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Sex slave highlights horrors for E.Timor refugees

Sex slave highlights horrors for E.Timor refugees

The slightly built girl's ordeal began with a death threat at the age of 13 in one of the squalid refugee camps in the Indonesian half of Timor island.

The couple who took her there to escape the violence in their East Timor homeland in 1999 had gone to bed after dinner to have sex - but then insisted she join in.

"She fought, said no and they said they would kill her," says Bjorg Fredriksen, who works for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in East Timor's capital Dili.

"Whenever she tried to avoid it, they would beat her up so she was sometimes unconscious," she adds, careful to avoid details that might identify the girl who spent more than a year as a sex slave for the couple.

"She didn't have the confidence to confide in anybody." The girl, now 15, is back in Dili but for Fredriksen, who is helping her recover, her ordeal highlights the risks facing East Timor children who are separated from their parents and living in Indonesia.

The girl's parents left her in the care of the couple when they were away on business.

They were away late in 1999 when East Timor collapsed into violence after most in the tiny territory voted to end 23 years of often brutal Indonesian rule.

MILITIA REVENGE

Furious Pro-Jakarta militias, bent on revenge and aided by Indonesian soldiers, then embarked on a campaign of terror and destruction, forcing hundreds of thousands across the border.

About 80,000 people are still stuck in West Timor refugee camps, many close to the border in generally miserable conditions and under the control of the pro-Jakarta East Timorese militia who have the open support of elements of Indonesian military and police.

Fredriksen estimates that about 1,200 East Timorese children are living in Indonesia, separated from their immediate families - with up to 500 of them in West Timor.

She warns that the violence and stress of life in refugee camps exposes other children to similar dangers. "I'm not saying they are all in this situation," she says, adding that others remain vulnerable.

The latest horror story is the highly publicised case of a 16-year-old East Timorese girl, allegedly kidnapped by a militia leader as a war prize, gang raped and then taken as his "wife".

Her plight has been taken up by Kirsty Sword Gusmao, wife of East Timorese independence leader Xanana Gusmao, who is campaigning to free other girls and women trapped in similar conditions in the camps.

There has been almost no international monitoring of the camps since last September when all aid agencies pulled out after a militia mob butchered three foreign UNHCR staff in the refugee centre of Atambua and then burned their bodies.

LITTLE MORE THAN HOSTAGES

That incident set off an international outcry, which flared again in May when a Jakarta court handed relatively light sentences to six of those involved.

Senior UNHCR official Bernard Kerblat says the refugees still there are little more than hostages, and calls the situation "an unacceptable insult to humanity".

"These tales of horror, we continue hearing them day in and day out - intimidation, manipulation... it's not only a problem for East Timor and the U.N. but also for Indonesia."

UNHCR officials say a foundation linked to pro-Jakarta militia leaders and members of the Indonesian military is holding on to East Timorese children in Indonesia's main island of Java.

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said the world body planned to send a security team to West Timor in May to assess whether aid workers could return to the camps.

Indonesia had furthered procedures to give refugees a chance to return home, but it had not carried out promises to disarm the militia in the camps, he added.

The international community is trying to organise with Indonesia a system to allow the refugees a chance to freely decide whether to remain in Indonesia or return to East Timor.

"The choice is simple... but they are not in a position to do so freely," Kerblat says, estimating that at most 10,000 would choose to remain in Indonesia.

"We want to re-engage with the government of Indonesia and seek ways to strengthen the relationship," he adds. "We are all walking on a fine line."


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