The Indonesian provience of Timor is battling a famine and outbreak of disease that some relief officials here are calling as bad as Biafra and potentially as serious as Cambodia.
While the plight of Cambodian refugees in Thailand has been drawing most of the attention, offficials of the U.S.-based Catholic Relief Services have mounted a virtually unnoticed effort here to distribute 9,000 tons of food to 240,000 people in East Timor.
Volunteers from the International Red Cross and Indonesian Red Cross are rushing aid to another 60,000 villagers, some of whom have been reduced to skeletons loosely draped with skin.
Indonesian authorities are blaming the tragedy developing in Timor on a drought and on the lingering effects of a brutal civil war that followed Indonesia's takeover of the former Portuguese colony in 1976.
[Indonesia has been accused by Timorese exiles and some international human rights groups of fostering the famine through its occupation policy there. Among their charges are that Indonesian troops forcibly take food that was to have gone to the Timorese people.]
"I have been doing this sort of work for 14 years, but East Timor is the worst I have ever seen," said Frank Carlin, the head of the Catholic Relief Services office in Indonesia.
Interviewed while directing operations in East Timor, about 1,500 miles east of Jakarta, Carlin and a handful of coworkers admitted they face a difficult task convincing the world of the need for aid in yet another pocket of suffering in Southeast Asia.
The stricken province comprises the eastern half of Timor island, sliced off from the west by Portugal nearly 400 years ago for use as its coffee plantation. When the Portuguese pulled out in 1974, they left behind a single high school, a native population of 653,000 that was 90 percent illiterate and only 13 miles of roads.
The absence of roads and facilities in the hostile jungles and mountains is hampering relief work.About $1.2 million of the $7.7 million budgeted for East Timor by the Red Cross is going for the charter of helicopters.
The Red Cross and Catholic relief group, with aid mainly from their own coffers, and the governments of the United States, Australia and West Germany, have managed to set some stocks of high-protien biscuits, sugar, dried milk powder, rice, cooking oil, corn soya blend, and some medical supplies to the docks of the province's capital city, Dili.
But transferring the supplies from the docks to the needy has been slowed by overgrown jungle tracks and limited carrying capacity of helicopters. Red Cross delegate Cedric Neukomm said his organization needs an additional $4 million to charter ships and increase the operating hours of helicopters.
Neukomm, a veteran of Red Cross work in critical areas, said he found conditions in East Timor worse than in Lebanon, Biafra or Bangladesh.
"What you have is a situation where people for four years have been on a starvation diet. Obvioously, many will die and continue to die. But they still have a chance and a will to live and if we can get the supplies to them in time they will survive," he said.
Rescue workers report that as many as nine people die each day from starvation in the vicinity of the village of Halotia, 50 miles southwest of Dili. Red Cross doctors, who conducted a survey there, discovered 80 percent of the 8,000 villagers had malaria. Farther east, in Laga, doctors estimated malnutrition and disease claim three to five victims each day.
The terrain that has impeded transfer of supplies also has made it impossible for officials to determine the full extent of the problem.
U.S. Embassy officials, who have helped dole out $5.1 million in aid, said they believe the worst is behind them and substantial progress has been made in dealing with about 5,000 critical cases.
Other officials in East Timor said they fear only the fringe areas of suffering have been reached so far and that heavy rains expected in December could cut off supplies and lead to more deaths.
About one-fifth of East Timor's population of about 600,000 is believed to have fled from coastal areas to the mountains during fierce fighting that broke out in 1975 between a procommunist independence group called Fretilin and a movement favoring merger with Indonesia.
The Indonesian government later launched an all-out invasion to bolster the latter group. After eight months of civil war, President Suharto announced in July 1976 that East Timor had been incorporated as the 27th provice of Indonesia, a move still drawing fire from other Third World countries in United Nations debates.
To temper the criticism, Indonesia has allocated $15 million for development in East Timor this year. Thus far, most government contributions have gone for window-dressing like the introduction of color television in Dili.
Bitter battles between Fretilin guerrillas and Indonesians continued after annexation. The violence drove thousands of villagers into the mountains in search of refuge. It was not until Fretilin leader Nicolau Lobato was killed by Indonesian militia in an ambush late last year that the fighting subsided and people began returning from the mountains.
The island's poor soil barely allows subsistence level agriculture for residents in the best weather. But a drought last year wiped out the corn crop and the people took to eating the seeds that were to be used for this year's planting. Thus, there was little food for those returning from the mountains.