Protecting displaced Timorese children
By Tani Ruiz
For a generation of young Timorese, the destruction in Dili smacks of déjà vu. Seven years ago, violence killed hundreds and shattered most of the country’s infrastructure.
Memories of the carnage that followed a referendum for independence continue to haunt. Today’s conflict adds to the wounds that have yet to be healed, piling on emotional distress for thousands of young people who are living out a chapter of their lives in displacement camps, uncertain of what today will bring, let alone tomorrow. Even children, too little to recall the traumatic events of 1999, may have picked up the emotional malaise that hovers just below the surface for so many parents.
Psychological distress, though, is just one part of the picture. Children under 18 – who make up around half of all internally displaced people in Timor-Leste – are also at high risk of physical and sexual abuse. Younger kids especially, running loose in places with jagged edges and scores of boiling cooking pots, are also prone to accidents that can lead to serious injury.
“There are lots of problems for children in this camp,” says Filomena Babo, a member of a child protection support team. She is referring to Obrigado Barracks camp, which houses roughly 5,000 people in scores of ramshackle tents and a large covered area. The camp, located opposite the United Nations compound, is one of the hardest-pressed in Dili, dispelling poverty and hardship. Her home destroyed in the two-month crisis, Filomena herself lives in the camp and is therefore keyed into what goes on.
“There are cases of physical abuse, and I think a lot of sexual abuse happens,” she says. “Just the other day, a drunken husband tried to have sex with his wife in full daylight in front of all the children.”
With many schools still closed, and regular activities suspended, young people have a lot of time on their hands. “Some of them here are gambling till midnight. They make noise, and their parents get angry and beat them,” Filomena says. Bored, frustrated and fearful, young people are turning to unhealthy distractions like drinking and smoking.
Every displaced child is exposed to multiple dangers – a situation that has relief agencies on edge, and busy. Providing a protective environment for children and young people in the camps is part and parcel of the humanitarian effort led by the government and supported by UN agencies, NGOs and other players.
“One of the first actions we as a group took was to identify volunteers in the camps to help get children’s activities up and running,” said Johanna Eriksson-Takyo, UNICEF Project Officer for child protection in Timor-Leste. “Structured activity helps diffuse emotional stress and gives children some outlets for laughing – and crying also.”
UNICEF is part of the child protection working group which has around a dozen members, including also Plan International, Christian Children’s Fund and the government’s Division of Social Services. Filomena works under the auspices of this group.
The child protection group has given guidance to dozens of child protection ‘focal points’ in 22 camps housing more than 50,000 displaced people. These young men and women are rallying children together, organizing structured play, singing, dancing and drawing, using whatever resources they have on hand or are given.
The volunteers are also communicating directly with parents, letting them know, for example, what they can do to keep their children safe. By gaining the support of families within the camp, their goal is to promote the well-being of children and diminish the scope for child abuse.
For adolescents, sport is often the best salvo against destructive behaviour. With the World Cup in full flow, football is the flavour of the day. Some 50 UNICEF recreation kits have been distributed in 20 camps in Dili - part of a batch of 106 kits that will also be handed out to IDPs in some of the districts outside the capital. To the delight of many a fan, a football is one of the contents.
Each silver metal box also includes basketballs, volleyballs, nets, flags for marking out play spaces, blackboards, chalk and skipping ropes. A combination lock provides security. Before the truck bearing the boxes arrived in the camps, members of the child protection working group briefed camp coordinators and focal points on how to use the equipment.
“Football is my favourite sport,” says 10-year-old Pedro Pinto, kicking around a ball from the recreation kit. Pedro’s home for the past month has been Motele camp, a collection of neatly arranged tents around a church. Situated metres from the coast, it also has the benefit of a sea view. Pedro shares a part of one tent with his mother, two brothers and sister. His father is away in England. “I’m very sad to have left my house and friends. I miss them a lot. But I feel safe here,” he says.
At some of the most densely populated camps, space is in such short supply that rolling out field sports is a real challenge.
“The kits are really useful,” says Filomena. “But there is no room for young people to play football or volleyball.” As a complement to the kits, UNICEF and others are planning to give out drawing materials, dolls, puppets and other toys, which do not require much leg room.
Filomena, despite her own struggles, is a pillar of strength in the camp, and an able coordinator for the volunteers who are striving to make things easier – and safer – for children.