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Seeking safety amid the violence of Timor Leste

In a small corner of the capital of Timor Leste, a nun is acting as bodyguard. Sister Guilhermina has confiscated dozens of swords, machetes and homemade weapons from men seeking to enter her compound where thousands of Timorese have sought asylum following recent unrest in the capital.

In a small corner of the capital of Timor Leste, a nun is acting as bodyguard. Sister Guilhermina has confiscated dozens of swords, machetes and homemade weapons from men seeking to enter her compound where thousands of Timorese have sought asylum following recent unrest in the capital.

Violence in Timor Leste's capital has forced many people to seek safety in camps. Paul Risley reports.

In a small corner of the capital of Timor Leste, a nun is acting as bodyguard.

For Timor Leste, still a young nation wracked by conflict, food security is a critical priority

Sister Guilhermina has confiscated dozens of swords, machetes and homemade weapons from men seeking to enter her compound where thousands of Timorese have sought asylum following recent unrest in the capital.

“It is the price of admission,” she says of the pile of swords on the floor in her office, awaiting a nightly pickup by Australian soldiers.

Under the protective eye of the sister of mercy, 1,000 people queue up, waiting for their name to be called, waiting for some much needed food – a commodity that has been hard to come by since violence shook Dili.

Daily life in a camp

They fled their homes to avoid clashes that erupted between police and the military in early May and took refuge in the Cannossian Sisters' Residential Compound in the Balide neighbourhood of the capital.

Trying to maintain some semblance of normality, women go about their household chores in the small tent spaces allotted to each family.

Men help out on the construction of a new camp water tank. And everywhere, there are children – babies sleeping, kids sitting, running, playing.

Feeding 8,000 unexpected guests

Sister Guilhermina found herself playing host to her unexpected guests when they fled last month's unrest.

Copyright: 2006 WFP/Paul Risley
Sister Guilhermina

Unable to go back to their homes – some of which have been burned and looted – they rely on Sister Guilhermina for food and shelter. Now there are at least 8,000 of them.

Five trucks emerge from the heat to deliver two weeks’ worth of WFP emergency rations for the camp.

The rations consist of several hundred bags of corn soya blend (CSB), sugar, and tins of vegetable oil together with some government-provided rice.

Cooking lesson

In an improbable moment of domesticity, WFP staff give cooking demonstrations to the mostly female crowd, whipping up a batch of CSB falafel which the children are eager to taste.

Although the food is a welcome arrival, Sister Guilhermina is still concerned: “I only hope this will last through the week,” she says when told the rations are designed for 8,000 persons for two weeks. “Everyday, we have more people arriving.”

Volunteers open the bags and divide the contents to prepare family-sized rations.

Sister Guilhermina begins reading out the names of each family and they come forward one by one for their food.

As night falls

The ritual will go well on into the night as there are so many people waiting.

The camp is always more crowded in the evening. By day many camp residents venture back to their homes, to guard what they may still have, but by night they all retreat to the protection of Sister Guilhermina, afraid of what might befall them on the streets of Dili.

Copyright: 2006 WFP/Paul Risley

WFP distributes emergency rations in 35 other informal camps across the capital.

Seeking refuge

With the close cooperation of International Organization of Migration and contributions from international NGOs like Care and Plan International, WFP has provided tonnes of food to an estimated 66,000 IDPs, all of whom are living in church properties and NGO compounds and “safe” locations.

These locations include the parking lot of the UN Mission Headquarters which has four thousand guests; several thousand are camped out along the access road to Dili’s international airport; and there are even four hundred people living in the front yard of Nobel Laureate Foreign Minister Jose Ramos-Horta's house.

Still more residents of Dili have made their way to Bacau, the second largest town to the east, and even to the offshore island of Oecussi.

Flash appeal

WFP is ready to send protein-rich and high-energy food and rations to a further 62,000 former Dili residents, while the government effort provides rice.

The agency has issued a flash appeal for donor funding to continue helping Timor Leste, the world’s poorest country by per capita GNP.

Until peace and security are regained in Dili, it is likely the majority of residents will continue to stay away from their homes – and WFP must be prepared to continue to offer food for the families.

For Timor Leste, still a young nation wracked by conflict, food security is a critical priority. While this is so, those waiting to return to their homes will continue to rely on the help of WFP and the protection of people like Sister Guilhermina.

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