Helping in Timor: looking for God amid lost souls
By Gina Mission

On October 12, a medical mission team composed of 10 doctors and 11 nurses left the country for Timor, embarking on a month-long humanitarian assistance to the East Timorese. The mission was organized by the Committee for Humanitarian Assistance to East Timor, chaired by former Trade and Industry Secretary Jose Concepcion, Jr., with Jaime Cardinal Sin and Former President Corazon Aquino as honorary chairs.

   Earlier, the Committee sent financial aid to several identified relief agencies operating in various refugee camps in West Timor. There are an estimated 200,000 East Timorese refugees in Kupang and Atambua, West Timor. As of September 23, the Committee was able to raise more than P9 million for relief assistance.

   The decision to send a humanitarian mission to the Timorese, according to Concepcion, was arrived when the situation with the refugees in West Timor reached an "alarming" stage. While food assistance reached some refugee camps, the quantities were insufficient to provide for their great numbers. Problems of waste management and clean water were building up, and medical assistance was also needed. The security problem remained unsettled, hinting a far worse refugee problem ahead.

   While other ASEAN countries have expressed support to the Timorese by sending military contingents to the international peace-keeping force, the Philippines is the first to send such humanitarian assistance.

   The team of 10 doctors and 11 nurses was selected from a total of 95 applicants who responded to the Committee’s urgent call for medical volunteers. The 10 doctors are Loi Solomon Garcia, Arthur Jose Jauican, Rafael Camacho, Diego Cantos, Manuel Oco, Fiel Gamad, Cynthia Salazar, Nadia Sarmiento, Frenio Generoso Cabrera, and Jason Guevara, with Mira Jimenez as alternate.

   The team of nurses includes Joselito Colinares, Katherine Alarcon, Christine Udani, Juan Velasco Marasigan, Adrian Hipolito, Bro. Marcelino Digal, Vivien Litong, Ronald Dizon, Ma. Sushila Agunod, Tonette Gabonales, and alternates Simfrulyn Agunod and Elvira Salva. Their ages range from 23 to 43, with 90 percent in their early 20s.

   All male doctors, except for Dr. Jason Rodriguez Guevarra, have been deployed in refugee camps. The team's 10 female doctors have been deployed to the refugee centers in Kupang. From the start, Concepcion has been clear with the volunteers: they are not to discriminate between the militias and the refugees when providing humanitarian assistance.

   ''We want to reach out to our fellow brothers and sisters there in their hour of need, and we want to show them that the Filipino cares for them and is going to spend one month in the place, no matter how risky it is,'' Concepcion said. He also added that the mission was unique, as it emphasized people-to-people relationships instead of just dropping relief supplies for the refugees.

   "It’s on their faces. They appreciate our presence there," related Concepcion of his Timorese experience.

   Even the medical team, he added, seem to enjoy every minute of their stay there.

   A Philippine Daily Inquirer report dated October 17 narrated the volunteers’ personal accounts of their stay in West Timor. The medical team leader, Dr. Rafael Camacho, for instance, felt an "extraordinary sensation" during his first encounter with the refugees.

   Frail figures would gather around him, staring at him with eyes set deep within masks of steel, as if the war had stolen their souls. The children would laugh only when he talked and grinned at them.

   Despite the lack of interpreters at the site, however, clinic hours were going on smoothly. By contrast, at the Nenuk Missionary Center, some 1,000 East Timorese refugees could be seen milling around, not knowing where to go. "Their hunger and fatigue showed in their eyes," the report continued.

   "Camacho, 36, said he did not regret going to Timor and would treat his stay here as God's way of making him feel that He exists," the report added. "I love giving service. It's not work. It's an adventure," Camacho was quoted to have said.

   Dr. Jason Guevarra, another volunteer, spent his 25th birthday at the Gor refugee camp in Kupang, and did not for one moment regret his decision, and was in fact enjoying his work.

   For sisters Ma. Sushila and Simpralyn Agunod of Negros Occidental, the decision to join this mission was a form of penance since, as both of them admitted, they had been working primarily for money for years prior to this.

   Aside from the medical volunteers, there is Thelmo Cunanan, a retired Army general and former ambassador to Cambodia. He is the mission’s "operations man," shuttling between Kupang and Atambua to make sure that the volunteers are safe.

   To date, the medical mission has only a week left to complete its visit to 27 other civic-action centers sheltering some 30,000 refugees in West Timor. And according to Concepcion, none of them wanted to go back home yet. "They all discovered a sense of attachment to these people, and a feeling of pride over what they’ve done," he added.

CyberDyaryo | 1999.11.04