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A future at the mercy of strangers

Amivi is two years old, and has lived in the IDP camps of Dili for most of her life.  Planīs Child Rights advisor Jose de Sousa explains the complexity of the current situation, and talks about Planīs leading role with Child Protection within the camps and in relation to the government of Timor-Leste.
Amivi is two years old, and has lived in the IDP camps of Dili for most of her life. Planīs Child Rights advisor Jose de Sousa explains the complexity of the current situation, and talks about Planīs leading role with Child Protection within the camps and in relation to the government of Timor-Leste.

Life in an IDP camp

“I hope we can move out of the camp before she starts remembering all this,” says Florentia as she lifts her daughter Amivi off the ground.

As Florentia picks Amivi up, she balances on the small plastic chair inside her tent in one of Dili´s numerous IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camps. For the last year and a half this tent, and this camp, have been her family’s home. She lives here with her two-year-old daughter Amivi, her husband Suresh and son Marco. No one knows how long they will stay.


From independence to homelessness

In May 2002, East Timor became the world’s newest nation following 24 years of Indonesian control and three years of United Nations Administration. In late April 2006, internal tensions threatened the new nation's security when a military strike led to violence and a near breakdown of law and order in Dili. Over 140,000 children and their families were forced to flee their homes.

Today, over two years later, many — like Amivi and her family — are still living in camps supported by organizations like Plan, with no idea of how long their stay will last.

“We had heard rumors of gangs threatening to burn people’s houses down in the last few days before we fled. But it is hard to make the decision to leave your home. Someone might hurt it. Or occupy it. So we stayed on. Then one night we woke up. The house was on fire. This was back when Amivi was five months old. We were able to get the children out and leave before the house came down. We went for the mountains, and brought nothing with us."

Florentia´s family survived for more than two weeks in the mountains on whatever they could find to eat. By the time they returned to Dili, other people in similar situations had already started to gather in parks and open spaces. The family stayed in one camp for a while, but they were subject to threats and pressure from gangs within the camp. They relocated again, to the camp they live in today.

“We hear rumors of the government providing IDPs compensation money, so that we can return to our homes and rebuild them. But there are so many rumors. So many words and promises. We have been in the camps now for almost two years — we try not to get our hopes up.”

Florentia looks across to the split in the fabric on the other side of the tent, watching her daughter who has again run off to play. “She has a strong mind,” Florentia explains. Amivi looks peaceful enough at the moment, peeking out onto the pathway towards the beach. She lifts up the flap of fabric covering the hatch, then runs out and starts picking pebbles off the pathway and brings them back to her mother. Florentia smiles back at her.

“I suppose this is more a mental strain on us parents than Amivi really,” she admits, “At two years old, she has no awareness of the situation she is in.”

Photos by Alf Berg 

The future of the children

What was meant to be a strict emergency situation has lasted for two years now. IDP camps are everywhere, strewn all over central Dili and the surrounding area. For many of the children in the camps, living like refugees in their own nation is the only history they can recall. It is a reality without a promise and — until decisions far beyond the children’s own power are made — a reality without a future. However, for as long these camps are needed, Plan is committed to support them in its areas of expertise.

Jose Francisco de Sousa, Child Rights Advisor with Plan East Timor, says, “Our main working areas are providing solutions to water and sanitation, child protection and psychosocial issues. ECHO (European Commission Humanitarian Aid Office) has entered into a contract with us on these specific issues as we hold valuable experience.”

Plan’s methods and approaches may change as the circumstances within the camps change, but one goal is always the same: to ensure safety for all children in the area.

“Obviously, an IDP camp is not a good place for children to be." Jose continues, "Our challenge is to work in a way that can retain a longer-term perspective while also reaching out to the vulnerable children within the camps on short notice. When we set up the Child Protection network with the Ministry of Social Solidarity, we did so because we knew that we needed a framework to work from that could both improve government policies, and make sure we could work according to government demands in the short term.”

The network has been successful. It now incorporates the efforts of organizations like Plan, UNICEF, World Vision, CCF and CARE. As the network meets, all NGOs know that their support of children is done in a coordinated way that serves the children best, and that there is no overlapping of efforts.

Jose explains what Plan can do within the current limitations:

“We see that it is important for children to have grown-ups around them with whom they can develop a trusting relationship. Through our child-friendly spaces in the refugee camps, our volunteers are able to interact with the children, play with them or read books to them. Some children like to draw. Whatever they need to get some time off from camp life.

“Although the play sessions are limited in time, and it is hard to measure the effect, the sessions are obviously something that the children are in need of. And it makes it possible for us to meet the parents and talk to them about any concerns they may have. We know that these things are needed and valuable. Children need stability. We try to do what we can.”

Amivi attends the games weekly. Her mother confirms that it is a nice break from camp life. To the family, much effort goes into trying to forget the condition they are in — and the child friendly spaces provide a place and time where that is possible.

Florentia again looks at her daughter, “Our future depends entirely on other people’s decisions.”