Friday, July 14, 2006

Return to Timor

This morning I caught the 7am Air North flight from Darwin to Dili. There were 19 people on the flight, mainly malae including a number Australian Federal Police (AFP) officers who had taken R&R in Darwin. As we were escorted from the airport across the tarmac where we were advised to follow the white stripes, one of the two AFP officers directly in front of me looked behind her and then said to her colleague: “there’s a lot of people on this flight; why would anyone want to go to Dili?” Apart from the fact that I thought her comment rude given there were a handful of Timorese on the flight, I also thought how lacking in insight the officer had about Timor. Most of the malae were almost certainly United Nations (UN) personnel (in fact there were at least two from Kenya) and International Non-Governmental Organisation (INGO) staff. Then there was me: a former volunteer with Australian Volunteers International (AVI) who was evacuated from Dili on 25 May and was now returning under my own steam as AVI had decided to suspend its program in Timor until further notice (ie until the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) had reduced its travel advisory warning down from category 5 (the highest) to at least 4).

The plane was an Embraer Brasilia 120, a very small aircraft that vibrated when the propellers started. I wondered whether we’d ever make the 500km journey over the Timor Sea and then the next leg over the mountainous terrain of Timor island. The air stewardess was in-training and being watched over by two colleagues; she was very nervous and would regularly consult her notes. This further added to my apprehension. When she finished her safety announcement, I started clapping and the other passengers followed suit. The man next to me said something about her being very nervous and I retorted with “now I just hope we don’t go down!” He laughed and began asking me questions and I likewise inquired about his reason for visiting Timor.

The man was originally from Malaysia but immigrated to Australia where he has lived for nearly twenty years. He was around 40 years of age and lived in Sydney where he worked for a leading Catholic international development and relief agency. His work was focused on Indonesia and particularly the provinces of West Timor and West Papua but given the recent events in East Timor, he was being sent to Dili for two weeks as part of his organisation’s emergency program in Timor. He was quite apprehensive about arriving in Dili as he had spent two and a half years between 2000 and 2003 living and working in the exclave of Oecussi and when he left, he never imagined he would again have the opportunity to visit Timor. Moreover, upon his departure, the country was on a high as independence was a reality and a new government had not long been sworn in. Now he was visiting under very different circumstances. One interesting comment he made was about the international stabilisation force currently keeping law and order in Dili. He said he was glad that they were mostly Australian soldiers as he did not have much faith in either the soldiers from his birth country (Malaysia) nor the Portuguese, the latter of whom he reserved most of his criticism. This was based on his experience with these particular nation’s military (among others) during the time of the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET).

As we approached Dili International Airport we flew past Tasitolu Peace Park and I noticed with glee that all three lakes were still quite full. Just before we landed, we passed our little white house and again I was happy to see it and the surrounding community still standing. From the window of the plane I noticed the large Australian military presence which had grown since the day I was evacuated when the military had first landed in Dili. There were trucks, helicopters, tents and personnel not to mention freshly washed military fatigues hanging on fences drying in the hot sun.

As I was able to utilise my two year visa to re-enter the country I was able to proceed quickly to the small baggage carousel. I took the opportunity to go to the toilet and soon noticed the stench. There were notices in English advising users not to flush anything other than human waste down the toilet and to put everything else into the overflowing bins provided. Unfortunately both toilets had been used by people either unable to understand the instructions or not literate in English and toilet paper and waste were clogging the system. I chose the least offensive of the two toilets available, duly put my soiled toilet paper in the overflowing bin, and promptly went to wash my hands. When just a tiny trickle of water emanated from the tap and then promptly ceased, I said out loud to myself, “welcome back to Timor!”

Upon collecting my luggage and proceeding through customs, I was greeted by the many little boy children who hang around the airport helping passengers with their luggage in the hope that you will give them some money. I greeted them in Tetum and asked how they were which obviously surprised them as they all became very shy all of a sudden. I thanked them but told them I didn’t need their help and looked furtively around for Daniel who was no where in sight. After pushing my luggage trolley around a bit I gave up and sat down. I waited a wee while but still no sign of Daniel. I thought that an emergency must have prevented him from meeting me so I called Senyor Raphael and Virginia, the oldest child answered and said that Daniel had gone to work. Mmmm, I thought, that’s strange. So I telephoned Daniel’s workplace and soon I was speaking to him. He thought I was calling from Darwin and when I said no, Dili airport he was rather surprised! He had forgotten what day of the week it was and thought I was arriving the following day (he’d experienced two Thursdays instead of one). I was not impressed!

Senyor Raphael called me back and asked if I would like him to come and collect me on his motorbike. I thanked him but explained that Daniel was coming in a taxi. Needless to say when Daniel arrived, I did not give him a warm reception.

I noticed while sitting and waiting for Daniel to arrive the internally displaced people (IDP) across the road. Many temporary shelters made of tarpaulins with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) logo were erected for the one to two thousand people who live there. As we drove past the IDP camp an Oxfam Australia water truck drove past and women were lining up to fill their buckets. The branding by the INGOs was very noticeable.

We arrived home to a warm reception by “our” family. (I believe they were more effusive when Daniel returned the week before, which was to be expected.) They all looked well except for Senyor Raphael who appeared to have aged considerably during my seven week absence. Argentina’s beau Alberto was now living with “our” family which I assume was because he is from Baukau and therefore being an easterner in Dili, has not felt safe and so “our” family and our neighbourhood who are all from the west, had been sheltering him from any potential harm.

The garden was looking very trim and Senyor had begun a market garden. We now have many tube stock plants which he has created from cuttings. As there became a serious food shortage, those that remained in Dili began in earnest to be more self sufficient in food. During our absence we had transferred $150 AUD to a former AVI colleague’s bank account who had elected to stay in Dili and therefore be kicked out of the program, and asked him to buy any food he could get his hands on and take it to “our” family. He had done this twice, first of his own violation and secondly after a request from us. As we were in regular telephone contact with Senyor Raphael we knew their food situation was serious and they needed someone with a car to bring them supplies. In the end they were delivered rice, soup-a-mie, eggs and vegetables which staved off any serious hunger for the family and many of our immediate neighbours. If they had gone to an IDP camp, they would have been fed. Staying in one’s house has other benefits such as less chance of contracting communicable diseases but it can also be very isolating and leads to lack of access to essential items such as food.

The little asu (dog) which we had adopted since the family next door had abandoned it upon fleeing to the districts, died while we were away. I left the dog food behind and told “our” family to keep feeding her but she had in the days leading up to our evacuation, moved further a field which made it difficult to locate and feed her. Senyor Raphael said that one day she came to our veranda, laid down and died. I was very sad to hear this news but also do believe that she is much better off in doggy heaven. She was crippled by a car accident and ants infested her body which caused her much suffering. She was a fine little dog and I miss her but take comfort in the fact that she no longer suffers.

Our adopted asu outside "our" Timorese family's home before she died

“Our” family now have a young dog of their own. This dog just turned up one day and didn’t leave so they have adopted him. He is a dark golden colour and seems amenable enough. I am sure that I will soon get to know him. We have noticed the stark drop off in dogs around the neighbourhood. Before we were evacuated, there were tens of dogs, particularly puppies, roaming the neighbourhood scavenging for food as their owners had fled to safety. It felt as though the dogs had taken over. Now we hardly notice them, perhaps because our attention is also focused on the people who have returned and perhaps too because many of the dogs have died (and even eaten in desperation for life sustaining sustenance). Our AVI colleague and his partner who live down the beach in Tasitolu have lost their beloved dog. She disappeared during their absence despite him giving money to their security guard to feed it. I would not be surprised in the least if it had been captured and eaten as well fed dogs (of which there are few) are a prized possession during times of hunger.

As I unpacked my belongings I heard the sounds of many little children playing alongside the twittering of the birds. It made me smile to again hear these sounds as during the weeks leading up to our evacuation, most of the children had fled with their families. What wasn’t so pleasant was the sound of the Australian military helicopters flying overhead at regular intervals as they came and went from the airport next door. Before there were a mere three aeroplanes a day along with an occasional UN helicopter, now it feels like Bourke Street!

There are a number of new faces in our community, including many children; I assume they are related family members of our neighbours.

I was really hanging out for a rich, thick banana lassie from one of the two Indian restaurants in town as during my seven week absence, I only managed to have a banana lassie/smoothie twice as the availability and cost of bananas had soared due to the devastation that tropical cyclone Larry reaked on the banana growing region of Australia and which we travelled through. We caught a mikrolete (minibus) which was unusually uncrowded and paid 25c each for the ride, a 5c rise in the cost of a fare since May. On the journey into town we passed one of the hardest hit areas of Komoro near one of the two major markets in Dili. Shop after shop was burnt down and the market was closed. Women and men had set up temporary market stalls on the street but the volume of fruit and vegetables on offer was much reduced.

Upon seeing the burnt out shells of former small businesses, I was reminded of the same carnage wreaked on Tasi-tolu in late April, and how the young angry male arsonists were only causing more hardship for themselves, their families and communities. These small businesses supplied them with essential goods and services such as fresh food and vegetables, cooked lunches for $1 a plate, non perishable items such as personal care products, motorcycle and bicycle repairs. Now they have nothing.

The “pink palace” restaurant as we affectionately call it (its real name is the Sun Restaurant) was empty but it was a late lunch we were partaking in so this was not an indication as to the lack of business. One of the Timorese women who normally serve us was still there and the Indian owner said that they had remained open throughout the unrest.

I noted on the menu that the price of lassies had risen 50% and now cost $1.50 US each. It’s still a very good price for a lassie although with the abundance of bananas in Timor and the cost of them therefore being low, I expect the price increase has something to do with the rise in petrol prices and perhaps, dare I say, taking advantage of the inflow of new cashed up malae.

We enjoyed a very delicious meal of marinated eggplant, vegetable korma, garlic naan, vegetable martabak (fried roti stuffed with vegetables) and rice washed down with a not so rich and thick banana lassie each. The meal cost us $11 US. While in Cairns, we spent around $45 US for a similar but not as delicious meal in one of that city’s finest Indian restaurants. We commented at the time that it wasn’t as good as our “pink palace” meal in Dili.

I noticed how quiet Dili was; not many people or cars on the streets. Importantly it was also peaceful, however fragile this peace might be I did not notice any tension in the air. As a result I feel comfortable here.

We caught the mikrolete home again and spent the rest of the afternoon talking and resting and went to bed early. As I closed my eyes, I thought how fortuitous it was for me to arrive on the day that the new government of East Timor was sworn in with the former Foreign Affairs Minister and Nobel Laurete Jose Ramos-Horta as Prime Minister, and DFAT reducing its security level for Timor down from 5 to 4.

Category: Timor-Leste (East Timor)

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