Displacement from East Timor: Has it Finished or Not?

Saturday, March 5th, 2011

One of the badly constructed houses in Raknamo Village, Kupang Timur Sub-district, Kupang District, East Nusa Tenggara (Photo: Taka)

These are the words of Agus, one of the ‘new residents / former displaced people from East Timor’, who was resettled on land of the Social Department in Naibonat, Kupang, West Timor, speaking about his reasons for wanting to return to Timor Leste.

He is not the only one. During JRS Indonesia’s visit to the displacement camp which still exists in Tuapukan-Kupang, as well as to various resettlement sites in Kupang, Atambua and Betun, land ownership was an issue that was brought up regularly in conversations. Farmland is the biggest concern as the majority of people who fled from East Timor to Indonesia in 1999 are farmers. The difficulties in finding farmland have increased over the last few years.

Local residents, who in the past lent their land to be worked by displaced people from East Timor using a harvest sharing system, are now increasingly reluctant to lend their land as they want to use it themselves or sell it.

Based on our conversations with Nato, a staff member from the Centre for IDP Services in West Timor, an organization accompanying the new residents, it seems that difficulties concerning farmland are encountered in nearly all of the settlement sites.

Resettlement and transmigration were the alternatives given in 2002 when the Indonesian government decided the problem of displaced people from East Timor was solved. In reality “resettlement” in itself brought new challenges.

One resident of the Raknamo settlement in Kupang explained that they had to buy the land themselves and then the house would be built by the Indonesian military. He said the land is mutually owned by local residents and ‘new residents’.

New residents have paid a deposit but have not been able to pay the balance as they are waiting for their living allowance (jadup/jaminan hidup) which the government promised would be handed out in 2002, but which until now has still not been received. In his opinion, if the land is not paid off this might cause conflicts between local residents and new residents.

The majority of the resettlement sites in Belu district, West Timor are located far from main roads and access to drinking water, adding to a challenging situation for the new residents who chose, or in some cases were forced, to move to these settlements.

Another complaint was that the government’s decision to move them to settlements was made without consulting the community. They felt “herded like water buffalo”, and access to farmland was not even considered by the government when choosing a settlement site.

The condition of the houses in the settlements, which were built through collaboration between the social department and the Indonesian military, is in itself a cause for concern. Many residents feel unsafe living in them and so return to the camps.

The temporary shelters in the camps, made from bebak (woven palm leaves) are already falling apart but they feel safer there. At least near the camp farmland is easier to access and drinking water is provided.

So it is no wonder that more and more people want to return to Timor Leste. In 2010 about 119 people returned to Timor Leste.

According to Sister Sesilia Ketut, SSPS from the Caring about Women and Children Forum (Forum Peduli Perempuan dan Anak) who is assisting the return process, by 31 January 2011 already 71 people had returned to Timor Leste. Sister Sesilia predicts that during 2011 this number will rise.

A visit to Cornelis in Sukabitete, Atambua supported Sister Sesilia’s prediction. Cornelis said confidently, “In July I will go back home. When my first child finishes her school, I will tell her to go directly back to Timor Leste.”

It seems the “new residents” formerly displaced from East Timor and the Indonesian government have very different perspectives. Mr Jon from the social department’s settlement in Naibonat, Kupang, West Timor put it like this, “It is said that we no longer have the status of ‘pengungsi’ (displaced person) but if we look at the reality on the ground there are many people still living in displacement camps. People say the government of Timor Leste, the Indonesian government and the UN have stated that the problem of displacement is solved. This is political engineering. Please look at what the situation is really like. If it is solved, say it’s solved, if not, then say it’s not.”

This last request is a challenge to all parties involved or concerned in this issue. The answer is only one word, “solved” or “not”, but it requires opening your heart to answer honestly, and being ready to take responsibility for whatever follows your answer.

Taka Gani

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