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East Timor: First helicopter-assisted relief distribution

28-10-1999 News Release 99/43

The ICRC has begun its emergency relief distributions to isolated villages in the mountains of East Timor. On 26 October an ICRC-chartered helicopter flew 12.5 tonnes of food and other items from the town of Aileu to the village of Hato Builico, which lies at an altitude of 2,000 metres in the central district of Ainaro. The operation required 15 helicopter rotations at a pace of three rotations per hour. The supplies were distributed to some 1,000 persons (200 families) in Hato Builico, which has a total of 3,286 inhabitants.

Although initial nutritional assessments have not revealed any cases of starvation, there is an urgent need for food in East Timor, where the chronic shortages that occur during the rainy season have been exacerbated by the recent violence. The food items being distributed are rice, pulses, oil, sugar, salt and high-protein biscuits. This is being supplemented with essential supplies such as cooking pots, jerrycans, soap, plastic basins, sarongs, candles, tarpaulins and blankets.

In Hato Builico, the schoolteacher was recently appointed head of the village. He said that the former rulers of East Timor only allowed the villagers to cultivate enough land to feed themselves, for fear that any excess food would go to the guerillas hiding in the mountains. Since the village has no reserves, it has been hard hit by the recent violence and people have been eating up their seed supplies. The ICRC will return to the village as soon as its shipment of seed and tools has arrived in Dili harbour.

The villages chosen for this helicopter-assisted relief operation are particularly difficult to reac h since mountain roads have either collapsed or are too narrow for ICRC trucks. Even if the roads were wider, they would not be able to withstand the load and would require maintenance and repairs which, in the absence of civilian authorities, cannot be provided at this time in East Timor. " The only other solution would have been by horseback, but that would have taken months " , said Gian Luca Thorimbert, ICRC relief delegate, as he watched the supplies being flown in under the helicopter in large nets.