East Timor


Erica de Araujo was born into the smoky chaos of battle in August 1999, two weeks before East Timor finally voted for independence and an end to 24 years of brutal Indonesian occupation. She first drew breath in a dirt-floor shack in the capital, Dili, in a slum where clouds of mosquitoes clotted the warm air and the sound of gunfire crackled through the night. In the week she was born, a mound of pink blossoms was left in the dirt road near the shack – marking the place where a teenage neighbour was shot dead, one of thousands to die in East Timor’s dogged fight for freedom.

Erica is the daughter of East Timor’s independence – now eight years old, living free and without fear in the quiet hills of the hinterland; a little malnourished, a bit tattered, but boundlessly optimistic. Violence has sporadically broken out in her homeland since independence, erupting again after a new coalition government was installed earlier this month. Yet Erica’s family believes the new administration is a bright sign for the future, and life will begin to improve.

Erica and her young brother - distressed at the sight of strangers. Photo Sian Powell

Erica and her young brother – distressed at the sight of strangers. Photo Sian Powell

I first met Erica’s mother, Filomena Correa, in the shambles of Dili before the momentous independence vote on August 30, 1999. Breastfeeding Erica as the militias burned houses, murdered activists and spread terror, Filomena was endlessly stoic. She had no food and no money; her husband was away in the hills with the rebel army. Every now and then she waited for a lull in the havoc and trudged across town to beg from the nuns in Balide, tugging three small children along with her. She shared a tin-roofed, two-room shack with her brother, and her bed (a wooden pallet) with all her children. Her life was an endless battle against hunger, sleeplessness and fear. Yet she believed the long and bloody struggle for independence had been worth it. “I want independence,” she said then. “I want a peaceful life for my children.”

These days, as she struggles to raise her children in an isolated village, Filomena is philosophical about the future. She had high expectations of East Timor’s hard-won freedom, but now, instead, she has a long list of grievances, from disintegrating roads to poor prices for the coffee her family grgrows. Yet she smiles as she picks up her new baby, smoothes down a daughter’s dress and talks about the children’s schooling. Some things, at least, are much better than they were in the dark days of 1999. “There’s no violence here [in this village] now,” she says, “and we are free.”

East Timor’s struggle for liberty was seemingly a stark case of good versus evil – an oppressed but dignified people standing up to a massive and brutal invader – and Australia’s emotional backing for the East Timorese was huge. We were outraged when Indonesian troops and their militia proxies ran amok after the independence vote, wrecking whole towns, raping, beating and killing as many as 1400 East Timorese. We sent troops into the tiny half-island, and donations flooded across the Timor Sea. A full-throated Australian roar greeted the tiny East Timorese team marching in the Sydney Olympics’ opening ceremony.

*Now, though, after years of struggling with fledgling institutions, tyro ministers and grinding poverty, East Timor seems to be back on the skids. Barely recovered from the bloody fighting over army sackings that spilled on to the streets of the capital last year, Dili is again racked by spasms of violence – tragically, once more, East Timorese fighting East Timorese. Heavily armed Australian soldiers patrol Dili’s streets, the UN lives behind coiled razor wire at Obrigado Barracks, and the young country has come perilously close to being relegated to the ranks of failed states.

Despite all the problems, the East Timorese passion for democracy has to be admired. Almost eight in 10 registered voters cast a ballot in the presidential elections earlier this year; the June parliamentary campaign went off smoothly and reasonably peacefully until the appointment of a new government prompted another wave of house-burnings and rock-throwing.

Still, after the terror of 1999, it seems a time of comparative peace – especially in the outlying districts. Erica lives in the village of Manusae, in the high hills south of Dili. It’s a four-hour drive from the capital over appalling roads, rivers and, in certain places, boulders; the last leg of the journey is on foot along a steep, difficult track.

No public buses or private cars (other than four-wheel-drives) can get anywhere near the village. If the people of Manusae want to see a doctor, or a police officer, or a government official, they walk the three hours into the district capital of Ermera. Julio Boromeo, Erica’s father, said the photographer and I were the first Westerners to visit his house, and certainly one toddler roared with terror (and kept roaring for some time) simply at the sight of our white faces.

Manusae is a sleepy, coffee-growing village, with a school, a little church and bamboo huts set on steep inclines divided by grassy paths. The children are scrawny and small by Australian standards, all knees and elbows, but they are remarkably independent – five-year-olds can be seen trotting along mountain paths alone.

There is no electricity, so it’s quiet – no TV, no radios, no machines, no subdued hum of 21st-century Western living. Coffee is processed in a water mill after it has been laid out to dry on tarps, firewood is chopped with axes, and clothes are washed by hand.

Late in 1999, Boromeo and his wife and five small children (including Erica, then a babe in arms) straggled back into Manusae after the Indonesians had finally left East Timor, the local Darah Merah militia had dispersed and the village was more or less safe again. But the family’s wood-and-tin house had been completely wrecked and everything they owned had been taken by the Indonesian military.

Boromeo had fought with Falantil, East Timor’s rebel army, on and off for eight years, and he’d been in the jungle on a clandestine mission in May 1999 when the pro-Indonesia militia came to Manusae. They threatened and punched Filomena – then six months pregnant with Erica – and rested a rifle on her shoulder, pretending to shoot at her neighbours.

Terrified, she gathered a few belongings and three of her children, and ran. (Her other daughter, Florinda, aged 10, was staying with her crippled grandfather in another village, where she remained until the end of 1999.) Filomena and the children walked for hours into Ermera, and from there took a bus to the relative safety of Dili. Three months later, on August 30, 1999, along with hundreds of thousands of her compatriots, Filomena dressed in her best and lined up to vote for a new life for her country.

A week after the ballot, she fled again – this time running away from Dili, carrying baby Erica and dragging the children up into the hills of Dare, south of the capital, to huddle with thousands of others fleeing Indonesia’s fury. It was September 5, the day after the ballot result was announced. Almost 80 per cent of voters had chosen independence rather than autonomy within Indonesia and the military was outraged. After 24 years of occupation, they were not leaving East Timor without a last, bitter burst of rage.

Filomena could see the smoke rising from the burning city as she and her children struggled up into the hills. In Dare, she hid the children under the bushes in a coffee plantation, where they slept on the ground for three weeks, eating begged cassava (a root vegetable), corn and a little rice, sometimes cooked, more often raw, waiting for thenternational forces to arrive.

* Two years later, in 2001, Boromeo joined East Timor’s new army – only to become one of the hundreds of “petitioners”, the soldiers who deserted because their claims of discrimination were not heard. Boromeo, from Ermera district, is a “westerner” and he believes the army’s leaders preferred easterners for promotion. The petitioners went on strike and were finally dismissed by the army chief last year, helping to precipitate the violence that killed 37 and left 30,000 East Timorese sheltering in refugee camps for months.

Now, like so many East Timorese, he and his family await better times. Although grateful that his children can go to school, and that there is enough (just) to eat, Boromeo is poor. There are no books, toys, dolls or games in the family home. Erica carries her younger brother, three-year-old Jaimito, around on her hip, and occasionally, for fun, climbs trees – “She’s very naughty,” says her mother. A 16-year-old girl, Clara, helps Filomena with the housework in return for her meals.

Most East Timorese rely on subsistence agriculture and by Western standards they do it tough. Recent statistics are hard to come by, but according to figures published by UNICEF the life expectancy in 2003 was just 50 years; in 2002, only 52 per cent of East Timorese had access to safe water and 33 per cent had adequate sanitation facilities. In 2003, more than one in 10 children died before they reached the age of five. East Timor is still one of the poorest nations in the world, regardless of the oil wealth pouring into the country.

Analysts say Mari Alkatiri, the first prime minister, governed almost single-handedly and one of the reasons only half the budget was spent each year was because his signature was required on everything. Even now, East Timor has no real functioning systems of bureaucracy – money often isn’t spent because no one is prepared to make a decision.

Before independence, Indonesia propped up East Timor’s economy with a bloated civil service employing 22,000 (there are now about 12,000) and rivers of subsidised fuel. Yet, in avoiding Indonesia’s excesses, the Government embraced very cautious (many think too cautious) spending on welfare, with Alkatiri determined to avoid the “dependence mentality”.

Not that Julio Boromeo has a dependence mentality. He rebuilt his ruined house in a month, without help from government, aid agencies or the church. On the spur of a hill, looking across valleys to the mountains, it has bamboo walls, an iron roof, a packedearth floor and corrugated-iron doors. Filomena cooks over an open fire, and a couple of plastic tubs serve for washing. Coffee is grown on a hectare of ground down the hill, and once it’s harvested, Boromeo hauls it into Ermera on his back – a six-hour trek there and back.

Life is tough, and it’s about to get tougher for many people. A locust plague and the drought has cut East Timor’s harvest by as much as 30, according to the World Food Program, which estimates as much as a fifth of the population will need food assistance before the year ends.

In the Boromeo household, protein is a rare delight. The children eat mostly cassava, rice and sweet potato. “There was one chicken, we just ate it,” says Filomena, gesturing to the feast she’d prepared in honour of her sister’s visit. “And there’s cassava in the garden.”

Despite the poverty, education is a strong suit. All Filomena’s school-aged children, barring 16-year-old Rojina, who was married in March, are busily getting an education. Even the oldest child, 17-year-old Florinda, lives with her grandmother in Dili so she can finish high school. Of the children born after the family made it back to Manusae late in 1999, one year-old Elefino and three-year-old Jaimito are obviously too young for school, and Maria Agama, five, will start this year.

Education is now free in East Timor, and Erica goes to the village school along with 40 other children. Their teacher is East Timorese, and they are supposed to be learning Portuguese (which the Government decided to adopt as an official language, despite the paucity of Portuguese speakers). Erica speaks only Tetum – East Timor’s native tongue. But squinting, and holding the notebook a few centimetres from her face, she can write her name – slowly, a wobbly word appears.

“She’s not fluent yet – she’s only young,” her mother says, smiling and smoothing Erica’s hair.

East Timor is doing well schooling its children. According to a comprehensive poverty report published in 2003 by the Government, the World Bank and UN agencies, among others (Poverty in a New Nation: Analysis for Action), school participation rates increased dramatically after East Timor tore itself away from Indonesia, with eight in 10 children between the ages of 12 and 15 enrolled in a school by 2001. There is a lot of ground to make up. Almost half of East Timor’s population is under 15, and the adult population is poorly educated – almost three-quarters of those over 30 have never been to school.

Filomena, though, can read and write and speak Indonesian andlike so many East Timorese, she will make great sacrifices to ensure her children get an education. “I want her to go to school,” she says of Erica. “After she’s finished here, maybe she can go to Dili [for further education].” Erica, too, has caught the bug – she wants to keep on learning, and go to university. “I want to be a doctor,” she whispers.

Yet with the nation still in crisis, the little girl’s future is less sure than it should be. The East Timorese army did battle with the East Timorese police last year, and a UN investigation into the violence blamed senior members of the former government, even questioning the then prime minister’s role in the conflict.

One of the troublemakers was once the commander of East Timor’s military police, Alfredo Reinado, who was jailed but then escaped. After spectacularly evading the Australian SAS’s attempts to catch him, Reinado is now apparently willing to deal with the new Government – but there are many who believe any pardon would foster a climate of impunity, just as the previous government’s attempts to offer an amnesty for the 2006 violence eroded the faltering East Timorese faith in the justice system.

There is a picture of Reinado tacked on the Boromeo family’s wall. He is holding two huge, crossed guns, and looks like a desperado. “He’s still in the jungle; he’s a dangerous man,” Boromeo says, with some satisfaction. As a former soldier, and one with a grievance, he has some sympathy for Reinado, although he deplores the violence that has brought East Timor to its knees.

“A year ago there was a crisis,” he says. “We’re already independent, but for a year there was violence, and it hasn’t ended. If there’s no progress, as with the last government, it will continue. We’ve been independent for more than five years, but there’s been no progress here in East Timor.”

Indeed, many would say that East Timor has slipped backwards towards anarchy and insurrection. As many as 100,000 people have been forced from their homes, and 30,000 – most from the east of the country – now live in camps near Dili.

The refugees’ resentment is palpable. In a frightening echo of Palestinian violence, boys and young men throw rocks at cars, any cars, in Dili, simply for the wanton thrill of destruction. In March, 95 UN vehicles were stoned, and even ordinary taxis and minibuses are not immune. Vertiginous unemployment – as high as 50 per cent in the capital – has fuelled the fury and led many to join the warring gangs of kids who rampage around the city.

The east-west divide deepened after then president (now Prime Minister) Xanana Gusmao spoke of it publicly. Yet the rumblings could have been quelled early if the police and army were strong institutions. It is now widely accepted that the UN left East Timor too early (pushed by Australia and the US to wind down the mission). The UN mission’sspokeswoman in East Timor, Allison Cooper, argues there has been progress in the formation of state structures, but “the expectation of an immediate independence dividend creates problems”.

This frustration slashed support for the dominant Fretilin party in the June elections. Violence erupted because although Fretilin won the most seats in Parliament, it couldn’t form a coalition to govern. After eight years of waiting, people asked: where was the good life?

* The Boromeos are quietly devout Catholics and they supported the Democrat party, which espouses family values. They have high hopes for the new Prime Minister, resistance hero Gusmao. “He’s an intellectual,” says Boromeo, who, despite the scarcity of media in Manusae, remains remarkably well informed, perhaps because his brother works as a police officer in the regional hub of Gleno and makes the long trek home to the village once or twice a week. “The most important thing is the leaders stay honest,” he says. “For the people of East Timor it’s very serious. Nepotism and collusion, it still happens. We need schools, we need doctors, we need our health. Everything is still homemade, we’re still hungry, there’s no buildings.”

Filomena is quick to agree, adding that each year, as the roads disintegrate further, Manusae becomes increasingly isolated. “It’s more difficult, there’s nothing here,” she says. “Cars can’t get here because the roads are so bad.”

A very small and very dirty puppy scrabbles on the earth floor, and Filomena apologises because her children’s clothes are dirty. But the photographer and I had arrived without warning – with no phones and no postal service, communication in rural areas is near impossible.

The fog comes down without warning in these hills, blanketing the twisting, crumbling roads and adding to the sense of isolation. “Minibuses don’t come here,” Filomena says. “In Indonesian times, cars could come here.” Any emergency could prove fatal. As if to provide a warning, there is a tiny grave in the backyard; a Boromeo daughter died in the late ’90s, when the roads were good, but the Indonesian military was waging war on the East Timorese. Boromeo couldn’t get the feverish child to a doctor; her fever slowly worsened and she finally died.

Health services are still practically non-existent. None of the Boromeo children are vaccinated and the three born since the family’s return to Manusae – Maria Agama, Jaimito and Elefino – all arrived in the bamboo shack with no medical assistance at all and only their father’s helping hands to welcome them into the world.

*Virgilio Guterres, who until last year was the director of the national radio and TV broadcaster, says the plight of ordinary East Timorese is appalling. “Last year was a very hard time,” he says. “Many people feel desperate. East Timorese fighting each other; it’s the worst time in our history. In 1999, we had a real enemy. But now it’s between brothers”

Yet despite the huge difficulties – the unemployment, the gangs, the refugees, the slumping harvest, the violence – Guterres remains hopeful that East Timor will haul itself out of the mire. “I must be optimistic. Despite the problems we face, I’m still optimistic. With the freedom we have, we can solve the problems.”

Julio Boromeo, too, looks forward to a brighter future. He has a very affectionate family, and both he and Filomena keep an eye on the children to make sure no one has been left out. “Jaimito hasn’t got a lollipop,” says his father, as the little boy hangs back, frightened of the sweets-bearing foreigners. The children lean on the adults, sit on them, touch them. If the baby cries he is immediately picked up and swung on to a hip – either his mother’s or one of his sisters’.

There is a crucifix on the wall of the small reception room, which is furnished with a table and chairs almost too narrow for ample Australian bottoms. A big machete lies on the table – East Timor’s all-purpose tool. A broken boombox sits on a shelf, and a mirror tilts crazily.

On another wall is a photo of a wedding. Filomena points to the stout, older woman, the mother of the groom. It’s her sister, Ermelinda de Araujo, who left for Australia as Indonesia occupied East Timor in 1975. She now lives in Sydney somewhere, but with no postal service, no radio, and no telephones in Manusae, maintaining contact is almost impossible. Ermelinda has visited Dili once, but she has never made it as far as Manusae.

It is easy to forget those who live in the quiet and isolated hills of East Timor. Yet the battling East Timorese will soldier on, with or without assistance, in the hope of a better life for themselves and their children.

What does Julio Boromeo hope the future brings? “Peace,” he says, nodding slowly. “Peace.”