Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Bearing witness and powerlessness

Yesterday I attended my third training with my team (again as part of the Campaign to End Violence). This time it was in the district of Liquisa west of Dili. We visited the “suku” (village) of Darulete, population of about 1200 people and located about 45 km and a one and a half hour drive from Dili. The last few kilometres drive up was really pretty and lush and we arrived at the top of the mountain at the village to again be greeted with cool fresh air. I was surprised to discover another “malae feto” (foreign female) there: a 25 year old Peace Corps woman who hails from a small town near Flint, Michigan (Michael Moore territory).

She had been living there for just over a year and was the only “malae” in the village. (Peace Corps just loves placing their American charges in small remote villages without any company. I simply couldn’t do it and I admire their bravery.) I had great conversations with this woman who had just recently moved out of the “xefi de suku’s” (village chief/mayor) house where she had lived for a year. She couldn’t stand him (and nor he her) and she was relieved to leave. He constantly accused her of being lazy as she wouldn’t do all the chores that women of Timor are expected to do (of course meanwhile, he did very little like most Timorese men). She said it was interesting to watch the second eldest child (a boy) order his eldest sister around, treating her like his personal slave. Clearly he had learnt well, role modelling his father’s behaviour. The “xefi” has six children the youngest of whom is a three month old boy who I met with his mother. He was a beautiful and chubby baby (a rarity) and I was pleased to see that his mother was still breastfeeding him. Disturbingly however, the Peace Corps woman told me that just in the past week or so the “xefi” had physically assaulted his three year old daughter by hitting her in the left eye so severely that it caused her nose to bleed and left her with a black eye (I saw the wounds healing). As we both commented, that this is child abuse in our respective countries and it would be reported to children’s services. But here as visitors we can do nothing about it and in fact are instructed by our sending organisations not to interfere as it can often cause more harm than good.

The “xefi” got up during the training and talked about domestic violence (which here includes child abuse), and said how reprehensible it was. Because traditional justice is the primary system for seeking redress in Timor, anyone who has experienced violence will, if they choose to do something about it, as a first point of call, visit their “xefi”. Just imagine visiting this one! I’m sure he’s not alone in the gap between how he behaves to what he says to the members of his village. I call it arbitrary justice. (Just imagine going to your local mayor to resolve domestic violence who was himself abusing his children and probably others).

A couple of weeks ago I was witness to the public flogging of a young boy in my community. I was walking up to the main road and noticed up ahead a group of young men struggling to hold a boy of about 10 who was clearly very distressed. At some point the boy managed to escape and came running down the street with whom, I assume was his father, in hot pursuit wielding a rope or what looked like the root of a tree. He was flogging the boy as he tried to run away. The boy was hysterical as his father kept flogging him. Most of the community was out on the street watching but doing nothing. I was deeply disturbed and had to stop myself from saying to the father “para!, la bele!” (stop!, you cannot!). But for me to say anything would almost certainly cause more pain and suffering for the boy. The father would be humiliated in front of his community (and by a “malae” woman at that) and as a male this is a serious affront to his power and status. Moreover, the boy would be further physically assaulted at home.

This is one of the biggest challenges I face living in Timor. I have been, and I am sure will continue to be, witness to human rights abuses where I am powerless to do anything about it. Can you imagine how debilitating and ultimately depressing that is? If I were in Australia, I would have no problem stopping abuse or reporting it to the police. However, Timor is a communitarian society with no sense of space and privacy, and therefore these things are in your face on a regular basis. In Australia, violence is hidden behind insulated brick walls and therefore usually unseen by neighbours, family and friends. My problem isn’t so much the public nature of assault here but the fact that I can do nothing about it. I would really rather live in a country where if I am witness to such abuse, I am empowered and able to do something about it. Not being able to do anything about it challenges dearly held values: by not doing anything, aren’t I just as complicit in the abuse as the person committing it?

Category: Timor-Leste (East Timor)

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