arch-peace editorials

14 March 2008

IDP Camps in East Timor

Those who have followed the fortunes of independent East Timor in the years since its violent separation from Indonesia in 1999 will no doubt have been dismayed by events of the last eighteen months. Tensions within the armed forces escalated into several violent confrontations including the murder of a group of unarmed police by renegade members of the East Timorese army. Civil society all but collapsed. Police disappeared from the streets, schools and universities shut down, entire government departments were deserted, shops were boarded up and the nights were filled with looting and arson. Shocking as these events were in themselves, they gave rise to an even greater calamity as a dramatic rift was opened in Timorese society, splitting communities along ethnic lines and resulting in 100,000 people fleeing into rural areas and makeshift internally displaced person (IDP) camps.

Camps sprang up all over Dili, East Timor’s capital. There was a clear preference for institutions operated by the Catholic Church—schools, convents, seminaries and churches themselves. In one convent school 13,000 people crammed inside the gates each night, sleeping along corridors and porches, under trees and tarpaulins and occupying every conceivable space. Another 10,000 people squeezed into the car park opposite the main United Nations (UN) compound, a camp sheltering many families of Timorese UN staff. In the days following the arrival of Malaysian and Australian peacekeeping forces in late May 2006, informal camps were established wherever facilities were being protected by soldiers. Tens of thousands of people set up temporary shelter in the park across the road from the port, in the grounds of the national hospital and in open fields adjacent to the airport. A month after the commencement of the ‘crisis’ (as the events were known locally), more than 60 camps had been formally registered by the Timorese government.

Conditions within all the camps were very difficult. There was insufficient space; shelter was improvised and inadequate; food was in short supply because all the shops were closed; people were required to carry water; and toilets were generally shared by several hundred people and regularly broke down. A sense of despair accompanied the physical conditions. People were unable to go to work and children were no longer attending school. Those sheltering in camps spent each night in fear of attack by violent gangs and often woke to learn that their house had been burnt or looted. The camps appeared to be such a difficult environment in which to live that those of us supporting the humanitarian response expected them to disperse as rapidly as they had appeared. We expected that restoration of order by the international peacekeepers would facilitate people returning home in a matter of weeks and that all the major camps would be emptied by the onset of the wet season in November. Although most of the smaller camps have now closed, the larger camps have not. Now, eighteen months after they were spontaneously established these camps are firmly entrenched in Dili’s urban landscape.

Several government proposals to close or relocate camps have faltered in the face of complex motivations for families to remain. Humanitarian agencies continue to provide food to registered IDPs encouraging ongoing involvement with IDP camps; government efforts to rebuild homes burnt during the violence have replaced only a small number of the houses lost; ethnic tensions remain in many communities preventing families returning to their homes even if they were not destroyed; and insecurity of title to land discourages many families from carrying out their own rebuilding efforts (most land title records were destroyed in 1999 and their are often disputes over conflicting Portuguese and Indonesian era titles). The camps present a seemingly intractable problem for the government and it would not be surprising to see people living in tents in the hospital grounds or in the park across the road from the port a generation from now.

From an outsider’s perspective (in my case, that of a foreign humanitarian assistance worker) the camps appear such depressing and unpleasant places to live that one might expect them to have closed long ago without any government prompting. I worked with Oxfam in a dozen of the camps for several months, helping to improve access to water and sanitation, so I knew the physical condition in many camps well. I worked extensively with Timorese camp managers and liaison staff and so also knew something of the management and political structures in operation. I had never spent the night in an IDP camp, however, nor visited one socially so I knew next to nothing of how a resident might view their life there.

An Australian colleague provided me with an insight into the residents’ point of view. She lived with a Timorese family in the Metinaro IDP camp for several days at a time and invited me for a visit. Her host family’s house in Dili had been destroyed and they had built a small palm-leaf hut in the Metinaro camp along with thousands of other families. The roof and walls were constructed from woven palm leaves and the floor was compacted earth. In contrast to nearby Dili, there was no electricity or running water. Up to ten people lived in the family’s two small rooms. When I arrived I was welcomed in and offered coffee. Chairs were improvised from up-turned tins, formerly full of UN-funded protein biscuits. As we drank our coffee and chatted away, life for this family went on around us and they explained why they remained in the Metinaro camp rather than return to Dili. A friend had offered them accommodation in a spare house in Dili but the family was unsure how they might be received in the neighbourhood. Having had their house and possessions destroyed in 1999 and then again in 2006, they were very reluctant to put at risk the few things they had managed to save or acquire again. They also noted that it had been expensive to buy the palm leaves used to build their hut in the IDP camp. They felt they had built up a stake in the camp that they didn’t want to walk out on. I was surprised to see the family living reasonably happily in what I had thought were the wretched condition in the Metinaro IDP camp. It had been difficult to see past my urban Australian perceptions of ‘home’ and understand why this family might choose to crowd into the dirt-floored, windswept, palm leaf hut instead of the modest comfort of their friend’s house in Dili. My visits to IDP camps to ‘help’ people had not provided me with any insight. Only by visiting the camp residents socially, on their terms, had I began to understand why people might chose to remain in the camp.

My Australian colleague has been living in remote parts of East Timor for several years. As in the Metinaro IDP camp, this often requires living in close quarters with a family, sharing a bed with two or three others, living without a toilet, running water and electricity—all the things that those of us living in places like urban Australia might consider basic necessities. Despite that, she says that she feels better/happier/more at ease/more connected living in close communities in East Timor than she does at home in Sydney or Melbourne. As we discussed this concept, we struggled to find just the right adjective for the quality of life she experienced. I might have chosen ‘more at peace’—peace in a broad sense and entirely relevant to those of us at Architects for Peace. The built environment in the Metinaro IDP camp is an important element in providing ‘peace’ for the families still living there. Not for what it so clearly lacks—running water, electricity, roads, sanitation, services—but for what it boasts—security, ownership, self reliance, opportunities for hospitality. This experience demonstrated that for those of us looking to build peace, and not just structures, there are lessons to be learnt and experience to be drawn upon wherever people are living.

Matthew Bond
Architects for Peace, March 2008


Anonymous said...

this is totally not right what they did to these people....i dont see how someone would have the fun out of touturen people and to rap them right in front of there kids.

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