September 21, 1999
Darwin, Australia — MSF has a team of medical and non-medical volunteers on stand-by in Darwin, Australia, in preparation for return to East Timor as soon as the security situation allows. Today, MSF issued a press release calling on the United Nations to prioritize the transport of humanitarian cargo and personnel into East Timor. Fourteen international medical volunteers and a full cargo of 26 metric tons of relief supplies are ready to return to East Timor as soon as transport clearance can be arranged. Another team of six MSF volunteers is in West Timor seeking humanitarian access to East Timorese refugees living in make-shift shelters and camps there. Escalating violence forced the last MSF teams working in East Timor to evacuate the Indonesian territory on September 7.
"We can be operational within hours and every day matters in saving a life," says Susanne Cristofani, R.N., MSF medical coordinator in Darwin, Australia, September 21, 1999.
There is limited information available regarding the conditions humanitarian relief organizations will face upon return to East Timor. The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has reported that 50% of the houses in Dili are destroyed and 100% have been looted. The hospital and the community facilities in the capital Dili have been destroyed. The United Nations believes that many of East Timor's population of 850,000 have been forced from their homes to the countryside, where they face severe food and water shortages. In addition, approximately 141,000 East Timorese have been forced across the border into the Indonesian province of West Timor. There are clear needs for water and sanitation assistance, but humanitarian aid agencies have yet to be granted access to the East Timorese displaced persons in Wast Timor.
MSF has been providing medical assistance in East Timor since May 1999. In Baucau, an MSF surgical team had restarted a public hospital and surgical program and was serving a population of 150,000 people. Another MSF team based in Dili was assessing the situation of internally displaced persons in East Timor. MSF found the state of health care in East Timor to be extremely poor even before the explosion of violence.
On Monday, September 6, 1999, the MSF team in Dili was forced to evacuate following an incident of violent intimidation. On Tuesday, September 7, the MSF surgical team in Baucau was preparing three patients for surgery. After hearing gunshots, they went to the office of the United Nations to find out what was happening and the building was deliberately shot at for 15 minutes, after which the team was forced to evacuate Baucau.
MSF is gravely concerned for the lives and security of the population of East Timor. With no international medical organizations left in East Timor, MSF fears East Timorese are suffering from medical problems, diarrheal diseases, war trauma, and other health problems.