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Joana returns home to Dili from Western Timor

30-11-1999 Feature

" I'm going home?  I'm going home? Am I really going home? " asks an excited teenager as she meets with the Tracing team of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in the Noelbaki camp for displaced people just outside Kupang, the main town in western Timor.

17 year old Joana Da Silva last saw her relatives in Dili, East Timor in early September. But she has had no news of her family since she and an estimated 200,000 others were displaced to the western half of the island. Joana has been in the Noelbaki camp with over 1,000 other displaced people since mid-September. Until the news from the ICRC, she did not know if her uncle who had adopted her after the death of her father several years ago, was alive.

On November 11, a tracing team composed of members of the ICRC and the Indonesian Red Cross went back to the camp to find Joana and give her the news that her uncle was alive and waiting for her in Dili. " We had been to the camp twice earlier this week, and each time Joana came to us, asking if we had any news of her family, " said ICRC field officer Ida Adu. " Each time we had to say no, but today I could tell her we found them. "

" We first had to check that she wanted to return to Dili, " explains ICRC Tracing Delegate Yayoi Hayashi. The next question was when would she be ready to join her family. " Tomorrow, " replied Joana. The Red Cross team had to explain that the arrangements could take a few more days, but explained Ms. Hayashi, " we hope to have her back with her family within a week. "

Joana's uncle had recognized his adopted daughter's picture displayed amongst over 100 others of unaccompanied children in front of the ICRC office in Dili. He immediately informed the Tracing team that he had cared for Joana and her mother since the death of her father and that he was willing and ready to care again for Joana in Dili. The news was followed by an intensive exchange of messages confirming to the ICRC Kupang team that Joana's uncle had been located and was now waiting for Joana in Dili.

Finally, on Thursday 18 November 1999, after a UNHCR plane had to be cancelled for technical reasons, the Kupang Tracing team informed its Dili counterparts that another plane, transporting members of a USA mission to Timor, had accepted to transport Joana back to Dili and was about to leave.

The ICRC Dili Tracing team was mobilized. While the uncle was being informed of the imminent arrival of Joana, another ICRC team rushed to Dili airport as the short flight between Kupang and Dili only takes 20 minutes in the small jet.

While driving through the streets of Dili from the airport to the ICRC office, Joana watched the destruction of her town reduced to rubble. But she was happy to be back in Dili, she said. And there was her uncle waiting in front of the ICRC office.

ICRC Tracing teams have registered over 230 unaccompanied children such as Joana. Close to 30 have been reunited with their families to date. Another two hundred adults and children have been transported by the ICRC to be reunited with their families in East Timor or in western Timor according to the wishes of the family. The ICRC and the Indonesian Red Cross have also collected over 18,000 Red Cross message cards helping families separated by the events in East Timor to re-establish contact.