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Timor-Leste crisis: A year on

© UNICEF Timor-Leste/2007/See
A teenage girl reads from an illustrated story book provided by UNICEF at the Child-Friendly Space in Obrigado Barracks IDP Camp.

By Bridgette See

Dili, Timor-Leste, 20 June 2007 – It has been more than a year since 13 year old Zaquel Pinto and his cousins have called a parking lot in Dili their home. They fled to the Obrigado Barracks parking lot in May 2006 when widespread violence broke out in the country’s capital: their houses were burnt and their lives threatened. The parking lot, which stands opposite the United Nations compound, was transformed into a camp for 7000 people at the height of the crisis. Now, about 800 remain here; their tents look more ‘homely’ now with plywood doors hammered in for security, and beds and cupboards salvaged from their old homes.

“This place has really become like a home, a community, but it’s not our choice,” said Maria Filomena Belo, a UNICEF child protection staff who lives at this IDP camp. “Many of us have tried to return to our old homes or to relocate, but after a few weeks, many have returned because we felt intimidated or our presence made our neighbours uneasy.”

The mayhem in Timor-Leste had started with a civil unrest, and was then further exacerbated when police and military turned on each other. Soon, Timor-Leste was split along the geographical divide of people originating from the eastern and western parts of the country. Some soldiers also fled with weapons into the mountains, and till today, they remain a threat to security. This impasse hangs like a shadow upon most Timorese, who are unsure of what the future has in store for them.

Children were not spared as they had witnessed the violence or experienced the stress of fleeing from their homes. Zaquel Pinto was accosted by his own school mates and nearly stabbed in the stomach when he attempted to attend school last year. He was simply not of the ‘right’ group as his family came from the east of the country.

“As they were about to stab me, a woman shouted at them, and I managed to escape, “ he recounted, “but someone still managed to hurt me in the stomach with a pen and tore my shirt.”

Now the 13-year-old goes to school in a neighbourhood that is considered a safe haven for easterners.

A general calm may have returned to Dili with the presence of the United Nations Police but sporadic violence still occurs in the small capital city. It is this sense of uncertainty that makes it ever more important to protect Timorese children from more psychological distress, as well as physical and sexual abuse which may occur due to the cramped living conditions in IDP camps, and lack of privacy and security especially for women and girls. An estimated 100,000 people in the country remain displaced, with some 30,000 in Dili itself.

© UNICEF Timor-Leste/2007/See
Children playing catch in the Obrigado Barracks IDP camp in the Child-Friendly Space set up for them.

Child protection support teams were set up soon after the crisis broke out, comprising staff from various children’s organizations, including UNICEF, and the government’s social services division. They trained volunteers as child protection focal points in camps so that they could involve parents and caregivers in protecting children from sexual abuse or manipulation in violent activities. UNICEF printed 600 posters and leaflets on child protection messages that were distributed to all IDP camps to complement this movement.

Together with the focal points, the support teams then established child-friendly spaces to provide children and young people with sports and recreational activities to take their minds off the stressful situation.

UNICEF contributed 161 recreational kits [including items such as footballs, skipping ropes, and volleyballs], 116 boxes of wooden building blocks, and 500 hand puppets to support these activities taking place daily in the camps. UNICEF staff Maria Filomena Belo also trained the focal points to use drama, story-telling, hand puppets, songs and dance to make play activities more fun in the camps.

At the Obrigado Barracks camp, a group of children were gathered under a large leafy tree. Some of them were tossing a ball about; others were creating castles and boats with wooden building blocks, while another group was reading aloud from colourful storybooks provided by UNICEF. The children, whose ages ranged from two to 18, come here everyday to pass their time. Everyone broke out in laughter when 2 year old Vanessa Franco sang the songs she learnt from the older children at the space.

“We really like it here because we can play with volleyball, sing songs, and also read books,” chirped Vitoria Da Costa, 11.

Her friend Francisca Amaral,10, nodded in agreement, pointing out the new friends they have made since coming to the camp. “We also don’t think so much about what’s happening outside when we come here to play,” she said.

This spot under the tree is the designated child-friendly space that the support teams have set up – a space meant to give children and young people some sense of safety and protection, supervised by child protection focal points, as well as trained animators from NGOs.

Every afternoon, the older children play volleyball after school. Sometimes, mothers also turn up to chit-chat when their chores were done, bringing their toddlers here for some playtime. Occasionally a child brawls when another one tries to snatch a toy away; an inquisitive toddler fiddles with the loudspeaker and blows into it to make a noise.

The child-friendly space has given the children some sense of normality. It is also an important avenue for children to continue learning new things, especially those who have stopped schooling like 10 year old Cesario Pinto. He said he is too afraid to walk to school alone; instead, he now hangs out late into the night with older boys to play billiard. This space will at least give him a chance to meet other children who might eventually encourage him to return to school.



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