An unexpected success story as far as emergency relief is concerned appears to be materializing in the former Portuguese overseas province of East Timor. Relief sources are reporting an overall improvement in the previously desperate food situation on the island. Some displaced persons are reported to have been allowed to return to their homes.
But Timorese church sources say that many are being kept in "resettlement" camps. Once self-sufficient in rice, the territory is now heavily dependent on food imports. It is still unclear whether the island will be given the encouragement or opportunity to again become self-reliant.
Although relatively ignored by world opinion, reliable reports indicate that as many as 100,000 inhabitants on the island may have died of starvation or been killed in East Timor since 1975. That was the year Portugal relinquished its four-century-old colonial rule over the eastern part of the island after the outbreak of a short civil war.
This was followed by Indonesia's brutal invasion and annexation of the territory. An estimated 50,000 Indonesian troops launched a systematic sweep through the countryside to "pacify" all forms of guerrilla opposition seeking full independence. Up to 200,000 farmers fled into the forests and mountains, while others sought refuge in camps in West Timor or escaped to Australia.
Fighting is reported still continuing in certain parts of the island. But relief agencies no longer consider the food and medical situation as critical as it was. Catholic Relief Services in New York says it will be winding up its emergency operations at the end of the year. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), however, has prolonged its food and medical assistance program for 90,000 persons until March 1981.
Still, observers warn that East Timor may not have seen the end of the bloodshed yet. It could go on until political unrest in the interior areas is fully resolved. Portugal has hinted that it would be prepared to accept tutelage of the territory again if Indonesia could be persuaded to withdraw. But at the moment, at least, Indonesia seems hardly to be in the mood to do this. It did not allow the ICRC to return to the island until 1979. The ICRC has not yet been allowed to visit prisons on the island.
Amnesty International, the London- based human-rights organization, continues to document cases of persons who simply "disappear" under the Indonesian occupation.