EAST TIMOR: by News WeeklyNews Weekly
Rebuilding East Timor
, September 9, 2000
Marcal Amaral Lopes has been a Salesian brother for 18 years. He is Headmaster of Don Bosco Technical High School at Fatumaca, 150 km from the capital, Dili. He recently visited Australia and provided this overview of the current situation in his homeland.
It is just over a year since 80 per cent of the East Timorese voted in favour of independence in the UN supervised ballot. So much has happened in the past twelve months. In the aftermath of the ballot a great deal of East Timor’s infrastructure [houses, shops, schools, etc] were burned, smashed or looted during the rampage by pro-Jakarta militia and their retreating TNI [Indonesian Army] mentors.
People fled their houses for the hills to escape the killing. While they were away, the militia burnt their homes. About 80 per cent of Dili, the capital, was destroyed in 10 days!
Dili still has empty silent blocks of burnt, unliveable buildings. Some villages were wiped out. Many schools were torched. [One of the finest centres of education, the Polytechnic in Dili, was totally destroyed.]
Throughout East Timor today, malaria is common, as are dengue fever, polio, TB, malnutrition, dirt, mosquitoes, bad food and water. Mosquitoes breed in brackish water, in clumps of bananas (they breed in the water of the stems), and in the disused wells of the villages (which the militia blew up on their way out.)
The UN consists of an administrative secretariat, UNTAET, with the stated objective of laying the foundations for sustainable institutions in an independent East Timor and designing an agenda for sustainable and social development.
UNTAET manages the day-to-day operations of government — sanitation, health care, law and order, sewerage, water, banking, roads, and electricity.
However, overall progress in getting the country “up and running” is very slow and there is discontent among many of the locals regarding their inability to get jobs. About 80 per cent are unemployed. East Timor has always been an economically poor country. We have now to replace what was there, and get on with the job of reconstruction and development.
A rural economy
East Timor is basically a rural, subsistence economy. Much of the farming land is hilly and the soil is not very fertile. Rice is the staple crop. Traditionally, water buffaloes were used to plough the land for the planting of the crop.
However, today the water buffaloes are far less numerous because:
(i) many were shot by the Indonesian military as a means of cutting off the food supply of Fretilin and other Opposition groups; and
(ii) families have killed their own buffaloes for food, especially for celebrations.
Today, to plough the fields, farmers seek the use of a tractor. However, this is no easy matter: most can’t afford to buy a tractor, and even if they could, they are in trouble when it breaks down.
(i) Where I am at Fatumaca we have Fr Locatelli, an Italian priest who has been in East Timor for nearly forty years. Amongst other things, he works with local farmers. We have tractors, about ten of them, used by local farmers. This suits them as we have a workshop for repairs when the tractor breaks down.
(ii) Fr Rui, parish priest of Baucau, encouraged more than 100 unemployed young people [mostly in their twenties] to involve themselves in a farming project: to plant a crop of rice on 17 hectares of land owned by parishioners.
When they started they had no implements or machinery, just their bare hands. With assistance from the Salesian Missions Office in Australia, and also AusAID, they were able to purchase hand-tractors, threshing and milling machines.
They have recently completed reaping their first crop — quite a good one. A portion of the crop will be consumed by themselves and their families, a portion goes to the landowners in rent and the rest sold.
(iii) At Don Bosco Comoro, the Rector has made a couple of small fields, each about the size of a soccer pitch, available to local people to grow vegetables. With help from an Agency he built a concrete water tank. The work in the vegetable garden is done mostly by women and children; who carry water in buckets from the tank to their own plot.
When I left Dili a few weeks ago there was an Australian volunteer from Perth installing a sprinkling system. This will be a great improvement.
The Salesians in East Timor are mostly engaged in education. We try to help young people acquire the skills to be self-reliant and self-motivated, and to contribute to the development of the country.
In the tradition of St John Bosco we simply try to help the students to be good Christians and good citizens.
The Salesians run twelve schools — two technical, one agricultural, four secondary and five primary. In addition they are responsible for another 17 primary and secondary schools in the Baucau Diocese. In sum, there are about 20,000 students in these schools.
The Salesians have six parishes catering for about 200,000 people. The two technical schools, in Dili and Fatumaca, have an important function.
They provide introductory training for carpenters, electricians and motor mechanics — this is especially crucial right now as the militia and Indonesian TNI destroyed both East Timor’s Polytechnic Institute and the other Technical School [in Dili].
I am in charge of a technical school in Fatumaca, which is in a rural setting about 20 km south of Baucau and 150 km from Dili. We have 250 students who all board at the school.
Our fees have always been very modest; for the past year we have not charged anything because with the troubles in the country, parents don’t have the money.
It is no simple matter to:
- feed 250 16-20 year olds three meals a day;
- purchase fuel to run the generators daily;
- get the materials required for our carpentry, electrical, machine tools and electronics workshops;
- maintain and repair equipment in the Workshops; and
- cover other expenses associated with the day to day running of the school.
There is no doubt our schools have a very important role to play in helping provide East Timor with people skilled in the building, metal, electrical and motor trades.
As far as I can tell most of the students who go through our school at Fatumaca seem to be in jobs — some as carpenters and electricians, though there is still not much happening in the local building industry. Some have set up electrical repair shops, and I’ve seen several working at the airport and with the UN, and others [from last year’s class] working as money changers on the streets.
This year the high schools have been getting some help from UNTAET in the payments of teachers: US$50 per month.
However, when all the schools, [including elementary] re-open in October, UNTAET have already indicated that they face a shortfall of funds and it is possible that some teachers may not be paid.
The schools are vital. The young are keen to learn and when the schools are not open they have too much time on their hands to roam around and get into mischief.
So, for the time being, we Salesians have a big responsibility to support our high schools and elementary schools with:
- school materials, especially stationery;
- equipment for the classrooms;
- teacher salaries;
- ordinary school maintenance — buildings and equipment
In addition, our technical and agricultural schools require staff and instructors with specialised training not available in East Timor.
At present there are technical six teachers in Australia on an updating course financed by the Ross Trust and AusAID. I hope that the Ross Trust will include East Timor candidates in this program next year.
We Salesians would like to send four or five technical teachers for further training each year to either Australia or Indonesia — to do that we will need outside support.
How will we do it? We trust in the Lord. I remember that when we were novices the young Father Belo [now Bishop Belo] urged us to work hard, pray hard and to trust in the Lord.
I know I speak for my fellow Salesians and many East Timorese when I say that we are most grateful to Australia and the Australian people for their very generous support, especially in the past year.
Australians generally get on well with East Timorese. You understand us. I think we have a similar sense of humour.
More than anything else you stood with us, especially in recent years. When we wanted help we didn’t have to ask; you responded. This was at the level of government,
- the military led in the first instance by Major General Peter Cosgrove;
- the individual Australian troops who were always most friendly and ever ready to play soccer, basketball or volleyball with young people;
- Australian Embassies in Jakarta and Dili; and
- AusAID, numerous NGOs, the churches, and for us, our fellow Salesians in Australia.
The Australian Salesian Missions Office has helped us:
- finance developments projects including a dressmaking factory at Wailille whose workers will make clothes for themselves and their children, as well as items for sale; and an electrical good repair shops;
- purchase urgently required materials for the schools;
- purchase equipment such as tractor spare parts;
- by arranging for a number of specialist volunteers to work with us;
- by providing goods “in kind”, including used clothing and sports gear; plastic plates; school stationery: books, pens, pencils, etc.; sporting equipment; hand tools such as hammers, saws, screw drivers, etc; musical instruments; sewing machines; a rotary hoe and a tractor.
While this help has been invaluable, far more important was the knowledge that we were not alone: that our fellow Salesians and their friends in Australia were supporting us.
I know you appreciate that the future will not be easy for East Timor. In the words of St Francis of Sales, Patron of the Salesians, we “ask for nothing; refuse nothing.”
I conclude by asking that you continue to be understanding of the needs of your neighbours from the world’s newest country.
Though there is still so much to do in reconstruction, our people are walking tall, determined to build a future for their children different from the past.