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Update No.99/05 on ICRC activities in Indonesia/East Timor

29-11-1999 Operational Update


 General situation  

The rapid and systematic deployment of the multinational force (INTERFET) in East Timor has created the security conditions needed to allow the return to their homes of East Timorese who had taken refuge in the territory's mountains and forests. To date, over 80,000 persons have also come back from West Timor, either spontaneously or with the aid of the UNHCR and the IOM.

In spite of the enormous damage it suffered, Dili has benefited from being the main base of international humanitarian operations, and shows a relatively rapid progress toward recovery. Important humanitarian needs still remain in the outlying regions, but the improved security conditions should now allow an effective humanitarian response to these needs. The situation remains more precarious in East Timor’s Western districts, where proximity to the border leaves the area vulnerable to the infiltration of the militias from West Timor. This insecurity, compounded by the isolation created by a mountainous geography and poor infrastructure, impedes the delivery of assistance and makes certain areas particularly difficult to monitor. For these reasons, international presence there is still limited.

The arrival of the monsoon season has increased health risks and makes the need for shelter critical. The rains have also signalled the arrival of the planting season, which creates an urgent need for seed. If the planting season is missed, the population’s food security is endangered for the entire year to come.

 Humanitarian Response  

Benefiting from the favourable security conditions created by the presence of INTERFET, humanitarian organizations have been able to mount an extensive response to the survival needs of the disrupted East Timorese population. The major UN organizations, the NGOs present and the ICRC have established a good coordination of operations in East Timor. Nonetheless, because of start-up delays and tremendous logistical difficulties the response of humanitarian agencies to the needs of populations in outlying areas has been limited, and in isolated areas survival needs are becoming more acute.

Having two logistical bases set up at the beginning of its response to the crisis has enabled the ICRC to speed the deployment of its relief operations. The Darwin office has been organized and staffed by the Australian Red Cross (ARC), and the Surabaya office by the ICRC. In record time the ICRC mobilized a staff of over 50 expatriates, who work along with several hundred East Timorese staff out of offices in Dili and Baucau. This rapid staff deployment was made possible by the help of a number of National Red Cross Societies and ICRC delegations around the world. Currently ICRC operations in Timor employ staff seconded from the British, Norwegian, Japanese, Canadian, Icelandic, Irish, Swedish, Dutch, Belgian, Austrian, American and German Red Cross Societies.

 ICRC Protection activities  

 - for civilians  


Since it was set up in the end of September, the ICRC mail service has helped separated families reestablish contact through " Good Hea lth " cards, where senders list return address and family members who are with them. The ICRC has so far been able to distribute 4,300 of approximately 20'000 messages collected from family members in both East and West Timor. Lists of people to whom messages have been sent are displayed in public places, camps for the displaced and Red Cross offices, and are broadcast on BBC and UNTAET radio services. Message collection/distribution points have been established on both sides of the island. A satellite telephone has been provided by the ICRC office in Dili and over 1,300 calls have been logged by local residents who have phoned relatives in Indonesia and other countries, mainly Portugal and Australia.

The ICRC has to date organized and provided transport for over 200 people to join family members in East or West Timor, according to their wishes.

Over 280 unaccompanied children have been registered in camps in West Timor, and their photos have been displayed in the ICRC office in Dili so that their families can identify them. To date, more than 25 children have been reunited with their families, and the search continues.

While the return of calm has created a great improvement of security throughout East Timor, the road to stability is still a long one and there remains the possibility of renewed violence. The need to remind all sides of their obligations to respect civilian populations remains a high priority. Even in the current situation of calm, returnees suspected by their home communities of having supported the pro-integration movement have faced problems of harassment and intimidation when they arrived home. Four ICRC delegates now work in East Timor to monitor protection problems and intervene with all actors to prompt the establishment of guarantees that the rights and dignity of all civilians will be respected.

 - for detainees  

The INTERFET arrests and detains, generally for short periods, persons suspected of engaging in militia activities. The ICRC was consulted by INTERFET in the development of detention procedures to ensure that they are in accordance with international standards. It has access to persons arrested and detained by INTERFET, and regularly visits them according to standard ICRC working procedures. Delegates also follow problems of intimidation or harassment encountered by released detainees. The ICRC Dili maintains a regular exchange with INTERFET troops regarding the respect of international humanitarian law.

Until he was released, the ICRC visited an Indonesian officer who was held by Falintil.

Eighteen East Timorese prisoners who have been regularly visited by the ICRC since their arrest in 1997 have been again visited in Jakarta   and given the chance to exchange news with their relatives via Red Cross messages.

 ICRC assistance activities  

 - for civilians  

In the first phase of its relief operation, the ICRC provided assistance of food, shelter, and material relief to 72,000 persons in Dili town. After other agencies arrived in Dili, and as security in outlying regions improved the ICRC changed its focus to remote areas of East Timor and conducted extensive surveys, sharing its findings with the other organizations.

A nutritional assessment was carried out in October in the villages where the ICRC had regularly monitored the population nutritional status in the past years. Though the situation varied from one place to another, the survey showed that the population was entering the " lean period " of the rainy season with depleted nutritional reserves and minimal resources for subsistence, having already harvested available subsistance foods to survive during the period of displacement. In several locations, distressingly high rates of malnutrition were found among the children. Everywhere, seeds were urgently needed.

The ICRC therefore engaged in distributions of seeds and food, concentrating its efforts on distant or isolated areas which were not being covered by other organizations for lack of means of transport. Despite the logistical problems presented by weather, geography and road conditions, the ICRC has to date delivered by road and by helicopter 101 MT of maize seeds together with 803 MT of cereals, pulses, oil, sugar and salt. The distributions reached 105,000 persons, mainly in the districts of Lautem, on the Eastern tip, and Ainaro and Ermera in the western region.

The same beneficiaries were provided with material assistance such as emergency shelter, household equipment, hygienic articles and clothing. Kits of agricultural tools for 12,000 families will soon be handed over and food distributions will be repeated.

Shelter needs have also become critical with the arrival of the monsoon. In cooperation with local church and civic organizations, the ICRC is providing tools, nails, wood and tarpaulin in a programme for the construction of 2,000 family shelters in several areas of East Timor

Having reestablished Dili's water distribution system after it was disrupted in September, the ICRC now provides administrative and financial support to former employees of the water authority who now manage, in collaboration with other humanitarian organizations, to maintain water production at a level equal to that before the events. An ICRC staff of two expatriates and 45 locally hired employees are now maintaining the system and working to repair leaks made evident by the reestablishme nt of water supply. Evaluation of water supply systems outlying areas has found that most are still functioning. The ICRC, having established many of these water systems before the crisis, will now distribute tools and repair kits at the local level to support their maintenance.

ICRC Water and Sanitation staff has also responded to calls from other organizations to assist in the collection of bodies, and has so far collected over 70 bodies to be handed over for decent burial. This work is done on cooperation with INTERFET, which is responsible for forensic investigations

 - for the sick and wounded  

Remaining the referral facility for all of East Timor, the Dili General Hospital continues under temporary ICRC management with a staff of 15 expatriates and over 200 East Timorese. Currently treating up to 120 inpatients and an average of 1000 outpatients per week, the hospital has treated more than 600 inpatients and 6000 outpatients since ICRC's arrival on September 24. Returned Timorese staff is being reintegrated so that the hospital can be turned over to civilian health authorities when they have been established by UNTAET.


Because of the collapse of the primary care services in rural areas, the ICRC began in early October to make medical assessments throughout East Timor. Evaluating health needs , providing medical materials and making medical evacuations to Dili when necessary, three ICRC field health delegates had by mid-November visited 28 places in 11 districts. Several health centres selected in areas where the ICRC concentrates its relief operations will be rehabilitated and supported with material and medical supplies and staff training.


 General situation  

An estimated 200,000 displaced East Timorese remain in camps in West Timor, where militias still exert an influence over camp residents. The return home of those who wish to go has not proceeded as quickly as expected. This slow pace of return has frustrated the hopes of emptying the camps in the immediate future, and makes addressing the problems within camps more critical. It is of utmost importance to ensure that the displaced East Timorese are able to make free decisions and can safely return home when they wish.

Living conditions in the crowded camps have become increasingly precarious as problems of inadequate water supply and sanitation facilities increase the risk of communicable disease spread. Local populations of areas near the camps live in conditions that are not much better than those within the camps .

The arrival of rainy season has worsened health and sanitation problems and impeded the access to the camps, particularly those which are off the main roads. This increases difficulties of monitoring the situation.

 Humanitarian Response  

In West Timor, the ICRC works in conjunction with the Indonesian National Red Cross Society, Palang Merah Indonesia (PMI). Over a hundred Red Cross staff, including specialized ICRC expatriates, work out of bases in Kupang and Atambua . Activities are carried out in coordination with the local and international humanitarian organizations present in the province.

 ICRC assistance activities  

 - for civilians  

To avoid duplicating the work of the Indonesian authorities and other agencies, the ICRC is not involved in the distribution of food in West Timor. It does, however, keep a buffer stock of complementary foods such as oil, beans, sugar and salt, in case it should be needed.

To improve the living conditions of the displaced population, the ICRC   has, through the PMI, distributed basic household necessities such as shelter material, hygiene articles, cooking utensils, sarongs, jerry cans and mosquito nets to over 125,000 displaced people.

Water and sanitation assessment in camps have revealed important problems. A joint ICRC/PMI programme is underway for the construction of latrines and drainage systems in the camps in the Atambua region where the needs are most acute. Water purification tablets are provided for the camps'reservoirs. ICRC trucks water to camps where the supply is insufficient, at the same time that it is investigating the possibility of drilling boreholes to provide on-site sources of clean water.

 -   for the sick and wounded  

In a joint ICRC/PMI operation, medical care is provided in 12 health posts serving the camps for the displaced in the Atambua region. These health posts treat as many as 200 patients per day. " Rehydration corners " have been set up in camps in Kupang and Atambua to provide clean drinking water and oral rehydration solution for victims of diarrhoea, which is the second most common illness in the camps. To limit the spread of disease, medical staff take every opportunity to teach about personal hygiene and community health practices.