finally they board an aid agency truck to be taken 15 km to their village on the outskirts of Maliana, about 50 km southwest of the East Timorese capital, Dili.

As the truck nears the village of about 150, a gaggle of screaming children runs to greet the family. "Refugees, refugees," they chorus excitedly. The truck bumps to a stop in front of a makeshift cinderblock house, which until a few days ago had no roof. Neighbors gather to help unload possessions. Village children yell the names of the Noronha girls, their long-lost friends. A dog is handed down from the truck, then a baby. A bamboo mat follows, a bag of rice and the rickety red chair. Francisco Noronha nurses her toddler while she supervises. A child runs up and kisses her husband's hand. One villager, 37-year-old Armandio dos Santos, is proudly recounting his own return a year ago. "Sure, people said a lot of scary things and others didn't come because they were afraid," he says. "But we decided to come quickly. We decided that if we had to die, we will die in our homeland."

When the final family possession is unloaded, Fernando Noronha sits quietly in the rickety red chair. He listens to the rhythms of his life rebuilding around him. His wife is giving orders about where things belong. His children are playing in their new dirt yard. His family's harrowing 13-month dislocation is over. With the militias still roaming, there probably will be more harassment, more threats to endure. But Noronha is home now. That's what really matters.

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