Sat, 11 Sep 1999

Pain and suffering of East Timor's displaced

By Yacob Herin

MAUMERE, East Nusa Tenggara (JP): When the United Nations announced the results of the ballot, personal emotions of joy and disappointment abounded in East Timor. But a common feeling shared by all was the fear which made many families pack their bags shortly after the news broke out.

They scrambled onto ships and trucks, many with the assistance of police, and darted to the neighboring province.

Others fled to churches and seminaries in town and soon found that these, too, were unsafe as fires burned down almost all the buildings.

One of the prointegration militia commander, Eurico Guterres, said as a result of the calamity in Dili "all residents have fled for safety."

Most of the refugees have fled to Kupang and Atambua, but a great number are seeking refuge in Maumere, particularly those with family or friends.

Paulus Nong, 59, a retired policeman who served in Dili from 1978, said he lost everything.

His home was destroyed by fire and he was now seeking refuge with his entire family in Flores, East Nusa Tenggara.

"My family and I had no choice but to leave," he remarked.

But when asked what he would do for the future, he gave a blank reply as if he had been hoping for an answer, not a question. "The pension money I have will never be enough to start a new life."

Ruben Resi, 59, shared the same agony. The father of four and a retired Indonesian Army officer said he shed tears on the way from Dili to Flores.

"I was thinking of what will happen to my children and my family's future.

"When the United Nations declared the ballot results, we all escaped East Timor with only our clothes on," Ruben said, who lived in East Timor since 1979.

Meanwhile, 49-year-old Gunawan said he never imagined himself leaving East Timor.

"I stayed there since 1979," the civil servant said. "Since the situation (in East Timor) got tense in March, I've moved all of the family's belongings to Kupang."

Now Gunawan and his wife of Portuguese descent are seeking refuge at a relative's house in Maumere.

"We're not thinking of our property (in East Timor) now. We are too afraid for our lives," he remarked.

An East Timorese woman, Yoseina, 53, recounted how she fled when the situation became chaotic in Dili. The military escorted her out of her family's home in Komoro, West Dili.

"My husband, Simon Sili, and two of my grandsons are still in Dili," she said tearfully.

But after leaving Dili, she became separated and has not seen her husband since.

She recounted that her husband urged her to go first as he had to go fetch their grandchildren in downtown Dili.

Lorensius, 47, a civil servant, said he lived in Dili for 21 years.

Recognizing the situation could get worse, he made advance preparations and moved the family heirlooms to Maumere.

"I moved all of the doors and windows of our house in Bairo Pite village to Maumere in May ... they're our family's only valuables," he said.

Despite saving the family fortune, a semblance of his heritage, Laurensius broke down when he was asked about the latest developments.

"It's now happening again. Even in the reform era, the lives of human beings have no price at all. We have lost everything," he said as he revealed that his wife's family had died during the civil war in East Timor in 1975.

For now the attention of the world is understandably on stopping further carnage in East Timor. These refugees can only hope that some attention will also be on them once the gunfire and flames die down.