Companion to East Timor - Diseases and Death in the Famine

Diseases and Death in the Famine

Indonesia's military operations increased in intensity in August 1977. The focus of its campaign was on destroying agricultural areas and other food sources such as livestock. There were illnesses and food shortages, forcing more and more civilians to leave the hills and make their way to Indonesian forces in order to surrender. The Indonesian military's first priority was to destroy the resistance, not to care for the population. The surrendering population was first detained in transit camps and later dispatched to resettlement camps. Transit camps were located in close proximity to the local military bases. Their function was to identify members of the resistance and to gain intelligence on the rest of the resistance in the mountains.

The transit camps were not equipped to care for the welfare of the surrendering population. Often they were little more than huts made from palm thatch with no toilets. In many cases, the only shelter in the camps was under trees. No medical care was available. Since the detainees' food sources had been destroyed and they had walked for days in order to surrender, they were already in a weakened state when they arrived at the transit camps. Diseases such as cholera, diarrhoea and tuberculosis ensured that most people who were sick died. Detainees were forbidden to grow or search for food themselves but were given a small amount of food on arrival. This food was often distributed after extorting family heirlooms, jewelry, traditional beads or sexual favours. In some cases, the detainees went into protein shock after eating the food, resulting in 'chills, fever, bronchial spasms, acute emphysema, vomiting and diarrhoea.'

After a period of three months (the exact duration in each camp depended on the prevailing policy there), the detainees were dispatched to resettlement camps. Sometimes they were not sent anywhere; the same transit camps were re-designated as resettlement camps. By late 1979, there were approximately 300,000 to 370,000 people in the camps. Once again, there were severe restrictions on movement as well as inadequate food, medicine, sanitation and shelter. The result was a famine in which thousands of East Timorese died. Thousands of people were also sent to the island of Atauro from 1980 onwards. There too, illness and starvation were commonplace.

The details of the suffering endured by the East Timorese receives close scrutiny in Chega!, the final report of East Timor's Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation (known by its Portuguese initials, CAVR).