Five weeks after a multinational peacekeeping force arrived in devastated East Timor to restore security and bring in supplies, fewer than half of this tiny new country's residents have returned to their homes from refugee camps and mountain hideaways.
Military and humanitarian officials estimate that 240,000 East Timorese are still in camps in Indonesian-controlled western Timor, where they are being intimidated from returning by armed militiamen who roam through the encampments at night. More than 200,000 others are believed to be camping in the hills of East Timor, either unaware of the security forces or worried that their towns are not yet safe.
As a result, many once buzzing towns are strangely quiet. In Dili, the capital, residential streets are lined with empty homes. The central market, although open for business, has only a fraction of the activity it had before early September, when anti-independence militias, linked to the army, tore across the territory after residents overwhelmingly voted to separate from Indonesia.
"We're missing an awful lot of people here," said Ross Mountain, the U.N. coordinator for humanitarian affairs in East Timor.
To date, only 16,000 refugees have returned from western Timor, which is part of Indonesia, primarily by boat and airplane from camps near the city of Kupang, on the far western side of the island. And only about 500 people have come back from an assortment of camps in the Atambua region of western Timor, near the border with East Timor, which reportedly hold more than 150,000 people.
The United Nations, which plans to govern East Timor for the next two to three years, has asked the Indonesian government to speed up the returns. Although the government said it has instructed regular soldiers not to impede refugees heading home, the militias either have not received those orders or are not following them, U.N. officials say.
"The flow of people is too slow," said Jacques Franquin, a spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. "At this rate it will take a hundred days to get everyone back. That's too long."
Franquin said his office does not know what conditions are like in the Atambua camps because aid workers have not been allowed inside. The few reports humanitarian officials have received from people who have escaped suggest food and water are minimal, people are sleeping in crowded, makeshift tents and are suffering frequent harassment from militia members.
Refugees who have returned from Kupang, where living conditions appear to be better, have described the militia threats against going home: "Every night they would come to our camp and say to us, 'If you do anything or say anything out of order, we will kill you,' " said Manuel Mota, 39, a airport worker who returned to Dili by ship with his wife and seven children over the weekend.
Mota said he desperately wanted to return home, but was afraid to leave the camp and travel to the U.N. transit center where refugees sign up for space on the boat. "If they had seen me, they might have hurt my family," he said. But after five weeks in the camp, which used to be a sports stadium, Mota said he was willing to take the chance.
U.N. officials estimate that 300,000 of the 850,000 people who lived in East Timor before the Aug. 30 independence vote have returned home. The officials expect at least 150,000 people--about 50,000 of whom currently are refugees--not to return home and instead settle on various Indonesian islands.
Although they want to speed up the process, aid workers say the slow pace of people returning home was helpful during the first few weeks of the peacekeeping operation, allowing them to provide food to many residents. "If everybody had come back at once, our resources would have been stretched really thin," said Richard Ragan, an emergency officer with the U.N. World Food Program.
Now, though, aid workers are worried that the militias could force many of the refugees to return at one time, creating a human flood at border crossings. To attempt to deal with that, officials have created an elaborate contingency plan that involves stockpiling water and high-protein biscuits in border towns to handle as many as 120,000 refugees returning within a few-day period.