East Timor: Independence

  • International staff: 57
  • National staff: 136

East Timor dominated Indonesian affairs throughout 1999, when the East Timorese voted overwhelmingly for independence.

MSF initially entered East Timor in 1999, in advance of the August independence referendum, and began training health workers in first aid and emergency preparedness. This work was underway in Baucau, Liquica and in what would become the capital of the new country, Dili.

The referendum offered a choice between autonomy and independence, and the people of East Timor chose the latter. The backlash by the Indonesian government in the wake of the vote brought the immediate forced removal of MSF - and all other humanitarian actors - from the country. Violence perpetrated by government forces and pro-Indonesia militia left thousands dead and hundreds of thousands of people in flight. In September, the United Nations sent an Australian-led force to East Timor to both protect the local population and restore order. Independence was achieved.

Return to a devastated, but independent country

MSF remained in Darwin, Australia, returning to East Timor on September 20th. Formal independence was recognized October 1st. However, by this time the country was faced with untold destruction and a massive displaced population. Few communities escaped the devastation of cities, towns and villages. These conditions set the tone for both the close of 1999 and the activities that would dominate 2000.

The return of refugees was often poorly coordinated, leaving MSF staff at reception points hard-pressed to provide comprehensive services. Matters were further complicated by the lack of local authorities to assist in dealing with the local population.

The immediate concern was to treat the people for illnesses related to displacement and exposure and reestablish health centers in key areas. MSF has focused its activities in five areas - Dili, Liquica, Baucau, Viqueque and Bobonaro - providing general medical care, measles immunization, distributing non-food items, and assisting refugees returning from West Timor. The organization has also monitored human rights violations.

The Baucau, Bobonaro, Liquica and Viqueque hospitals were quickly restored, along with numerous health centers in these areas, providing a series of locations where returning people could receive treatment. The facilities are supplied by MSF to ensure a sufficient quantity of drugs and medical materials for the local people.

By the beginning of August, 168,000 refugees had been repatriated. However, 100,000 East Timorese are still located in West Timor, either unable or too frightened to come home.

Stability returns

Assessing the health conditions of the refugees has remained a key MSF objective, both at the time of return and in the ensuing several months. Curative and preventive health care was provided, and children between six months and 15 years of age were immunized against measles. At most sites, MSF now offers both primary and secondary care, helps with uncomplicated deliveries and surgery, and has health education activities. Equally important is the collection and analysis of epidemiological data.

With the passing of the emergency situation and the first signs of stability, MSF has begun to dedicate more staff and time to establishing a longer-term health care system and upgrading the skills of local partners.