Friday, May 12, 2006

(East Timor Problems) Trauma counselling

I awoke this morning to hear that Australia had sent two naval ships to the country’s north in anticipation of Timor calling on its neighbour for assistance should it be necessary. The Timorese Minister for Foreign Affairs had no idea that my country had done this!

As I was filling my water bottle in the kitchen at work, a colleague who I had not seen for two weeks greeted me warmly. She had fled to Liquica and was returning to the district that evening, too frightened to spend a night in Dili. I told her that there were no problems in Rai Kotu and she replied parabens (congratulations) which I thought a little odd. It wasn’t long before she said that I was just a “tourist” so it wasn’t the same as it was for her. I was immediately offended but understood why she would say such a thing. I just nodded and said I understood, detecting a great deal of grief and trauma in her, which was confirmed later that morning.

I believe my colleague used the word “tourist” as that was the best word she could find in her limited English vocabulary and that the Tetum word is near identical (turista). However, I am not a “tourist”. Most tourists have little interest in digging deep into their host country’s economic, social or political roots and becoming acquainted with the everyday experiences of its people. Tourists (the majority anyway) want to relate to locals in a service context eg, ‘What can you do for me?’

I on the other hand have lived here for nearly a year and during that time, have suffered stress and trauma because I have dug too deep into Timorese society. In comparison to the few other malae I have ever talked to beyond the superficial niceties, my digging deep is unusual, most of them do not do so and quite frankly, many, despite living here for months and years do behave like tourists. Behaviour I find highly offensive as it is neo-colonial and inhumane.

My colleague also used the word “tourist” (really to me, an insult) as a short hand way to also say that I am not Timorese, I never will be, and as a privileged malae I can always leave when trouble arises. All this is very true. But it also brings up for me again the issue of being an outsider and my feelings of being treated as nothing more than an ATM machine and this I find intolerable. When told I am merely a “tourist” or when Timorese simply see the dollar sign on my forehead, I feel dehumanised. Although I will never know their trauma, I feel very deeply about them, their history, and the attendant guilt of being an Australian when my government did nothing to stop the Indonesians from invading in 1975, none of which is recognised when I am told I am just a “tourist”.

That morning we held a group counselling debrief for all staff. We invited them to talk about what happened to them personally on Friday 28 April. My only other malae colleague facilitated the session, in response to (as I was later to find out) some of my colleagues who had been ribbing each other for fleeing to the hills and districts in fear. My colleague was upset that people should treat each other in this manner and thought it would do them all good to discuss their feelings, for others to see how distraught most of them are, and that it isn’t funny to make light of a fellow human being’s (and I would add all other animals) distress.

As I have commented before, the Timorese tend to laugh at things that we Westerners find highly inappropriate and offensive; they laugh when others hurt themselves and moreover show very little compassion towards others’ trauma (eg mental illness.) All of this is a coping strategy for people who have themselves experienced extreme trauma and who are not able to access (nor if able to, see the benefit of) appropriate counselling. It should also be said that animistic beliefs also contribute to some of this behaviour such as a belief that evil spirits inhabit those with mental illness and therefore such people, having brought about their own fate, should simply be avoided.

For two hours I sat and listened to a number of colleagues tell their stories through their heart wrenching sobs. I was often moved to tears for, although I couldn’t understand everything that they said, my heart was certainly engaged. It was also very clear to me that a number, if not all of my colleagues have deeply felt trauma from the past that was triggered by the events of 28 April.

Although I was scared at times, I certainly did not feel as deep a distress. To a casual observer, unaware of Timor’s history, my colleagues’ reactions (run and flee) to the events of that one day were out of proportion to the seriousness of what actually occurred. To a compassionate, well-informed observer, they were completely understandable. What Timor needs, is mass group trauma counselling and justice for victims of the Indonesian occupation (ie an International Criminal Tribunal), otherwise, the people of this country will continue to suffer unnecessarily. And that, in itself, would be another tragedy.

Category: Timor-Leste (East Timor)

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