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Children displaced by violence in Timor-Leste face malnutrition and harsh conditions

Imagen del UNICEF
© UNICEF Timor-Leste/2006/Lay
UNICEF Assistant Project Officer Noeno Sarmento registers children at the Don Bosco Camp for displaced people in Timor-Leste. As part of a nutritional screening programme, children in the camp will be checked for signs of malnutrition.

By Bridgette See

El contenido de esta página estará disponible en español próximamente

DILI, Timor-Leste, 3 August 2006 – Little Nevia Nunes huddled close to her mother’s breast, her eyes half-open, her face a picture of exhaustion. The 15-month-old was one of the many severely malnourished children identified at the Don Bosco camp for displaced people in Dili, the capital of Timor-Leste.

“She was able to walk and stand on her own before the crisis,” said Nevia’s mother, Maria Santina da Conceicao, 28. “But since coming here, her condition has worsened.” The mother of three was herself malnourished during pregnancy, a likely reason why Nevia is so vulnerable.

The family fled to the Don Bosco camp when troubles began in the capital in late April. After a two-month stay at the shelter, they moved to an overcrowded camp where an estimated 14,000 people have sought refuge from the country’s recent civil conflict.

Nevia’s family fed her porridge, and sometimes vegetables when they could afford them. “She sleeps with the rest of us on the floor here,” said her mother. “At night, when the wind blows, it’s cold. And even though we have a mosquito net, she still gets bitten.”

Despite the best efforts of camp coordinators and humanitarian aid workers to keep the camp clean, children are still highly susceptible to infections and diseases. Coughs, malaria and acute diarrhoea are amongst the most common illnesses spreading among children in the camps now.

Nutritional screening

As Timor-Leste moves into its fourth month of emergency, humanitarian aid workers fear that malnutrition could spread, affecting even more children. Before this year’s crisis, Timor-Leste was already the most undernourished country in the Asia-Pacific region. Almost half of children below age five were underweight, with 15 per cent severely underweight.

Imagen del UNICEF
© UNICEF Timor-Leste/2006/Lay
Months of living in shelters and overcrowded camps has taken a toll on 15-month-old Nevia, who is underweight and suffering from acute diarrhoea.

To identify children who are malnourished in the current emergency, the Health Ministry – supported by UNICEF and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) – launched a nutritional screening programme on 30 June targeting an estimated 10,000 children living in more than 60 camps.

“There is an urgency to identify the severe cases quickly. Yet at the same time we are faced with the dilemma of whether we can assure them quality treatment,” said UNICEF’s Project Officer for Child Survival and Maternal Health Care, Jennifer Barak.

Added Health Ministry Nutrition Officer Dirce Maria Soares: “The hospitals are now coping with limited staff, limited equipment and overcrowding.”

For now, only the most severely malnourished children with complications are being sent to the hospital, while the rest are treated by doctors based in each of the camps set up for displaced people.

Water and sanitation

UNICEF and four local partner organizations have also conducted a rapid assessment of the water and sanitation situation in the camps and villages hosting those who have fled violence. According to the assessment, 60 per cent of the villages are without sufficient water supply.

To help alleviate the problem, UNICEF supported the government’s water and sanitation services by delivering water to Baucau District, home to more than 25,000 displaced people.

UNICEF also distributed family water kits, which include items such as water containers and water purification tablets, to the displaced communities in Liquiça District.

Imagen del UNICEF
© UNICEF Timor-Leste/2006/Lay
UNICEF Regional Director for East Asia and Pacific Anupama Rao Singh speaks to a woman who fled her home after the first wave of violence erupted in Dili in late April. Ms. Singh visited Timor-Leste for four days in late July.

“I hope that UNICEF will continue to focus attention on us because we lost all our belongings when our house was razed to the ground in April,” said Cipriana Rodina, 35, who gave birth to her youngest child while seeking refuge in the Don Bosco camp in Dili. She then ran to Liquiça with seven of her children in tow.

Like thousands of others, Ms. Rodina is afraid to return home.

Helping children cope

Beyond the urgent need to treat malnutrition and provide enough clean water, children’s psychological well-being also concerns aid workers on the ground.

“I’ve seen five- or six-year-olds who start shivering and crying when they see guns on the police patrolling the district or even a kitchen knife,” said Luis Pereira, 21, a volunteer with the NGO CD Bethesda. “So we have held some music and dance activities for them, but we lack funds and materials.”

A survey of displaced children and their needs is now under way with the Liquiça District Education Office. During August, the month for school holidays, UNICEF is setting up emergency classes for children whose education was interrupted by the violence.

A ‘Back to School’ campaign is also planed to get children back to the classrooms as soon as the new school year starts in September.