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More Than 100,000 Timorese Remain in Refugee Camps

Almost 18 months after violence erupted in East Timor, more than 100,000 people are still living in camps or with relatives. As Marianne Kearney reports from the capital, Dili, only four houses have been built for those who fled the mayhem of early 2006.

At a camp behind the Lucidere Monastery in Dili, more than 50 families are crowded into what was once the monastery's garden.

Maria da Costa, a 23-year-old, has been living in a small tent with eight family members for a year and a half. Despite the cramped conditions, she says she cannot return to her home in Dili's northern suburbs.

"We can't return because we are still afraid, and we don't have a house: it was burned," she said.

Around a 150,000 people fled their homes in April and May of last year during street unrest that left at least 37 people dead.

Rival military and police factions waged battles against each other, and then youths began fighting in the streets. Since then, hundreds of international peacekeepers have patrolled Dili's streets alongside the Timorese police.

A government department has been trying to return refugees to their homes. But so far, the government and an aid agency have only managed to rebuild four of the 6,000 houses that were damaged or destroyed in last year's crisis.

Most of the refugees are from Timor's east. They say gang attacks on easterners were sparked by Army Major Alfredo Reinado, who claimed there was bias against westerners in the military.

Aderito da Sperada, a refugee, says even if his house had not been destroyed, it would not be safe for him to return.

Reinado escaped from prison last year, and fought off Australian peacekeepers attempting to arrest him. He and others responsible for the violence remain at large, and da Sperada wants the government to provide protection from them.

"We came here because of Reinado and Salsinha, who turned us into refugees," he said. "All us refugees in Dili want to return home, so we ask the government to guarantee the security and peace, so we can return to our houses and live normally, like we did before."

Armandio Freitas of the government's Mutual Acceptance Secretariat says it is not that easy.

For one thing, there are 70,000 internally displaced people, or IDP's, in Dili alone, and an estimated 100,000 outside Dili trying to get into the capital.

"Basically right now, in Dili, each month, we are feeding 70,000 of IDP's," he said. "And … it's very hard for us to maintain the number, from one month to another month, because almost each month the number increases."

A second problem is that home ownership is not clear-cut.

Disputes have arisen because many families moved to Dili and occupied vacant homes after thousands were killed in two major episodes of violence.

The first was in 1975, when Portugal gave East Timor its independence and Indonesia invaded the territory. The second came in 1999, when the Indonesian military and local militias fought to keep people from voting for independence from Indonesia.

Now many of the original owners have returned to Dili to claim their land.

Alfredo Zamudio with the Norwegian Refugee Council says it is essential for the displaced to gain community approval for their return, or they could spark more conflict. He says the only way to do this is negotiate with local communities in what he calls dialogue sessions.

"You have 6,000 destroyed houses, so you need 6,000 sessions of dialogue for the return," he said. "For the return you need to solve two things: you need to solve dialogue and you need to solve the land property thing. That will take time."

Zamudio says that given the difficulties, more temporary shelters are needed, such as the one called Becora, located behind a university.

"Instead of being in emergency camp, these families are moved to the transitional site of Becora," said Zamudio. "Here you find 156 families living in small rooms of about 16-square meters. Two families, they share a bedroom and an individual communal kitchen. We've built up to now 472 of these shelters and we are finishing the construction of 500 and we are going to build, we think we need one thousand more."

At the temporary camp built by the Norwegian Refugee Council, residents have clean water, sanitation and - most importantly - security provided by United Nations police.

But the council, the only aid agency currently building houses, says it can only build 300 houses a year. At that rate, East Timor's refugees could be stuck in camps and temporary shelters for many years to come.