Cover Story: Eyewitness in East Timorby Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
, January 12, 2002
Eyewitness in East TimorIn early November, Peter Westmore spent 10 days in East Timor, to evaluate the conditions in the country which will become independent in May this year.Since the East Timorese people voted for independence from Indonesia in August 1999, and the subsequent terror which ended only when Australian troops, under UN auspices, landed in Dili, capital of East Timor, I wanted to make an on-the-spot assessment of developments in the country, which many News Weekly readers have assisted through the Salesian Mission Office.
(Brother Michael Lynch, head of the Salesian Mission Office in Australia, visits Salesian schools, medical clinics and orphanages in East Timor, several times each year, to inspect projects supported by the Salesian Mission Office in Australia.)
My purpose was to look at current levels of social and economic development in East Timor, to assess future responses to the needs of the people, and its impact on Australia.
In Dili, and all the towns and villages I visited, the signs of destruction of government buildings, banks and other offices from the militia rampage in 1999 remain clearly evident.
Some rebuilding has taken place, particularly to schools, churches, some government offices, and some other buildings in Dili, Baucau (the second largest town in East Timor), and other towns.
After arrival in Dili, I went to the town of Fuiloro, near the eastern end of East Timor, a distance of about 250 km by car, along the winding, mountainous main road — a trip which took around five hours, where the Salesians run a primary and secondary school, as well as a number of nearby parishes.
Over the next few days, we visited clinics, orphanages and schools in Los Palos, Fuiloro, Laga, Fatumaca, Venilale and Baucau, before returning to Dili.
All the visits were basically unannounced, and I spoke to teachers and students at five Salesian schools in East Timor, and visited three government schools, the High School at Baucau, the Technical High School in Dili and a primary school in Dili.
In relation to medical and health issues, I visited several medical clinics, and spoke to Canossian sisters in Los Palos, Salesian sisters in Venilale, Carmelite Sisters at their clinic in Dili, as well as the Provincial of the Canossian Sisters in Dili, Sisters of St Paul of Chartres at their clinic in Dili, and the Daughters of the Holy Rosary. (This order runs four clinics in the western half of East Timor.)
This was done to gain as comprehensive a view as possible of what is happening in East Timor; as regards the condition of the people, government services, the state of the Catholic Church, the role of the UN Transitional Authority, the role of the international peace-keepers, the political situation in East Timor, and Australia’s future role. Taking these briefly in turn.1. The condition of the people
East Timor is a very poor country, with an average per capita income of about $US300, one of the lowest in Asia. Most people are outside the commercial economy, making a subsistence living on the land, growing bananas, maize or rice, and with protein coming from chickens, goats, pigs and water buffalo which wander freely everywhere.
Most families live in poor, single room houses, which typically accommodate six to eight people.
To an outsider, it seemed that a disproportionate amount of the work done both within families and in the fields was done by women.
Many men seemed to shun physical work, and disconcertingly, were often seen to be talking in small groups at all hours of the day and night. These cultural factors obviously have not helped development of the country.
There is an almost total absence of manufacturing industry in the country, and an acute lack of necessary government services needed to run a society.
Although food is readily available in the markets, it was obvious from the physical appearance of the people that many suffer malnutrition. I was told that there are high rates of preventable diseases, and infant and maternal mortality, due to the inadequacy of medical services.
In most towns, basic services such as banks, pharmacies and shops are either non-existent or rudimentary.
The causes of East Timor’s lack of development are complex; but both the Portuguese and Indonesian Governments share some of the blame for this tragic state of affairs.
It should also be noted that the United Nations, in its two years of operation, has done little or nothing to address the basic problems of a lack of infrastructure which exist in East Timor.
As the cost of the UN operation is around $US560 million ($1.1 billion) a year, this is a disgraceful situation.2. Government services
For the people of East Timor, government services consist of maintaining law and order, provision of electricity, education, health and road-building.
Up to the present time, the maintenance of law and order has depended on some 9,000 troops from many foreign countries, with the largest contingent coming from Australia, but substantial numbers from other countries, including Portugal, South Korea, and the Philippines.
The military forces have completely pacified the border region, and it was safe to travel around the country, both by day and night.
Electricity supplies were damaged during the militia violence; but they have been restored to previous levels. However, power supplies in Dili were subject to periodic disruption, and outside the capital, were available for only four or five hours a day. In many places, generators must be used to supply power. The cost of electricity is over $1 per kwh, a serious disincentive to business.
UN claims that some 400 schools, with 2,800 classrooms are operating, are contradicted by my observation that the senior government high school in Baucau and the technical high school in Dili are dysfunctional, with many students leaving school during the day due to the absence of teachers. In many cases, government education services are non-functional.
This conclusion is confirmed by an Australian report into technical education in East Timor, delivered last June.
It said that very little experienced, specialised, administrative and teaching capacity was left in East Timor after the Indonesian period, and its development will take time. It concluded, "A large system of high quality education is out of the question for some time."
Similarly, UN statements about the quality of health care are, at best, exaggerated, if not wildly inaccurate.
The UN claims that district health plans in all East Timor’s districts are being implemented, with services to be provided through a network of hospitals, 64 community health centres, 88 health posts and 117 mobile clinics.
The UN military hospital in Dili is highly regarded. But from my own observation, the Baucau hospital, run until recently by the international agency, Medecins Sans Frontières (MSF), is not functioning.
An Australian nurse, who spent 10 weeks in East Timor, said, "There are no ventilators anywhere in East Timor except the Dili Hospital and the UN Military Hospital. The ventilators at Dili Hospital only operate when they have sufficient oxygen and are frequently out of service."
In another case, he recorded his experiences in taking a critically-ill child to the Dili Hospital:
"Handover to the staff was frustrating. They did not call the nurse immediately upon our arrival, but were more concerned with the paperwork and patient registration. I managed the patient on the resuscitation trolley with my equipment, since none for a small child was immediately available within the emergency department. A nurse finally arrived, along with a general surgeon. Both were immediately aware of the severity of the patient’s condition, but reluctant to call the anaesthetist. They debated instead whether to let the child die or to attempt a resuscitation."
The anaesthetist was eventually contacted, but the child died. All this indicates that for most Timorese, acute medical services are simply unavailable.
In relation to road construction and maintenance, the Indonesians built an extensive network of sealed two-lane roads between the Dili and main towns and villages. These are in relatively good condition. However, where roads have been washed away in floods, repair work is inadequate. For example, the main road through Los Palos was washed away last July, but is not expected to be repaired until some time this year. In the wet season, the road would be impassible.
All this indicates that the UN’s civilian presence is largely a waste of money.3. The role of the Catholic Church
Despite the difficulties, the Catholic Church is the main provider of health and education services in those parts of East Timor which I visited. The clinics, schools and orphanages run by the religious orders are outstanding — particularly in light of the fact that they receive no support from governments, and most people are too poor to pay for the services they receive.
The standard of education received in church schools is comparable with schools in Australia, despite the absence of telephones, postal services, TV, and lack of access to books. Textbooks mainly date from the Indonesian period.
The Australian report into technical education said that the Catholic technical and vocational education system survived the troubles in 1999 and continues to run high school programs which are respected by the community and government.
The Church’s role in defending the people during the Indonesian period is the reason why the proportion of Catholics in East Timor has risen from around 20-25 per cent when the Portuguese withdrew in 1975, to above 90 per cent 25 years later. However, for many people, Christianity comes on top of animist beliefs.
When I asked one of the Salesian Sisters at Venilale, who run an excellent clinic, why people did not use the General Hospital at Baucau, she said, "You have to understand how things work around here. If people become sick, they first go to a faith healer. If that fails, they go to a witch doctor. Only after that will they come to the clinic. And we try to get people to go to the hospital, if we cannot treat them. The result is that people going to hospital are often critically ill, and often die there. People refuse to go to the hospital, because they believe that people go there to die."
Yet people have a strong and deep attachment to the Church, as is shown by the fact that the public holidays include the usual Christmas Day, Holy Thursday and Good Friday, but also the Annunciation, All Saints’ Day and the Immaculate Conception.
I attended the parish church at Comoro, a suburb of Dili, for 7 am Mass on November 2, All Souls’ Day. There were about 800 people present, 600 inside the church, and 200 under the verandahs outside. On the following Sunday, I attended Mass celebrated by a Salesian priest in a poor village named Rasa, at the east end of East Timor, near Fuiloro. There were about 400 people present, many of whom had walked four or five kilometres to attend Mass. We picked up people along the road, until the ute was full to overflowing.
The church has also played a major role in assisting the reconciliation process between Timorese and Indonesia. I was being driven by a Salesian Brother, in his early 20s, to visit the Canossian Sisters Provincial House in Dili. As we were driving along, I said, "Brother Thomas, why did you decide to become a Salesian?"
He said to me, "It’s a long story. My father was killed by the Indonesians in 1983. He just disappeared, and today, we don’t know where he was buried. My mother had to bring us up herself.
"My uncle took me to Dili to go to school. I hated the Indonesians so much that I decided to get the best education, so I could punish them. And so I went to the Don Bosco High School at Fatumaca.
"When I was there, I realised that hatred solves nothing." He paused, and said, "Jesus was killed, and He had done nothing wrong." He added, "I then decided that the best way I could help my country was to become a Salesian."
Anyone who is beguiled by the happy smiles of the people, and thinks that the people of East Timor have not had to face up to the most terrible things we could imagine, simply does not understand them.
Clearly, the Catholic Church is absolutely vital for both the spiritual and temporal welfare of the people of East Timor.4. The UN Transitional Authority
The UN Transitional Administration in East Timor, with a budget of $US560 million, has provided little or no infrastructure for the people of East Timor. I did not see a single road name during my travels, even in Dili. There are no house numbers.
There are no postal services, and telephone services are limited to parts of Dili. Water supplies in Dili seem to be provided by bore water, rather than from a reticulated water supply, and sewerage is limited.
I spoke to a UN employee, originally from Portugal, who had been in East Timor for six months, working for the World Bank. He said he had not gone far from Dili. The streets of Dili are clogged with UN vehicles. One person told me that there were 15,000 in Dili alone.
As far as I could see, not much of the UN money hits the ground in East Timor. Instead, it ends up in the bank accounts of UN personnel in New York, Lisbon or London. There is an artificially inflated UN economy in Dili, and not much elsewhere.5. The role of the UN peace-keepers
People to whom I spoke were deeply appreciative of the role of the UN peace-keepers, who had restored order after the terror of September 1999, and continue to maintain law and order. They have also been involved in road building, running medical and dental clinics, and other forms of civil action.6. The political situation
East Timor will become independent in May 2002, and its government will be predominantly Fretilin, which won 60 per cent of seats in elections last August to the Constituent Assembly.
Fretilin is left-wing. While people gave differing reasons for the vote, the main opinion was that people believed that Fretilin should form the first government because of its leading role in opposition during the years of Indonesian occupation.
However, there is opposition to it from a variety of other parties, and some resentment at the fact that Fretilin is currently trying to stack the public service with its supporters. There is little money to play around with, so Fretilin will have to behave itself if it wants continued foreign aid, which Timor needs desperately, until revenue from the Timor Gap oil/gas project begins to flow in five or six years.
In the immediate future, the most important outside influence is likely to be Portugal, whose army units are stationed around Dili, and which has provided the bulk of the civil police.
Australia must attempt to ensure that the East Timorese Government acts democratically and remains constitutional. In the event that leverage is required, Australia provides substantial foreign aid on which the East Timorese government depends.7. Australia’s future role
Australia, as East Timor’s closest friendly neighbour, will have a very important role in East Timor in the future, although as mentioned previously, Portugal will have a larger role in the immediate future.
The Timorese people are well aware of Australia’s pivotal role in assisting the birth of this new nation. At the Don Bosco High School in Fuiloro, I was approached by a young man, aged 16 or 17, who apologised for his bad English, and then said to me, "I do not know how to tell you how thankful we are for what Australia has done in our country."
The Australian military role primarily involves peace-keeping operations along the border with Indonesian West Timor. It will remain important, as is the largely unrecognised role of the Church missions.
East Timor faces major difficulties as it emerges from the shadows of its past; but its people, who have suffered much, deserve to have the opportunity to live in peace, prosperity and freedom. Whether this eventuates will depend largely on the Timorese people themselves, but they will need considerable international support from Australians.