In late November, INTERFET and the Indonesian military signed an agreement to expedite the return of those East Timorese who wished to return home from West Timorese camps. Despite this agreement, the situation has not changed improved substantially.
Reports of militia-controlled refugee camps and restrictions on refugee movement provoked the visit of Richard Holbrooke, US ambassador to the United Nations, to West Timor. When Holbrooke went to the border on November 22, he was appalled at the situation in the refugee camps, the presence of the militias and the refugees' lack of access to real information. He said that he wanted to see the camps cleared and said that the situation "was at sharp variance with the statements of the Indonesian military."
Two Indonesian generals, General Damiri and Major General Syahnakri, accompanied Holbrooke on the visit. Holbrooke insisted on a meeting between himself, the Indonesian military commanders and Major General Cosgrove from INTERFET. Cosgrove had been unsuccessfully seeking a meeting General Damiri for weeks to talk about the border patrols and the militia. As a result of that meeting, the Indonesians and INTERFET signed an agreement to facilitate the return of the refugees, disarm the militia and to separate the militia from the refugees. That day, 700 refugees were successfully repatriated.
A week later, the number of repatriations was lower than before the Holbrooke visit. By early December, only a handful of people were returning each day; the militia still controlled the camps and prevented refugees from repatriating; and the UNHCR was returning from the camps with half empty trucks. Equally worrisome was the mounting death rate from disease suffered by the refugees due to terrible sanitation, lack of water, and inadequate shelter. In the most notorious camp, Tua Pukan, 37 children died of easily preventable diseases in 21 days.
By December 9, Xanana Gusmao of the CNRT assumed a more pro-active role in relation to the refugee issue, meeting with Major-General Cosgrove and Major General Syanakri, General Damriri's successor as regional military commander. Gusmao was interested in facilitating the voluntary repatriation of the refugees. Once again agreements were made, but on Friday Dec 10, UNHCR personnel preparing to repatriate refugees from the Labur camp were threatened by armed militia youth. Only 17 Timorese out of the 45 who had signed up to return were courageous enough to leave. Militia leaders continued to conduct training in the camps.
Gusmao then met on Sunday Dec 12 with Joao Tavarres who had been installed as head of all the then militia groups in East Timor in March 1999. As a result of this meeting, Tavarres ordered his forces to disband and told thousands of supporters at a meeting on the border that they should surrender their arms to the Indonesian military and no longer wear their uniforms.
The announcement was timed to coincide with a reconciliation meeting between the CNRT and anti-independence groups in Tokyo planned for December 14 and 15. It remains to be seen if the agreements reached in those meetings will be any more successful than those brokered by Holbrooke. Meanwhile the refugees continue to be pent up in the camps, intimidated and threatened, watching their children die of preventable diseases.
Information about the refugees continues to be a problem, as reflected in the wide differences between the various estimates of the number of East Timorese still in refugee camps in West Timor. The UNHCR puts the number of refugees in the camps at 110,000-130,000, the Indonesian government puts it 169,000 and Xanana Gusmao estimates 171,000. In any case, the situation of the refugees remains one of the key outstanding issues in the wake of the violence in East Timor.