For nearly two decades, life has never been a celebration for Maria Pereira. Since she fled her home in Timor-Leste due to conflict in 1999 that led to the country’s independence in 2002, her life has not improved.
Pereira now lives on her own in a small house made of wood and dried palm leaves in Raknamo, an area in Kupang district of Indonesia’s East Nusa Tenggara province.
“Since I moved to this place many years ago from a UNHCR refugee camp, my life has not changed. The land where I am now is not mine. It belongs to other people,” the 67-year-old told ucanews.com, referring to a tiny portion of land where her house was erected.
Her husband and three children left her for unknown reasons in the early days of those difficult years. She now depends on the assistance of her relatives and friends in Timor-Leste.
Pereira was among 250,000 East Timorese who fled to East Nusa Tenggara, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), when the country was facing political turmoil following the referendum held on Aug. 30, 1999.
In the referendum 94,388 people or 21.5 percent of East Timorese voted to remain with Indonesia, while 344,580 people or 78.5 percent chose independence.
Many have returned home after they were offered repatriation but more chose to stay in East Nusa Tenggara.
The Secretariat of Disaster Prevention and Refugees of East Nusa Tenggara recorded in 2005 that there were about 104,436 refugees, with 70,453 living in Belu district, 11,176 in North Central Timor and 11,360 in Kupang district.
Most live in poverty and have no land despite lots of money being allocated for their resettlement process during the presidency of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (2004-14).
“There was too much bureaucracy and we did not really feel its effectiveness,” said Matius Alves, 40, another East Timorese.
But Alves is luckier than the others. Landowners allowed him to manage about two hectares of land on a profit-sharing condition where he plants crops such as cassava, corn, papaya and banana.
“However, it’s quite a dilemma. On one hand, I am grateful. On the other hand, it’s not my land and can be taken from us any time,” he said.
Francisco Ximenes, a local leader from Baucau district in Timor-Leste, said people have been deprived of their rights.
“Since most of the East Timorese people are farmers, they need land to actualize themselves and fulfil daily needs. But sad to say, most people live on other people’s land and they do not know its future,” said Ximenes.
“In the beginning, when we arrived here [in 1999], this area was a jungle. No one claimed ownership. But after the people cut the trees and cleared the land, one by one people came to us and claimed ownership.”
Ximenes lives with about 700 families in an area owned by the Indonesian military. He said once the military asked them to vacate the area. “But where are we going to?” he replied.
According to Ximenes, the government never listens to their appeals for certification of land where they are settled. With increasing prices, it is getting more difficult for people to acquire even a small portion of land.
Mariano Parada, 34, an activist from the Society of Timor-Indonesia, a non-profit group that advocates for East Timorese residents in Belu district, said that after UNHCR ended its service in 2002, people were given a chance to choose repatriation or resettlement.
He said only repatriation was successful, while resettlement was a complete failure. Most Timorese expats settled in the district are living in severe poverty except for a small number recruited by government agencies or the police.
“It’s a dilemma. We chose to stay but don’t have a proper place to live. Many can’t go back to Timor-Leste either. Life is very difficult,” he said.
Parada fears such conditions will become a time bomb that one day will lead to conflict.
“When people can no longer endure the suffering, continuously living in uncertainty, I am afraid it will end up in revenge,” he said.
“People have sacrificed a lot. They left their homes and some even killed other people during the pro-Indonesia war. When those sacrifices are not paid off, I am afraid people will be rebellious,” he said.
According to Parada, the Indonesian government has not paid serious attention to their plight.
“We have organized many protests demanding the government to provide electricity, healthcare and education facilities in resettlement areas. But as of today, nothing has happened,” he said.
In December 2016, people appealed to President Joko Widodo to help the lives of former Timorese, particularly with land certification. “But we have not received any response,” Parada said.
Challenge for church
Father Vincent Tamelab, parish priest of St. Mary of Fatima Church in Taklale, under Kupang Archdiocese, said 95 percent of its 18,000 parishioners are East Timorese expats.
They mostly come from the districts of Los Palos, Dili, Baucau, Viqueque, Aileu, and Manatutu.
The church, he said, has often voiced its concern and asked for government help to settle land problems, but it has not been successful.
“It’s strange that the government said it had given land to the people in 1999, but until now it is unclear about the status of the land,” Father Tamelab said.
Father Tamelab also highlighted the Raknamo Dam that was inaugurated by President Widodo on Jan. 9. The dam, covering an area of 245 hectares, will provide irrigation and clean water for people in Kupang district, including Timorese expats.
The dam is certainly good for the communities around it, particularly landowners, but it may not be good for Timorese expats. The priest feared that when the dam is in full swing in the next few years, landowners will take over the management of land currently entrusted to the expats.
“We are cautious about this. Because when the land is taken from them, they will have nothing and this will trigger another conflict,” the priest said.
The parish, he said, has changed its approach to parishioners, encouraging East Timorese Catholics to be open and reach out to local people.
“If something bad happens, it will not be widespread because they have built a good relationship with local people,” Father Tamelab said.
Published in La Croix International, 2 February 2018: East Timorese exiles trapped in poverty