Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Resolving the crisis

Finally, some decent research and suggestions on how to resolve Timor's current "crisis", and it comes from the International Crisis Group. Oh how this report shows up all those Aussie journos who continue to misinform the public as to the current goings on in Timor. As I suspected, especially since reading Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth, the problems stem back years and are not due to some attempted coup by a government, I myself revile. Please, read.
Category: Timor-Leste (East Timor)

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Saturday, September 30, 2006

Virginia goes to Cuba

Good news (I think), Virginia has been awarded a scholarship to study medicine in Cuba for seven years! But first, she has to pass an interview, health check up (mainly a blood test) and a Spanish language test. Poor thing, first she's educated in Bahasa Indonesia, next she's told she'll have to learn Portuguese if she's to hold down a government job, and now she has to learn Spanish in order to become a doctor! (The language situation is trying for everyone, but especially for the Timorese.) She'll be taught Spanish for three months by some of the nearly 300 Cuban doctors who are sent (unwillingly) to Timor to serve the community. Timor and Cuba have a bilateral agreement concerning the training and sending of doctors. Anne Barker from the ABC did a report on the Cuban doctors in Timor back in July which you can read here.
Senyor Rafael is very excited; it has been his long held desire for Virginia to become a doctor; so much so in fact that I wonder if Virginia really wants to herself! It seems that parental expectations are prevalent no matter where you go.
When Virginia lands in Havana, she might just find herself amidst more civil and political unrest if Castro's ill health continues to decline and the good, but very oppressed citizens of Cuba aren't happy with his brother at the helm. I wanted to give Virginia the aptly titled Lonely Planet publication Enduring Cuba by Zoe Bran but as it's in English and she only has a basic command of the language, I didn't want to burden her any further. I don't imagine that LP published it in Bahasa Indonesia?
Category: Timor-Leste (East Timor)

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Friday, August 25, 2006

The Wretched of the Earth

I've just finished reading Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth. Although written during the Algerian war for independence during the 1950s, I thought I was reading about Timor. Could it be that all post-conflict/colonial countries are doomed to the same fate as Algeria? In Timor's case, I certainly hope not but I'm beginning to think that I'm hopelessly naive. Is it because I just happen to be born in a Western country which during my lifetime has not experienced any serious social and political unrest?
As there is very little easily accessible literature available out there on the roots of Timor's current crisis (one cannot rely on the media, particularly Australia's), I implore those with an interest in Timor to read Fanon's classic book. As you read, just replace Algeria with Timor, and think of the leading revolutionary party as Fretilin and the charismatic leader as Xanana. You'll soon get the drift.
Category: Timor-Leste (East Timor)

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Thursday, August 17, 2006

DVD watching in Dili

Before we were evacuated, I had gone on a DVD spending spree and as a result, we had upwards of 30 DVDs waiting for us back in Dili. Now that we have a TV and DVD player at our disposal in Ai-tarak-laran and Daniel is able to bring his work laptop home at the weekends, we have slowly been watching some of these DVDs.
Compounding the abundance, however, is my colleague's own very substantial collection of DVDs, some of which I want to watch! However, I have been very disappointed with the quality of many (both hers and ours) and won’t be recommending many; I’ll simply list the ones we’ve watched and only comment on those I enjoyed.
Tristam Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story
Mrs Henderson Presents
Man to Man
Keeping Mum
The Constant Gardener
(a profoundly disappointing film after having read the enjoyable novel on which it was based)
Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking - BBC production – excellent
Girl with a Pearl Earring - excellent

Intimate Strangers - good

New Zealand
Rain - excellent

Campfire - excellent

The Baxter
House of D
The Libertine
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
Head Above Water
Good Night, Good Luck - good
Saving Face – excellent
Just Like Heaven – excellent
Capote – excellent

We have also been watching season 2 of Desperate Housewives, season 5 of the West Wing, season 1 of Little Britain, and struggling to watch due to poor quality, the final seasons of both Six Feet Under and Queer as Folk. We are waiting for the DVD shop in Kolmera to get in new stock of these television programs so that we can swap our poor quality DVDs for ones that are watchable!

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Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Children’s war games

Another noticeable change is the increased number of war games played by boy children, often complete with toy guns. In suburb after suburb I walk through, I notice little boys aiming fire and pretending to kill one another. It is most unsettling. Wherever you find military personnel, you will inevitably also find a group of generally boy children following the soldiers, trying to gain their attention. What long term impact does the sight of soldiers carrying large automatic weapons on the streets of Dili have on the future of impressionable young children?

Category: Timor-Leste (East Timor)

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Tuesday, August 15, 2006

I am not Timorese

Apart from all the other changes that have been wrought on Dili over the past months, one that reflects the depth of the problems is the use of flags by foreign nationals both on their cars and homes. My colleague has the German flag on her front door as well as on the gate to the compound she lives in. My hairdresser has the Philippines flag on the door to her small salon opposite the Australian Embassy. None of this existed back in May. I feel this is a manifestation of the deep divisions now evident within Timorese society.
Should we put up an Australian flag on our home in Raikotu? I would find this very difficult to do as my well known contempt of nationalism and nationalists would forbid me to take any such action. Thus, we remain ostensibly part of the community in which we live.

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Monday, August 14, 2006

Cleaning up Dili

On the streets of Dili you regularly notice small groups of men and women sweeping and gathering up the detritus of the city. They wear masks over their mouths and noses to prevent them from inhaling the dust and their bodies are clothed with black t-shirts with Oxfam emblazoned in green lettering. The streets and parks have become noticeably cleaner and poor Dili residents are able to earn a small income to support their families.

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Saturday, August 12, 2006

Being cruised at Hotel Timor

Tia Martha rang us this morning to tell us that we couldn’t meet her in Bebonuk as planned as her house had been attacked and most of her family had fled. She was now living in the IDP camp opposite Hotel Timor. We were due to pay her the remaining fee for creating tais which we had ordered only two days before.

As we sat waiting inside the Hotel Timor, a Timorese man whom we both know from the DVD shop in Kolmera approached us. As we had not seen him since our return last month, Daniel had assumed that he had fled the country but it turns out that he is working as a translator for the Australian military. He asked if he could join us and sat down.

We asked where he had learnt English and he said he had taught himself. His home was similarly burnt down and his sister’s cars and motorbikes were also burnt, all because they are from the east. As with Tia Martha, they are likewise living at the IDP camp opposite the hotel. His parents still live in Los Palos and he has four sisters and three brothers. One brother is in fact the President of a new political party in Timor which intends to contest the national elections next year.

Daniel excused himself to go to the toilet, and within seconds of him leaving, our friend followed him. I was immediately suspicious as Daniel had told me that he believed our friend had been hitting (quite seriously) on him a number of times in the DVD shop, even asking him out 'for some fun' once. We both suspected he was gay but I never thought think he would try hitting on Daniel so blatantly in front of me! Momentarily I worried how I would warn Daniel, before he reappeared. Apparently Daniel had given him a friendly, but apologetic, smile in the toilets and gone on his way.

When our friend returned rather quickly from the toilet, Daniel went to call Tia Martha. She and her family were at the IDP camp across the road. It was the first time Daniel had seen one of the camps from the inside. Tia Martha said that although her house hadn’t been destroyed yet, she fully expected it to be so. She has another house in Becora, a suburb on the eastern outskirts of Dili which bore a disproportionate brunt of the violence in May and June.

In the meantime, I was left to make small conversation with the man who had tried to proposition my partner in the toilets while I sat outside! I wondered if now would be the right time to talk about the television series Queer as Folk as a hint that I knew what he was up to.

Category: Timor-Leste (East Timor)

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Friday, August 11, 2006

The season of anin-boot

Weather wise, I really enjoy this time of year in Dili. The humidity level is bearable, the daily temperature around 30oC, and the mornings are cool. Sometimes I don’t even need to sleep with the fan turned on. I also enjoy the anin-boot (windy weather) for during the wet season, the air is so still and humidity levels so high, that one begins to feel suffocated by it. The one downside to anin-boot is that it whips up all the dust which is considerable.

A necessary accessory in Timor is a pair of large, wrap around sunglasses to protect one’s eyes, not only from the damaging rays of the sun, but also, from the dust and any potential infections. At this time of year, many people are afflicted with matan-mean (red eyes or conjunctivitis), and having experienced two such episodes myself, the purchase of a new pair of sunglasses while on holiday in Cairns, was a worthwhile investment.

With the dust however, comes a commonplace Timorese practice that speaks volumes about the lack of environmental awareness amongst the general population. People hose down dusty roads with the precious little water this drought prone country has. The dust problem not only causes matan-mean but contributes to the depletion of the country’s water supply, which gives even more weight for the need to build paved roads and footpaths. The photo below was taken outside the Ministry of Saúde (Health) in Caicoli. The irony of this photo is not lost on me.

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Thursday, August 10, 2006

Tia Martha, one of Timor’s finest tais makers

I have been wanting to get some tais made by Tia(Aunt) Martha, a woman I met at a women’s workshop in April. Originally from Oecusse, Tia wears traditional Timorese women’s clothes, her arms are covered in tattoos and she is illiterate but regarded as one of Timor’s finest tais makers. In independent Timor, her skills are in demand as both the government and NGOs such as Rede Feto (Women’s Network) regularly engage her creative skills. Many visiting dignitaries to Timor end up leaving the country with one of Tia’s tais in their suitcases.

Tia Martha lives in Bebonuk, a suburb in the Komoro area of Dili, 4km west of town. Daniel telephoned her to get instructions on how to get to her house. We caught a taxi to the SD tingat school and then asked various people on the street where Tia Martha’s house was. As we walked down the street we came upon this graffiti. So the GNR do have friends in Timor!

We also passed a small group of recently destroyed small shops and noticed a number of burnt down houses. A young man led us for the final leg of the walk to Tia’s house. We weaved in and out of people’s backyards and passed a couple of women at a water pump skinning a very dead and rigid dog. Ah hah, it is confirmed, the Timorese do eat dogs!

Upon entering Tia Martha’s veranda she greeted me warmly and had remembered me from the workshop. Two younger women were sitting on the ground weaving tais on order from Rede Feto. Tia’s husband, various children and grandchildren were also milling about. We sat down on plastic chairs and I immediately noticed the beautiful purple and green tais on the table. They just happen to be my favourite colours! Tia proceeded to show us her work including a bunch of personalised tais for Rotary Australia members who never collected their scarves. I commented to Daniel that I would contact Rotary myself and advise them that their unpaid order was still waiting collection three months later. I assumed that the Rotary members had visited Timor just before all hell broke lose, and as a result were not able to collect their order.

Tia showed us the material she uses to weave the tais which I suspect is a polycotton. It comes from China and isn’t cheap. A young girl was winding the material into balls and I asked to have a look at the colours available. I chose a selection and then Daniel explained in Tetum what I wanted. It was an experience for Daniel to explain how many metres and what combination of colours to use.

Tia said what I wanted was possible and they would be ready in early September. She would return to Oecusse the following Monday and bring back one of her daughters to help make the order. It takes three days for a woman to weave one small scarf and I had ordered very large wraps.

Once we had negotiated a price, left a deposit and promised to return on Saturday in order to pay in full. One of Tia’s sons escorted us back to the main road as there were now a number of groups of young men congregating on the street, some with slingshots. He said that the area had experienced its fair share of troubles and he didn’t want us to run into any trouble. We admittedly felt a little intimidated but diffused any potential problems by greeting people as we passed.

We made it out of the neighbourhood safe and sound back to the main road to catch a taxi to town. It’s a shame that Tia Martha doesn’t have a wider audience for her tais as most visitors to Timor simply head to the ramshackle tais market in Kolmera. The quality of the material used here can vary and I wonder if the women get to see any of the profits from their craftwork or whether the (mostly) men who sell the tais, keep it for themselves. Due to these concerns, I made the decision to seek out Tia Martha despite it being a more time consuming (and heart pounding) undertaking.

When Daniel returned to work he heard that there had been fighting in Bebonuk some time after lunch and at least one person was stabbed, which explains the presence of so many men on the streets in Tia Martha’s neighbourhood.

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Wednesday, August 09, 2006

The morning call to prayer

Well before dawn one morning, I awoke to hear the sound of a call to prayer. As I turned on the light on the radio to see what time it was, I felt for a split second as if I had awoken somewhere in Indonesia or the Middle East and not Catholic East Timor. Where was it coming from I wondered?

Upon waking I told Daniel about hearing it and he too had likewise heard the call. We guessed that it must have come from Dili’s Muslim mosque in Kampung Alor which borders Ai-tarak-laran. Living in different parts of a city gives one an opportunity to experience its diversity, no matter how small that diversity might be.

Category: Timor-Leste (East Timor)

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Tuesday, August 08, 2006

When the modern meets the feudal

Is it possible for a person from a modern society to work together with those from a feudal society where the benefits of the former society are sustainably conferred on the latter?

For the past year, my partner Daniel worked for a leading legal human rights NGO in Timor; today just before he resigned, he learned that the Director sent an email to AVI telling them that Daniel’s services were no longer required and that the new six month contract they were currently in negotiation about was not necessary. Why? Because both the Director and many of the mainly male Timorese staff believe that one male colleague’s possession of child pornography on its organisation’s computer (a fact he does not deny nor try to justify) merely warrants a warning and that Daniel’s protestations that it constituted a serious offence that should be met with the sacking of the offender, meant that the head of a Timorese human rights NGO decided to get rid of the whistleblower in order to protect the offender and anyone else like him that works at this so-called human rights NGO.

The offenders first documented warning was of the sexual assault of a colleague which came on top of an undocumented warning of being so drunk that he was unable to drive colleagues to the districts to undertake human rights training, that he sent a friend and inexperienced driver in his place. This event potentially endangered the lives of his colleagues. Furthermore, this person engages in corrupt work practices such as abusing the organisation’s resources. But when the Director does likewise, who is going to hold him to account?

Within this organisation there are two units which work on issues of sexual assault of children and women. From experience, they have come to learn that within Timorese society, the sexual assault of children is only taken seriously when a girl child is vaginally raped with a male’s penis. Everything else is considered of no real consequence. The reason being that within traditional Timorese society, girls and women are considered simply an asset, not much different from owning a cow or a pig, except that their (bride) price brings in more income. When a girl’s virginity is “stolen”, her price is markedly reduced. If the family (father and his brothers) decides not to pursue the assault through the formal (modern) justice sector, then they will do so via customary law which inevitably awards the girl child’s family animals in compensation for their “loss”.

Daniel has been told by some of his mostly male Timorese colleagues that he is simply a trouble maker; that he should just chill out, have fun and stop trying to make things difficult. Others (notably most of the Timorese women) are appalled that the organisation they work for, an organisation whose mission is to uphold the rule of (modern) law and human rights conventions, could, when it comes to its own (male) staff, fail to hold them accountable to these very same principles.

Compounding the situation is a highly stratified traditional Timorese culture. Despite the fact that most of the Timorese staff hail from the privileged class and hold university degrees in law from Indonesia, they cannot escape their deeply entrenched patriarchal culture as exemplified in the relations between the ema boot and ema kiik. The staff simply will not question the authority of the director even when they feel he fails to show any leadership on such a serious issue as child pornography. They do not see it as their place to do so. Timorese are also loath to confront problems head on, instead employing the very strategy which freed them from their Indonesian oppressors: passive resistance. Furthermore, with a high unemployment rate, they cannot afford to lose their jobs and confronting an ineffectual Director, might very well get them fired. Thus, any challenges to corruption and contravention of human rights standards, has to come from the malae, but even here there are serious problems.

The other three malae women Daniel currently works with believe the possession of child pornography is a serious matter. Only one of these women has been working at the NGO for more than a year, the other two having commenced work within the last month (Daniel is currently the second longest serving malae and during his time there said goodbye to five malae and three Timorese, yet the latter outnumber the former by 3 to 1).
However, this very fact demonstrates the incredibly high turnover of malae staff who stay just as long as it takes them to get their next better paid position in some other third world country or secure a scholarship to do their masters in law at some top Western university. As we have both come to learn from our time in Timor, there are many many malae here who simply come to Timor to glorify their CVs and fatten their bank accounts and couldn’t really give a fuck about the very principles to which they purportedly hold dear nor the long term interests of the organisation, the country or its people. Some even go so far as to say that they “love the lifestyle” Timor affords them. What “lifestyle” might that be I ask when the country is so impoverished? “Lifestyle” and poverty are incompatible with each other. Moreover, they enjoy the power of being a big fish in a little pond. They use and abuse this country while enjoying the benefits of modernity but live in the midst of a society that denies them, in practice, to the Timorese.

A number of Daniel’s male Timorese colleagues have told him that he is nothing like the other malae they have worked with. That none of the previous malae “caused trouble” and as a consequence enjoyed working with them. But how many of these previous malae really showed any real commitment to the organisation, their colleagues or Timor? How many of them have been like Daniel, worked as a volunteer for a year and then after being mandatorily evacuated due to the deteriorating security situation is told that the program he is with is suspended under further notice, return to Timor under their own steam to work on a greatly reduced allowance because they passionately care about the organisation, their colleagues and the work they do? How many malae are willing to put their neck on the line for an issue or cause they believe in? Many internationally paid malae in Timor seek nothing more than there own glorification. The irony is, Daniel’s Timorese colleagues believe that it is these very same malae who care about the organisation!

How can the work of a leading Timorese NGO be reconciled with the behaviour of some of its staff? Why should the community listen to what these very people have to say when they themselves contravene these very principles? When these people teach its citizens about the law and human rights conventions such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child and then return to the office to view child pornography, sexually assault or harass their female colleagues? What is the consequence of impunity within a human rights NGO which publicly condemns it?

The Director can argue that it is not a crime in Timor to possess child pornography. The Indonesian Penal Code (to which Timor still adheres) is ambiguous on possession but clear on manufacturing and distributing child pornography. However, the new Timorese Penal Code which is waiting ratification by the government, states that the possession of child pornography is punishable by one to six years imprisonment. Shouldn’t this legal human rights NGO uphold both the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the local law which will soon come into force?

Complicating matters is the fact that it was malae staff who decided to hand over the reigns of the organisation as a malae to a Timorese managed one. It certainly looks good on one’s CV when you can say that you “successfully transitioned” an NGO to local staff, while you then never get to experience the consequences of this decision but do go on to continue climbing the career ladder of your chosen field. What potential Western employer is going to telephone a local NGO in Timor and ask whether the transition was a success, when the person they will inevitably talk to (the Director) is the very person who should never have been elevated to the position in the first place? And who subsequently went on to sexually harass one of his junior female colleagues and admitted to her that he had on at least one occasion, had sexual relations with a sex worker while attending a conference on human rights in Asia?

Ultimately, one has to draw the line somewhere. Capacity building is a fraught endeavour when the people involved are from two very different cultural and educational backgrounds and all to frequently with conflicting motivations. Both the NGOs we have worked for include many Timorese who are not terribly interested in the issues the organisation espouses, and certainly are not passionate about human rights, but simply need a job to support themselves and their substantial extended families. Given that the NGO field in Timor is one of the biggest (and one of the best paid) industries, it is inevitable that many of the staff do not work for an organisation with the same level of commitment to the principles of that organisation that one might expect in the West where we have more opportunities and a far greater range of industries to chose from for paid employment. In fact in the West, the NGO sector is one of the worst paid industries and tends to attract highly motivated and passionate people who are prepared (and able) to sacrifice a more highly lucrative position elsewhere. In Timor, the situation is frequently the reverse.

Just imagine a modern Westerner trying to capacity build a feudal European from the medieval period about human rights. (Take just one example, Children’s Rights. In Western feudal societies, children were considered mini adults and sexual abuse was rife; there was simply no understanding about its consequences. With the benefits of education and research, we now know that it is incredibly damaging to the child and the future adult they will become.) Now throw in conflicting motivations and a multi language environment and you get a pretty good sense of how difficult and perhaps even futile it is. As one of our malae friends says, the Timorese have a very good theoretical understanding of human rights but the gap between theory and practice is enormous. I would also add that the same applies (albeit it manifests itself in different ways) to many of the malae who come here. One could even argue that given all the privileges and education bestowed on malae, it is they who should be held most accountable.
For those interested in how to live a practically ethical life, I take this opportunity to draw to your attention the work of the philosopher Peter Singer. I highly commend his book Practical Ethics.

Category: Timor-Leste (East Timor)

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Human rights in Australia, Portugal and Timor

The taxi driver who took me from Landmark supermarket to my colleague’s home in Aitarak-laran, upon asking him how he was, told me that Timor was no good, but the Republican National Guard (Portugal's rapid response unit, currently deployed in Timor) were worse! This is not the first complaint I have heard from the Timorese about the heavy handed GNR.

Only two weeks ago I was flicking through Amnesty International’s (AI) state of the world’s human rights report for 2006. I decided to focus on those countries which were of interest to me including my own, Timor and Portugal.

As to be expected, AI’s criticism of Australia focused on our appalling treatment of asylum seekers and refugees; the continuing third world conditions that our indigenous people live in and their high homicide and incarceration rates; and counter-terrorism laws which potentially have negative impacts on human rights. I fully support AI’s criticism of my country of birth. It is shameful!

Timor was criticised for its weak justice system including allegations of police abuses such as arbitrary detention and ill-treatment, as well as a lack of judges, prosecutors and defence lawyers; also the ongoing lack of justice for victims of the 1999 independence referendum.

Portugal was criticised for its ill-treatment of suspects by police officers, the lack of law enforcement training in the use of force and firearms and the concerns this raises about the country’s failure to comply with international law and standards. At least three people were killed as a result of lethal force (two by the GNR), again raising long-standing concerns about the possible unnecessary or disproportionate use of force.

It seems a little crazy to me for the Timorese government to ask for men from a force in another country with human rights violations on its record to take over from a similarly criticised force within its own country! I certainly wouldn’t want Timor to ask Australia for immigration advisors (anyone that is from the current government or bureaucracy at DIMIA).

So is it any wonder that the Timorese have more faith in Australia’s security forces than its own or its former colonial masters?

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Ending the cycle of violence

Upon hearing the terrified screams of children, I peered through the curtains but couldn’t see much except for the landlady of my colleague’s house bending down over a screaming child. The sound was awful.
I hesitated to leave the house as I didn’t want to walk into a family dispute but when we could wait no longer, Daniel and I ventured outside. We found the landlady with two young adults whipping two of the children with spindly branches from a tree. The landlady said it was as punishment for the kids engaging in their own baku-malu (fighting).
Meemee and her pups were hovering around, clearly upset at the fracas. The children being whipped were inconsolable, one trying to run away and then being brought back. I had the very same feeling I experienced not long after I first arrived in Timor when I was witness to the beating of a child by its father in my neighbourhood of Raikotu. As then, I had to stop myself from denouncing the adults from such cruel behaviour and was just glad that I had dark sunglasses on to hide the look in my eyes, although the scowl on my lips probably gave me away. I was furious!

How long will it take for the Timorese to understand that violence met with violence only begets more violence? That what goes on within the family likewise goes on within the wider Timorese community, as the last few months have clearly shown.

When will Israel and Hezbolah likewise learn this same lesson? When will the Tamil Tigers and government of Sri Lanka? When will the Americans, the Australians and British and their “War on Terror”; the Sunni and Shiite Muslims in Iraq; and the Taliban and warlords in Afghanistan?
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Monday, August 07, 2006

Flora gets a job

This morning as I walked down our street in Raikotu towards the main street in order to catch a mikrolete to town, I stopped to say hello to Flora’s parents. I had learnt the night before from “our” family that her mother is from Atambua in Indonesian West Timor and her father from Los Palos. They have three children: two daughters and a son who is mute. Flora’s parents said that she had started a job last week at the ANZ bank. I was very happy for her and her family.
Less than a week in the country, with her degree in banking and finance, and she has secured a job with an international bank! It just goes to show what an international qualification in a field that is needed in Timor can do for a young and bright Timorese woman (as opposed to the hundreds of university students in Timor studying international relations!)
Working at an international bank in Timor will presumably provide her with many opportunities and experience. Perhaps one day, she might be snapped up by the government’s Banking and Payments Authority (central bank) for Flora is exactly what Timor needs.

After lunch Daniel and I visited the ANZ bank in order to cash his pay cheque and while waiting for the cash to be counted, Flora walked out with a colleague from the rear offices. She looked so smart in a pair of black trousers with a neatly pressed striped shirt that for a moment I thought I was back in the Melbourne CBD! I kissed her on both cheeks and congratulated her on her success.

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Sunday, August 06, 2006

Virginia’s 21st and Raphael’s 43rd birthday celebration

Virginia turns 21 on the 9th August and her father Raphael 43 on the 10th. We bought a cake from Aru Bakery in Kolmera the day before and presented it to the family. Tonight we had a celebration. A number of the children and young adults from our immediate community gathered together in the yet to be completed front room of “our” family’s slowly being built new home. The littlies sat on a mat on the floor while the young and older adults sat on the ubiquitous plastic chairs. The cake took pride of place at the centre of the table while biscuits, bananas, apples, water and soft drinks (supplied by our family) adorned its edges.

Instead of the attention being on Virginia and Raphael, however, I felt the attention was still on us as the honoured malae guests. The entire conversation was dominated by Raphael and Daniel. It doesn’t help that my Tetum is not as advanced as Daniel’s but it is a fact that in such situations, the men tend to hold court. I find it an incredibly frustrating aspect of Timorese culture. But Raphael is a very good man and I have to remind myself that he cannot so easily overcome the deep patriarchy he was born and raised in.

An interesting comment made by Raphael was that he and Domingas wanted to return to living in the districts once the children had grown up and left home. He said that it was very difficult to grow food in Dili due to the lack of land and that being dependent on money to buy food was an incredible challenge.
This confirms what I have read about the food insecurity problem in Timor which is that Dili residents are at greater risk of going hungry than those who live in the districts and have more land at their disposal. As Domingas is from Ainaro and Raphael from Bobonaro, Daniel asked where they would return to and he replied either place. At least they’re both from the West!

I asked the littlies if they would like their photo taken and they immediately became excited by the prospect. It is very entertaining taking photos of kids on a digital camera as they get to see the results immediately and think it’s hilarious to see themselves reflected back on screen. Then I proceeded to take photos of the birthday “girl” and “boy” and “our” family. This week I will go to the photography store in the centre of town and get copies printed out to give to everyone I took a photo of. Timorese pride photos of themselves as owning a camera is simply out of their reach.

Raphael and Virginia celebrate their 43rd and 21st birthdays respectively

"Our" family: Raphael, Joel, Virginia, Domingas, Joanico; Front row: Abina and Zalia; Absent: Atoby

Zalia, unknown boy, Atito, Bebe, Jenny, Abe and Abina

About an hour after the celebration began, the power went off and as the generator is currently broken, people scrambled around in the dark looking for candles to light. We decided it was a good time to bid goodnight. As we had also spent the night before with “our” family, I wanted to do my own thing tonight. I often feel very guilty about not spending more time with them but the need for privacy and time out, combined with feeling exhausted with living in Timor in general and the fact that family get togethers revolve around conversations between Raphael and Daniel, I shouldn’t beat myself up about it!

Before we could leave, Raphael insisted that we take a bunch of bananas with us which they had cut from a palm in their garden. They had originally done so earlier in the week with the intention of giving them to Daniel when he was sick. Domingas and Raphael had journeyed into town the previous Monday to seek Daniel out at the hospital as the day before I had told “our” family that he was sick with a virus. I didn’t expect them to take thirteen bananas to town in search of Daniel when he had already returned to work anyway! We tried to take only two of the bananas because after all, we are overfed Westerners and they are all, without exception, underweight Timorese. Moreover we can afford to buy our own bananas. But Raphael wouldn’t hear of it so we reluctantly took all thirteen home.

Back at home Daniel ate one of the bananas and said that it was very sweet (they are the equivalent of lady finger bananas in Australia). I replied that they would make a great smoothie with soy milk, something we have not been able to make due to the lack of an appropriate kitchen appliance and the often tart Timorese bananas. However, my colleague has a hand blender at her home in Ai-tarak-laran so I decided we would take them with us and enjoy daily smoothies until all twelve had been consumed.

We watched the last episode of Spooks season 3 that we have with us in Timor (while in Australia we sent the final DVD containing the last two episodes in the series back to Melbourne thinking we wouldn’t be able to watch it in Timor as I had damaged the LCD in the screen of our laptop). As another one of my favourite characters was written out of the series, and as Daniel fell asleep before the end, I was suddenly overcome with sadness at the possibility of leaving “our” family just when we were growing closer. Ever since our evacuation and our regular telephone calls to Raphael inquiring as to their situation, not to mention our arranging for delivery of food, “our” family have become noticeably more attentive towards us. I think finally after a year, they know that we care about them and many of the walls between us have been dismantled. It’s a lesson one learns from living here: it takes a long time for trust between malae and Timorese to take root.

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Saturday, August 05, 2006

Kari aifunan (The scattering of flowers)

Zalia collected the flowers from the trees in our shared garden. Her mother Domingas, fashioned them into beautiful wreaths. Members of “our” family and their kin arrived on our veranda. Two older girls each carried a basket which contained the wreaths and posies of pink flowers. Hand knitted purple doilies kept the flowers in place. Together we walked down to Raikotu beach and clambered over the cement breaks which dot the headland which borders the airport.
As the tide went out, Senyor Raphael, Daniel and I each threw a wreath into the ocean while the children threw the small posies. This laying of flowers on the ocean is in honour of my grandmother who died on the 21 July. Because she died over the oceans in another land, the Timorese conduct such a memorial at the beach rather than a cemetery. Doing so is symbolic of where the person died and the waves shall carry the flowers and thoughts of loved ones to the shores of the land they died in.

One young woman and Senyor Raphael tried to light a bunch of small white candles, much like the ones you see in a Catholic church, but with the strong wind, it took many attempts. Finally lit, we placed them on a stone ledge to burn. Raphael said that it allowed us to remember all our grandparents who had passed on and that conducting such a ceremony was for the benefit of those who remain behind, so that they can again be at peace.

Members of "our" family and their kin with the basket of flowers for the kari aifunan down at Raikotu beach, Dili

The basket of flowers with a photo of my Nanna (centre) on her 90th birthday in February (my Aunt Jan is to the right in the photo).

Once sent forth on the outgoing tide, the aifunan (flowers) initially come back to shore

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Thursday, August 03, 2006

Solving one’s own problems

On a two day tour of Dili, USA Assistant Secretary of State, Christopher Hill met with President Gusmao and PM Ramos-Horta to talk about challenges facing the Timorese government, including issues such as unemployment and the new United Nations mission. He was quoted on Radio Australia as saying that “at the end of the day, the people of East Timor need to solve their own problems and not the United Nations”.
For me this is like saying to a child who has been abused by strangers, neighbours, friends, and family, that it must immediately start functioning as a “normal” child or adult without any assistance (such as intensive counselling, financial compensation or welfare support) or legal justice for the abuse they experienced. Who would expect such a child to function “normally”, without ramifications for many years? How can the international community expect Timor, a nation of one million similarly abused people, to do otherwise?

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Monday, July 31, 2006

Helicopters at night

For the past week after dark, helicopters have been flying over the house in Aitarak-laran. On one occasion one flew over at 1am and needless to say woke me up. Living next to the airport in Raikotu, we are very used to hearing and seeing military helicopters coming and going but not many do so after nightfall.
I assume that the increase in military surveillance is a result of increasing tensions in the community since Major Alfredo Reinado was arrested by the GNR on the 25 July. Supporters of Reinado, are not happy that the GNR arrested him as they see it as a political move by Alkatiri’s supporters. Reinado is ostensibly supported by the Australians, and had been left to his own devices, until the GNR stepped in.

In brief the theory goes something like this: Alkatiri is supported by the Portuguese and by extension, the GNR will arrest anyone not supportive of him; Gusmao, Ramos-Horta and Reinado are supported by the Australians and by extension its military and police personnel won’t arrest these same people, instead focussing on the Alkatiri supporters. Apart from a grossly oversimplified idea of the politics and competing interests here, this is also quite an insult to both military groups' professionalism!

Over the weekend the Australian Federal Police arrested 40 men, 19 of whom were planning an attack from a banana plantation near the airport on an IDP camp. During the course of the weekend, six houses were burnt down. Violence regularly flares up at Komoro market and inevitably, one sees the increasingly hated GNR called out to diffuse (or is that inflame?) the situation.

Meanwhile the Australian, New Zealand and Malaysian governments have begun to withdraw their troops. By the end of the month, Malaysia will have withdrawn all its military personnel leaving behind its police. Australia is downgrading its personnel but plans to keep 2,000 troops in Timor. There is no doubt that the main issue is policing and the yet to be created new UN mission in Timor will hopefully have a large contingent of international police as part of its mandate.

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Sunday, July 30, 2006

Daniel is ill yet again

Daniel is ill again with a dreadful flu like virus. The symptoms began nearly a week ago and he says they are different to the ones he suffered through earlier in the year. We know of quite a number of people in Dili who are similarly unwell.

This morning he awoke with a temperature of 38.9C and we both decided it was time to visit a doctor. As the Australian Embassy doctor has left Timor for Laos and his substitute will not arrive until Wednesday, we went to the free clinic in Bairo Pite which is a short walk from where we are staying in Aitarak-laran.

We arrived just after 8am and found the place deserted apart from a security guard. He told us to go into the clinic and wait. As we sat down and admired the beautiful artwork by students of Arte Moris, we noticed a door to our right with a plaque above it that read “Dr Dan”. Within seconds, the man himself walked out and invited Daniel in.

Dr Dan is (in)famous in Timor. He arrived in the mid to late 1990s during the Indonesian occupation and has remained ever since. An American by birth and now in his 50/60s, he has made Timor his home. His clinic sees hundreds of Timorese every day except Sunday (all at no charge) which was why the clinic was deserted of patients.

After consulting Dr Dan, a nurse took a finger prick of blood to test it for malaria. Dr Dan then talked to us. I got the distinct impression that he was one of those who believe in the (conspiracy) theories that Australia was up to no good and had instigated the unrest and violence that led to Alkatiri’s downfall. This did not endear him to me. Still, medical doctors are in short supply in Timor and there is no doubt that he provides a highly valuable service to the many thousands of impoverished Timorese. His obvious dedication and commitment to the poor is to be commended.

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Flora returns to her homeland

Today on my way to my morning mikrolete, I passed the carpenter’s family home. Daniel and I have built up a neighbourly interest in this family ever since we admired the father and son’s handiwork. As I passed their home, their car pulled up with the carpenter, his wife and two daughters, one who was new to me. I assumed she was the one who had been studying at Victoria University of Technology in my home city of Melbourne, as her parents had told me the week before that she was due to return.

Their daughter’s name is Flora and she has spent four years in Melbourne obtaining her Bachelors degree in Banking and Finance. As she shook my hand I noticed her Aussie accent and confidence, the latter in stark contrast with most Timorese women who are painfully shy. I was however taken aback when she asked me whether I loved Timor. I replied that I wouldn’t say that, but did love all the children. She said that “yes, Timor has a lot doesn’t it; in Melbourne you have to go to a park or playground in order to see them!”

I asked her whether she planned on staying in Timor to look for work and she replied yes. She planned to take her CV to various businesses the following day. I wished her the best of luck and said that I was sure that with her qualification and English language skills, that she was sure to find work.

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Tuesday, July 25, 2006

House and dog sitting in Dili

It almost feels like I’m back in Australia for I am house and dog sitting for a malae colleague while she takes a two month break in Bali, Germany and Switzerland. We now spend Monday to Saturday morning in Aitarak-laran, a suburb of Dili 2km west of the centre of town, while we return to our home in Raikotu for the weekends. I have joked that we now have two abodes: a city pad and a beach house – how aspirational and terribly upper class for two volunteers!

My colleague’s home is an enormous three bedroom house which is part of an Indonesian-ish family compound. The landlady and her family live opposite and two recently built one bedroom units complete the grounds. At night there are two cars parked under the carport and a very heavy and large gate secures the entrance. The landlady runs a small shop on Komoro Road opposite the heliport which is currently occupied by the Australian military. The family are clearly much better off financially than “our” family in Raikotu.

The downsides to staying here are that a security guard arrives at 8pm every night and sleeps on the veranda until sunrise, something I find unnerving and intrusive to our privacy (the curtains are very flimsy). There is no hot water which makes for a very refreshing mandi in the cool mornings and there is no generator in times of power blackouts. Lastly, her house does not command a view of the ocean and the glorious sunsets to which we are privy to in Raikotu. It does however come complete with eleven clocks! (Is this because the owner is German?)

This house contrasts with our very small one bedroom home which is located deep in the community of Raikotu and which needs no security other than the presence of the family next door. What amazes me is the difference in rent: we pay $400 a month and my colleague pays $300! Does the one hundred dollar difference reflect our hot water, generator and beach views (despite the house being one third the size and a further 5km from town than my colleague’s) or is it just the arbitrary nature of the rental market in Dili?

I really enjoy living so close to town as I can walk just about everywhere I need to go and, thus don’t have to worry about the lack of transport. Moreover, my colleague’s house allows me the escapist fantasy that I could be somewhere else. It is such a secluded home that with the doors, windows and curtains closed and with only the sound of children, dogs, pigs and the occasional rooster to bring me back to reality, I am transported to another place, one that makes me happy.

My main task while living here is to feed Meemee, a lovely but very shy one year old female dog who recently gave birth to seven adorable little puppies. They all belong to the landlady but Meemee is referred to as my colleague’s dog as she took a special interest in her as a wee one, which wasn’t so long ago. I love playing with the puppies and often in the mornings sit outside on the veranda and do so for hours. They make me laugh and bring a smile to my face. My dreams of becoming “Dra. Doolittle” are finally coming to fruition!

I buy Meemee’s food from Leader supermarket, including dry dog food and powdered milk both of which are imported from Australia. Twice a day I give her a cup of dry food with half a cup of powdered milk mixed with a cup of purified water. She’s still terribly thin and her little ones are very demanding of her milk supply but I’m sure the food helps!

As previously written, there is only one Timorese vet in the entire country, but I have heard recently that there may also be an Australian one. In the West, Meemee would hopefully have been spayed and so too her seven littlies, but in Timor, animals like humans, beget many offspring.

Meemee takes a rest

Two of her puppies also take a rest

My favourite of the seven puppies

Meemee feeding her pups

Meemee feeding and grooming her pups

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Saturday, July 22, 2006

A mini wedding boom

The number of Timorese marrying at this unsettled time is on the increase. Upon hearing this, one thinks it a bit odd that people would want to marry when there are other more pressing things to think about such as securing shelter and food for one’s family. However, brides have become very cheap! Brides’ families are prepared to negotiate the price of their daughters down due to the current situation. Families know that money is tight and possessions have been lost. Thus, many people are taking the plunge. In a society where those marrying often take on life-long debts, cheap weddings (and wives) have become the fashion of the day.
This morning the driver at Daniel’s work place, Rui, married his long time partner and mother of his children. They are all living at the IDP camp at the airport after their house was burnt down. We were invited to the wedding but due to miscommunication, we were not able to attend!

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Skip works again as a translator

As I entered the security conscious entrance area of Leader supermarket in Komoro (most of the gates are now closed, allowing just a small area for entering), a young Timorese man looked at me and said, “Samantha, right?”
It didn’t take me long to recognise the young man as Skip, who had talked to me at length on a mikrolete trip months before. “Skip” I said, “diak ka lae” (how are you?). He replied in his very Aussie English accent that he was good and working again as a translator for the Australian military based at the RTTL (Radio and Television Timor-Leste) complex in Caicoli. I was happy to hear he was able to secure work again as his spoken English is excellent. Skip’s good fortune is an example of the increased employment opportunities during a time of crisis, perhaps the only positive thing about it!

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