East Timor: What UNICEF Is Doing: Update 10 Dec 1999

UNICEF has been at the forefront of relief and rehabilitation efforts in the shattered province of East Timor. Focussing on the needs of children and women, UNICEF has led a massive vaccination program to protect children from diseases, offered food and medical support to mothers with infants, worked to get water and sanitation facilities fixed, and provided education supplies so schools could reopen.


East Timor was devastated during violence that followed free elections on 30 August. In those elections, the people of East Timor voted overwhelmingly for independence from Indonesia, which had ruled the province since 1975. In the wake of the elections, militias opposed to independence rampaged through East Timor, destroying buildings and forcing more than 250,000 people to flee to neighbouring West Timor. Hundreds of thousands more fled into the hills of East Timor.

Photo: A man doctor with the international NGO Médecins sans Frontières examines a toddler held by her mother in a crowded tent set up in the football stadium in Dili, capital of East Timor.

When an international peacekeeping force entered East Timor in mid-September to help restore order, the militias moved to West Timor, where they have continued to generate an atmosphere of fear and intimidation among the thousands of refugees there. This has made providing relief to the refugee camps difficult -- and sometimes dangerous -- for international relief organisations.

However, following humanitarian intervention by the UN, refugees have been allowed to return to East Timor. During October and November, about 130,000 people who had taken refuge in the West have returned to East Timor. There are still more than 100,000 refugees in the West, however, and the number of people returning has slowed in December.

As a result, UNICEF continues to operate in both West and East Timor.

It must be noted, however, that despite all the relief efforts of dozens of organisations and groups, including UNICEF, conditions in both West and East Timor remain harsh. Most of East Timor was left in ruins by the militia, with houses, medical facilities and schools burned and looted. In West Timor, more than 100 infants have died since the crisis began, and thousands of families remain stuck in crowded camps.

UNICEF has called repeatedly on the Indonesian authorities to disarm and control militia elements still roaming through the West Timor camps.

What UNICEF Is Doing

In West Timor, UNICEF is focussing on urgently needed humanitarian relief assistance. It has been providing food items, medical services and supplies, health checks, tents and blankets for the displaced, and has led efforts to provide schooling for children in the refuge camps.

In East Timor, UNICEF's work is focussed both on providing immediate relief for the returning population and on helping to rehabilitate social services and provide a healthy environment for children.

Photo: At the airport in the city of Darwin, capital of the Northern Territory of Australia, UNICEF emergency supplies bound for East Timor wait to be loaded on a World Food Programme plane in the days immediately following the entry into East Timor of the INTERFET peacekeeping forces.


The first 25 "school in a box" kits were delivered to East Timor by UNICEF in November. Each kit contains notebooks, pens, and classroom supplies for approximately 100 students. The kits are being distributed to schools in the capital, Dili.
UNICEF has undertaken a major training program for teachers. The program will help acclimate returning teachers (many teachers were also refugees) and help prepare new teachers for the job ahead. UNICEF has also worked to make sure that funding is available to pay teachers for their invaluable efforts.
UNICEF - in co-operation with local organisations - has been involved in the preparation of a new curriculum for the schools, using the native East Timorese language and introducing new elements into the teaching program. UNICEF has also helped fund the printing of text books.

Water and Sanitation

The UNICEF Water and Sanitation team has prepared a detailed plan for installing and rehabilitating 850 hand pumps for wells in the Dili area. This is particularly important because the population of Dili is now estimated at 140,000 - perhaps larger than it has ever been, even before the crisis. The rehabilitation of the pumps will be carried out over the next two months using locally-hired labour.


As of 29 November, an estimated 33,400 children had been vaccinated against measles since 19 October. Ten teams are presently working in Dili, with a total of 62 Timorese nursing staff. The vaccination campaign has been expanded to include the town of Liquica, and refugees returning from West Timor get health checks at the border, including vaccinations.
In West Timor, a similar vaccination campaign has been underway for several weeks. There, mobile health teams are visiting refugee camps one-by-one, making sure that all children are immunised against measles and are otherwise healthy. The health campaigns are especially important now that the rainy season has begin for Timor. It is now raining every day in the region, where crowded conditions are contributing to growing health risks.
In East Timor, another major health initiative involves the restocking and reopening of local health centres. More than a dozen community health facilities have already been reopened with support from UNICEF, and more are on the way. These efforts are crucial to re-establishing an independent health care system for the people of East Timor.

World AIDS Day was celebrated In East Timor on December 1 with the distribution of 5,000 informational leaflets and a band playing at the central market. The events were organised collaboratively between UNICEF and other UN agencies.
Child Rights and Protection

In the first week of December, UNICEF co-ordinated a special briefing on children's rights for the International Commission of Inquiry on East Timor (CIET) with local human rights organisations and church groups. The briefing focussed on severe violations of children's rights. Seven witnesses (5 children and 2 adults) gave testimony on direct violence perpetrated against children, children as witnesses of violence, children separated from their families, violence against adolescent girls, and the forced participation of children in militia or other armed groups.

The Impettu Student Movement kicked off its "Nobel Cup" athletic competition on 1 December, with approximately 3,000 people attending the opening ceremony. Following an open address by Bishop Belo and traditional singing and dancing, the 10-day football and basketball competition was launched. UNICEF provided support to the students for the event.
UNICEF's history in the region UNICEF has worked to help children in both East and West Timor for nearly 20 years. In fact, UNICEF was in the midst of an immunisation campaign against polio when the crisis began in August and UNICEF staff were forced to temporarily leave East Timor.

Throughout the crisis, UNICEF has continued to maintain a presence in West Timor, based in Kupang, and has opened a new office at Atambua on the East/West Timor border, supported by a staging centre in Darwin, Australia. In Dili, UNICEF returned after two weeks and quickly rehabilitated a destroyed building to be used as office space, staff lodging and storage facilities. The agency's original premises were looted and burned in the violence following East Timor's overwhelming vote for independence in early September.