Mon, 11 Jun 2001

East Timor refugees make the ultimate choice

By Yemris Fointuna

KUPANG, East Nusa Tenggara (JP): The scorching sun and uncompromising atmosphere in West Timor, East Nusa Tenggara, seemingly cooled as hundreds of refugees voluntarily gathered at registration sites to determine their future -- to be resettled and live in Indonesia or return home to their native East Timor.

Looking weary and unkempt, the refugees approached registration posts on Wednesday, the first day of registration, to make a decision that would have lasting effects on their future.

The large and orderly turnout was somewhat unexpected, going against all the speculation on the eve of the registration that the process would meet with failure.

A week earlier, certain groups claiming to represent refugees in camps in Noelbaki, Tuapukan, Sulamu and Naibonat had threatened to obstruct the process unless their demands were met.

These groups were demanding, among other things, that separate stations be set up for those refugees wishing to return to East Timor and those intending to remain in Indonesia.

Amin Rianom, chairman of the refugee registration organizing committee, rejected the demand saying that the registration procedures were in accordance with international standards.


As registration stations opened at 8 a.m. on Wednesday the refugees, without receiving specific instructions, gathered in number at the locations.

Their choice was clear on the registration cards: choose the symbol of the East Timor territory to return to their homeland, or choose the Garuda (eagle) symbol to remain in Indonesia and retain their Indonesian citizenship.

As of Sunday out of 105,843 registrants, 103,537 chose to remain in Indonesia.

The refugees gave different reasons for making the choices they made. Roni Berek, 41, an ex-employee of the former East Timor branch of the Regional Development Bank, told The Jakarta Post that his decision to remain in Indonesia was spurred by his love for the country.

He said Indonesia's role in developing and shaping East Timor for 24 years enabled his family to receive a proper education.

The Bereks are quite prepared to be regarded as guests in their native land, when one day they visit their relatives in East Timor as foreign tourists.

Another registrant, Beni Seran, 47, shared this view and revealed that his father was slain by proindependence forces when East Timor was integrated with Indonesia in 1975.

Beni, who lives in the Noelbaki camp, finds it impossible to erase the incident from his memory and has sworn to live and die in Indonesia.

Beni and his entire family expressed their readiness to be viewed as foreign visitors when they make the trip to East Timor to pay their respects to Beni's parents at the Viqueque regency (now district) graveyard.

What about those who refused to register?

One such person is former East Timor governor Abilio Jose Osario Soares, who maintained a philosophical stance saying there was only one opportunity to vote and he used it in the 1999 self- determination referendum.

The politician turned entrepreneur openly affirmed: "For me, Indonesia yes, registration no."

The 56-year-old Aleksiro Manteiro, who resides in the Naibonat camp in East Kupang, took a similar view.

"Why should I vote. I already did it in East Timor. By registering, can we recapture East Timor?"

He also rejected the assumption that by refusing to vote, he would be considered an illegal immigrant.

Aleksiro charged that the very reason he is now in West Timor is because he loves Indonesia. He argued that it would be narrow- minded of the government to tag him as an illegal alien.

"Indonesia is a sovereign nation, it should appreciate the preferences of every citizen, including abstaining," Aleksiro said.

Three refugees who chose to return to East Timor said they had considered their decision for months. All three asked not to be identified.

One of them made it clear that his family and relatives were in Dili.

"My father and brother are there, they've asked me to come back home. But I couldn't return because I had sided with Indonesia. (But) later Baucau Bishop Basilio told me about the decent life in East Timor, so now I'd like to go home," he said.

Whatever their choices, everything has now been determined. But further action is needed to follow up the sincere and honest participation of the refugees to prevent the emergence of a time bomb in West Timor.

With this registration, their refugee status has automatically ended. With regard to those who chose to stay in Indonesia, the government has said it will begin a resettlement program.

For East Timor-bound registrants, the government is cooperating with United Nations agencies to send them back home.

Officials say that illegal immigrants will be moved to border areas.