The Return to East Timor

A Glimpse at Life in the Pacific

I had just about finished one of my most dreaded rituals when the phone rang. I set my razor on the bathroom counter and put on my bathrobe. In the kitchen I reached for the phone on the kitchen table. As I raised the receiver to my ear, it snapped and hissed like a live wire. Junior reporter Junko was on the other end.

"This morning? Taking care of a shave, my dear," I explained. The phone cord slowly, but methodically, coiled and recoiled.

She kept talking.

"Right," I said, "but I'm using a blade going into its sixth week of service and the area around the center of my spine can be tricky. Steady as she goes, you know."

Then the comments started.

"Well I imagine you've got a point," I conceded. "There is no reason for a woman to know anything about shaving her..." The receiver then started vibrating. I tightened my grip.

Then the inquisition.

"Timor? My trip? I suppose I never did tell you about that. But can't it wait until...," I started to offer but was interrupted when all at once the receiver leapt from my hand and landed on the table next to last night's sardine trays where it twisted from side to side for a few moments.

After grabbing my pack and readying my lighter, I settled back in a chair and again reached for the receiver.

Romanus Gengong was the name on the student ID card. It had been burned away at two opposite corners leaving a stained and smudged picture, browning paper, and a defoliating lamination. I found the card after kicking over a few of the thousands of clay tiles that once composed the roof of a classroom of Dili Polyteknik, a technical university. Now the tiles are scattered on the room's floor along with large sections of shattered glass and the equally shattered hopes that any sort of education will be delivered here any time soon.

The caretaker (of what remains of the school) poked his head inside. I asked him what he did when the Indonesian militias came and started torching the school. "I ran away to the hills," he said, gesturing outside. I wonder what Romanus did. I wonder if he's still alive. Class dismissed, Dili, East Timor style.

The sooted walls, charred roof beams, tangled electrical wire, collapsed floors, mangled furniture, and twisted utility boxes of the school (one of two universities in East Timor) provide one pause because it is a pretty good representation of what the entire city of Dili was like immediately after departure of the Indonesian militias. Now things are a little different. Dili is on the mend and the people have a strong hope that they will again live normal lives. Sure, they'll have to look beyond all the spray paint graffiti calling cards left by the militias showing soldiers pointing AK-47s at Dili independence leader Xanana Gusmao with the text "please kill" written above his head. More difficult still will be looking beyond the memories of torture, massacre, forced deportation, and destruction to a cloudy, though independent, future that one day will not include UN military support (as exists today). Even given all this, that hope is larger than one might think.

The drive from the school to the city center is on a winding road up through some lush and green hills. This is followed by a quick descent through a few small villages of huts and makeshift housing before arriving at the rocky and scenic shores of East Timor's capital.

The UN's role as protector is welcome in East Timor. But it is the East Timorese people that will be living there in the future and from the get-go they want that point known. My driver and interpreter, Filomeno, 20, in recalling his thoughts during an incident in which he rather boldly yelled at a UN soldier to move his vehicle blocking our car's path, "For me, I think the road is for everybody, not for the visitor, not for me, not for the East Timorese. Because I hope everybody can understand and have respect for the law. I have respect for the law because I want everybody to fight for a good life."

Given the large scale of its recent problems, the fight for a good life is encountering the same very basic hurdles that plague even fully developed world cities. Car traffic in Dili's streets has increased remarkably over that just six months prior. Cars imported from Singapore now add to the throng of UN vehicles to clog the dusty pot-holed streets to create rather sizable morning and evening rush hours (Los Angeles need not worry about competition in that department just yet though).

Most of these new cars are used as taxis. Filomeno relates, "My friend is a taxi driver. Every weekend I meet him. He says he drives everyday but it is very difficult." The difficulty lies in the competition. On any of Dili's streets, horns and voices call from the taxis to any and all foreigners out for a walk. Filomeno continues, "Sometimes he can get 150,000 rupiah ($15), after paying for the petrol and something for lunchtime. But he has to pay back 700,000 rupiah ($70) for the taxi rental each week."

Other dubious jobs exist in Dili. But they are jobs nonetheless. A small stretch of road in the heart of the city center under the shade of some large trees is known as the "black market." Here dozens of men gather to exchange currency and sell MTV compilation CDs, cigarettes, and telephone cards. Speaking English isn't necessary. Cash of any kind is the language. A solar powered calculator provides any necessary translation.

But if you can speak English, there are some more lucrative and stable options. Filomeno indicates that he has a number of friends working as interpreters or supervisors for UNTAET (United Nations Technical Assistance East Timor). The projects are now getting under way and usually are aimed at improving basic needs and infrastructure. While not as visible as the UN soldiers patrolling the streets, these projects are providing the necessary rehabilitation of facilities and reestablishment of services in the fields of health, education, and agriculture.

In driving through the city (a very safe proposition, even at night), it is obvious though that a number of folks are not sitting idly by as the rehabilitation takes place. Many street corners (though predominantly in areas trafficked by cash toting foreigners) are filled with small private roadside stands and stalls selling fish, meat, vegetables, drinks, clothes, and other goods. Filomeno says that the people know that they must take their lives into their own hands. He recalls, "Maybe one year ago, I met an Australian woman. She said that everybody must work, not sitting, not just talking. Because you can see on the television, everybody in the world is making progress. We must also."

Along with the influx of UN workers, soldiers, aid workers, and other volunteer staff, an influx of small goods shops and stores has followed right along with them. The competition that has been created has driven away the rampant price gouging, for the most part, that existed before, or says one Australian shop owner. "That cooler there," he says, pointing at a large picnic model on his store's shelf, "is priced for half that of a store just down the street. But such gouging is becoming rare these days compared to before. It's actually rather refreshing."

More refreshing might be that even with its two schools in a shambles, a university education is still possible for some Timorese. Christine, 21, worked as a receptionist at a Dili hotel last year. Now she is among 54 East Timorese receiving scholarships to study in Australia and New Zealand. Earlier this year she started studying English at Robb College in Armidale, Australia. "Winter is coming," she says. "It's so cold here."

While she adjusts to the changing climate (Dili is predominately tropical year round), the people back home will be adjusting to changes in a climate of a different sort - the political climate. Local leaders expect the United Nations to possibly hand over political power from the interim legislation to an elected president as early as late this year. Filomeno though worries that with 14 political parties vying for the presidency (expected election in August) that there may be some trouble afterwards. "If somebody wins," he says, "you must have respect for the results. I think the people have hopes and don't want fighting to happen in East Timor again. Because 24 years of suffering under the Indonesian regime was enough."

In some ways the transition from the UN to the Timorese people has already begun. At Dili's international airport (flights to and from Darwin, Australia and Denpasar, Indonesia only) an Australian UN battalion chief says, "The airport duties are being turned over to the civilians from the command of the UN. We replaced a troop that had been here for 6 months. After being here three months ourselves, it's time to go home."

So the plan is to slowly give East Timor back to the people: first security, then human needs and infrastructure, and eventually a government. Filomeno and the majority of the people in Dili seem ready. He says, "There must be preparation for the future. If you to do something nice for the future, you have to do it now. Today is the preparation for the future."

I deposited my fourth cigarette in one of the sardine cans. The receiver had calmed considerably since I had begun talking. So much so that after we said our goodbyes it returned to the cradle like a charmed cobra might to its basket.

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