Short Story: Tales from Timor Leste (2003)

Nobody speeds through the dusty streets of Dili, the taxi driver, named Arulio, tells me in his Portuguese accented Indonesian. This is because the Timorese have not been driving for long and few feel comfortable enough behind the wheel of these bulky machines. Plus, he continues, “The new government keeps changing the road directions. Yesterday this was a two-way street; today there is this new one-way system so everyone is confused and getting lost. This is the world’s newest country, you know, so we are still learning how to be free”.

Endie, my Dutch companion, has been my guide once before. Twelve years ago in Yogyakarta, she guided me through the intricacies of the underground activist movement that eventually evolved into the huge movement that caused the dictator, Suharto, to fall (in their words). That student-leader activist she introduced me to in 1992 eventually became my husband. Endie is a very good guide. Now she is introducing me to Timor Leste. I arrived less than 18 hours ago and immediately placed my Timorese education in her capable hands.

East Timor is a country with many scars, she said. Both the Dutch and the Portuguese colonized the island of Timor in the early 16th century. Because of rival colonial conflicts, for some 150 years the two powers fought for domination of the island and the lucrative sandalwood trade. The histories of Timor Leste I read prior to coming here amazed me too in their complete absence of Timorese people. You would think only the conquerors were here on terre nullis by the sound of these highly authoritative texts. In 1916 these conquering forces finally signed a treaty in The Hague that created boundaries and separated families into a distinct Portuguese East and Dutch West Timor. A strange quirk of history also created the enclave of Oecussi as Portuguese territory – surrounded on three sides by Dutch West Timor and bordered on the north by the sea. Oecussi was my reason for being in East Timor. It was where I was to be working for 3 months as a livelihoods researcher and trainer with Oxfam. This was the region worst hit by the post-referendum destruction. As Endie explained, its isolation meant that no one in Dili even knew that Indonesian forces and Timorese militia were burning, ravaging, looting, kidnapping and murdering an unarmed, terrified population with total impunity – until a 19 year old youth named Lafu managed to run the 70 miles through a heavily patrolled Indonesian West Timor to reach the UN peace-keeping forces in Dili with a message hidden inside the sole of his sandals.

Indonesia was not going to give her colony up without a fight, despite a clear referendum in which more than 78% of the Timorese population voted for independence. That fight turned into a nation-wide destructive rage. As hard as it might be to imagine almost every building in an entire region being burned and a population of around 700,000 racing into the mountains for their lives, the hard evidence stares you in the face everywhere you go here. While at least in Dili burned out homes have been rebuilt, boarded windows and charcoal black walls show where flames have fed on any wooden frames. Many roofs have been only partially rebuilt; UNHCR blue tarps and CARITAS corrugated zinc keep some of the rain out. Away from the city, the remains of burned lives stand in front of improvised hovels, grass walls, tarps, or zinc roofs, gifts from international donor organizations with their competing logos.

As Endie took me on my tour of the remnants of destruction in Dili, our taxi driver began to tell us his story: Immediately after the referendum, we already knew there was going to be hell to pay. Fortunately I was at home with my family so when we ran to the mountains we were at least together. We could not take anything with us. My father refused to run. He said he was too old and that he would never leave his home. We left him just as the gangs reached our neighborhood. We found my father’s body in the ruins of the house several weeks later. But we could not bury him as the gangs were still patrolling. By the time it was safe to leave the mountains, there was not much left to bury.

When I finally left Dili to begin my work in Oecussi, it was, again, people’s stories that struck the hardest. While walking toward a natural spring with Rita, she suddenly pointed to the ridge ahead of us and began to tell me how she was almost 9 months pregnant with her first child during the referendum. She and her husband were forced to run for their lives with nothing but the clothes on their back and hide in the forested mountains. Rita went into labor their second night on the run. Her waters broke as she was running; killers were on their trail and in pursuit. She described in detail how she had to run while desperately squeezing her thighs together, praying for the baby to wait just a little bit longer. Unable to hold on, she squatted behind a tree, gunshots not far behind. Her husband removed his filthy shirt to catch and wrap the baby in, while she pushed as hard as she could to get it out and continue running for her life. Rita did not tell me what happened to the afterbirth or even how she cut the cord, nor was I emotionally able to ask any questions or even speak. She did say, however, that during the night, her husband snuck into some burnt out houses looking for more cloth to wrap the baby boy. Rita was terrified he would not return. He did though, a few hours later, with soiled blankets, the best he was able to find. After three days on the run, the baby died. Rita has been unable to become pregnant since then.

What struck me as so unusual was how easily people here tell their stories with no provocation whatsoever. It is as if these horrible experiences they have all been through are sitting there at the front door of their minds, just waiting to burst out of their mouths. Just about every time I walked with farmers in Oecussi to observe their fields and learn what food they grow and how they grow it, people would point to a forested peak in the distance and begin their story of narrow escape. There are absolutely no hero’s stories here. No one exaggerates to make themselves sound brave, or important, or even slightly in control. The terror is clear. Everyone lost someone, their home, their possessions.

During a Sunday luncheon at the home of the Pereira family, Mr. Pereira suddenly pointed to the garden and related how they had gathered all their valuables, their dishes, cutlery, a TV, their clothes, and wrapped them all in plastic. Their life’s possessions were buried in the garden just before they escaped to the mountains after the referendum. By the time they returned, the garden had been dug up and everything gone. Obviously, he said, a neighbor had seen them and either stole everything themselves or reported it to the militia, perhaps to save their own lives. They have no idea who, but refuse to speculate, as it would be ‘un-neighborly’. Now, as we sat under a torn blue tarp adorned with the UNHCR logo, held aloft by Caritas donated poles, the Pereira family praise the lord for the bounty of their gardens, the meager food on their makeshift table, the plastic roof over their heads, and the freedom from colonization they all now enjoy.

These three months in Oecusse showed me how development projects must put people first; how their stories, voices, explanations, ideas, suggestions, and even their definitions must be the start and guiding factors in all project design. How can a project teach resiliency to such incredibly resilient people? My time in Timor Leste, beginning with Endie and continuing throughout my time in Oecussi, showed me first hand how it really is possible to forgive, to move on, to grasp happiness and thankfulness where ever you can – even in the face of murder, loss, terror and destruction. Left with so little protection, these people still remain full of hope, resiliency, and gratitude. This is true dignity, and exactly what we so-called development aid workers need to learn from the people we claim to be helping. If we are doing our jobs well, we will learn far more than we could ever possibly teach.

Dili, 2003 and 2006

With gratitude to Andina von Binsbergen

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