A single bulb glows over a wooden table. The kitchen is smoky.

A few plastic chairs, bottles of cooking oil and water and spices, and a gas burner with wok, sits amid the bare concrete walls and floor. Old roofing iron patches the empty window frames. Smoke from a fire wafts inside to my eyes, for the other half of the kitchen is located on a floor of dirt within a bamboo and iron-sheet shelter, outside. In this outer area a rack with plates and pots and cutlery; while running water streams along a shallow muddy ditch, overflowing from leaking pipes. There the teenage daughter Yanti, is washing dishes.

Kids from neighbouring houses wander in and out and say – “Bo-tarde” – Good Afternoon. A small white and brown puppy, on hind legs, tries to fuck a hairy, grey piglet, that also wanders in the kitchen but often gets chased out ( – it seems to think it’s a full and accepted member of the family; it’s fat, mud-caked mother, is tied up outside and periodically squeals in the most horrendous manner).

Young Johnny, aged 3, sits on the concrete floor awaiting lunch; his younger sister, Jana, cries hungrily. Mother-pig has started screaming again, as has the puppy – a high pitched yelp! But calm returns as soon as the chaos has erupted.

My lunch has arrived. Today, I have it very good: chunks of fried buffalo, with steamed white rice and a spicy, tomato and onion mix, fried potatoes, and a small salad of onion, tomato, lettuce. Washed down with Coke.

Sometimes there’s very little food choice at the market and so my hosts, a young Timorese family – Adriano & Carmelita – parents my age, haven’t much to offer apart from fried rice or noodles or soup or a vege curry, sometimes supplemented with canned tuna. Sometimes I eat freshly-slaughtered, fried chicken (the other day, I watched as 7-and-13-year-old daughters cut the chook’s throat then plucked and cooked it, as their Mum wasn’t feeling well). Mostly, I eat rice-with-something for lunch and dinner. For breakfast: strong black local coffee and a bread roll, with my luxury-no-refridgeration-needed-processed Aussie cheese bought in Dili, which is a treat.

Things are basic. Life is simple. Entertainment and socialising – as we know it – is virtually non-existant, while female intimacy is zero. (The Catholic East Timorese women are often very beautiful but always untouchable – unless you want to face marriage or a riot of angry machette-welding threats. UN international staff are officially banned by UN policy from such liaisons to avoid upsetting the locals and offenders can face dismissal; although, in practice there has been a few indiscretions by international staff, myself included …).

For company every evening I listen to my short-wave radio to the BBC, or listen to music on my portable player, or read a book, or muck around with the kids, or drink beer with my host family and their friends. Mosquitoes and moths and slug-like leeches and spiders and mice and cockroaches are the only visitors to my room (once: another uninvited guest, the puppy, took a shit on the floor as I was reading by candle light). I sleep on my inflatable rubber mattress under a blanket under a mossie dome on the floor of a dark, concrete-box room, with iron sheet ceiling/roof, a single wooden-shutter – no glass – window looking out to the veranda. At night candles are essential during frequent power cuts, and also function as small heaters to fight off the damp when the rains continue too long. Leaks in the iron-roof hit the floor, collecting in puddles outside my bedroom door. I wash and shit in an outside shed – the mandi: washing room – scooping water over my body and also to flush the squat toilet (- where I had to kill a small brown scorpion the other day).

The kids are laughing as I let-out a series of Coke-induced burps. We make animal noises and roar with silliness. Natalia, freshly shampooed long dark hair, aged 7, blows bubble gum. Johnny walks around with a joker face, then pouts his lips and sucks in his cheeks and wiggles his pluckered lips: we call him Johnny Ikan. (Ikan means fish.) Jana laughs a funny baby giggle. Last night, we jumped around on the veranda beneath the solitary dangling bulb as 100s of La-loo – fat, flying insects – swarmed around the light. We were knocking them down, me waving my T-shirt about, getting dozens of La-loo into a tub of water to drown as we collected more to fry up. They tasted squashy and fatty. Watching them play, or playing with the kids is constant amusement. Mostly, they are cheerful. The homemade toys they make and the way they entertain themselves – with nothing, is really amazing.

So where am I?

I’m in the south-central mountains of East Timor in a town called Ainaro. From Dili it’s a 100 km drive, or 3 – 4 hours, travelling through awesome mountains on sometimes broken, always winding roads, overlooking huge ravines and passing traditional villages.

Vista behind the town of Ainaro in East Timor

Vista behind the town of Ainaro in East Timor

Ainaro’s weather is mostly warm / cool – but not cold, hot with a light breeze in the mid-day, wet, misty, a touch humid and usually raining heavily most afternoons (- the wet season has begun). I enjoy walking the kilometre back and forth from my temporary home to the UNTAET office to admire the blue sky morning and the imposing, surrounding mountains – clad with grass and forest and rock. Across this silence floats the hum of cicadas and birds and distant roosters. I pass a boy leading a horse. Church bells, sometimes, are chiming. Always the cheerful calls of “Hello Mister!” or “How are you?” or “Where are you going?” from kids greeting me every morning, and again, every afternoon.

The scenery here is a hybrid of past places visited. The shape and clusters of the large spacious trees recall the rainforests of southern Cameroon. While the highlands of central Vietnam are evoked by the afternoon mists clouding around the old Catholic church, with its tall towers and pitched roof. Behind the church rises a picture of the Scottish highlands, circling mountains of cliffs and craggy, odd-shaped peaks and humps. Upon the gentle slopes beyond town, villages climb amid rice paddies and ravines with rushing rivers, reminding me of the Himalayan foothills, say in India or Nepal.

The town of Ainaro still shows signs of last year’s destruction and violence – when 95% of the town was destroyed by militias. However, there’s been much rebuilding since – new iron-zinc-sheet roofs on simple concrete-block homes or plastic sheet on huts, wooden boards covering empty window frames. Tin-shack kiosks that sell limited goods. But still there remain rows of burnt-out concrete shells or twisted iron upon bare foundations, fresh weeds sprouting amid the ruins. Regular electricity supply continues to be a problem, some nights there’s nothing; other evenings just a few hours of power, between 6.30 – 10 pm. (Generators power the UNTAET – United Nations Transitional Authority in East Timor – office, the UN CivPol – civilian police – station, and the Portuguese UN PKF: Peace-keeping Force – military base here in Ainaro.) In last year’s violence my students lost most of their belongings – TVs, motorbikes, houses, everything; and some, lost family members and friends. They are now rebuilding shattered lives.

I teach two English language classes from Monday to Friday for the Timorese UN staff. The one in the morning is Intermediate level and consists of translators and interpreters for CivPol and UNMOs (United Nations Military Observers) and also UNTAET staff. There are 13 in this class. In the afternoon, the Beginner class is much bigger and we can’t fit them all into the small meeting room at the UNTAET building, so we use a broken building across the road. It has no windows, no doors, but it has a concrete roof remaining, which doesn’t leak, as it’s always raining about class time: 4 – 5.30 pm. Unfortunately, it’s also a local toilet for kids, and so the stench of fresh urine or shit can sometimes prevail. The class has no chairs nor tables but at class-time students carry over office chairs and a portable whiteboard, to return them to the office each day, often in the rain. Yet, the students are keen and are fun to teach. The afternoon class consists of 33 students, aged 22 – 45. Most are UNTAET: security, drivers, cleaners, electricians, water supply engineers, mechanics, admin & office workers of various fields – health, education, land & property, agriculture, etc. For UNTAET is presently rebuilding the country and attempting to train 1000s of Timorese to be ready for self-government mid-next year, when UNTAET leaves and the first-ever free elections will take place in East Timor.

However, there is concern that this UN mission, the first of it’s kind where the UN takes over as a temporary government to build a new civil service, all within 2 years, will be only partially successful. Control of the country will soon be back in Timorese hands – for the first time in 500 years. There are questions being asked already about what may happen with the elections – fighting between the main political parties with the old, pre-1975 Timorese rivalities returning … we’ll see. Hope not, for the sake of a new East Timor.

East Timor – what’s it about?

It’s only one half – the eastern half – of a small mountainous island wedged between Asia & the Pacific. The faces of the Timorese reflect Polynesia – mostly Pacific Island looking, but often blended with Indonesian – Javanese or Chinese or Portuguese blood, for Portugal controlled East Timor over 400 years, that was, before the Indonesian Army invaded East Timor in 1975.

Suppression of Timorese culture. Repression of basic human rights. A forced Indonesianisation of East Timor began under Indonesian occupation. Immigrants from overcrowded Java were transplanted here, given the best land and jobs at the expense of the locals. There were decades of brutal Indonesian military campaigns during the 1970s & 80s, which devastated populations but failed to wipe-out the East Timorese resistance. But by the early ‘90s, isolated from the support of the outside world and with the Indonesians finally capturing Xanana Gusmao, the leader of Falintil – the guerilla army, Timorese resistance steadily decreased. (- Xanana will probably became East Timor’s first elected President next year).

During the Indonesian occupation of 1975 – 1999, about 200,000 East Timorese – a ¼ of the population – were killed; often blatant massacres and wipe-spread torture and policies which led to the mass starvation of civilians during the early years of occupation. On the other hand, the Indonesians did spend a ton of money in East Timor, making it a model province (colony). They built good roads. In fact they built all the infrastructure: bridges, electricity and water supply, modern buildings and communications; provided schools, TV, wealth and jobs. Indonesia gave Timor all the things that the Portuguese had not (- when the Portuguese fled in 1975 there was only 1 km of paved road in the entire country, that being outside the Governor’s Palace in Dili). It’s fair to say that many Timorese, particularly the younger generations, were very influenced by the Indonesian presence: the ‘progress’ towards modernity, the economic growth, some had been to universities in Java and most liked Indonesian pop music and TV, etc. The Timorese are not at all anti-Indonesian, only against the Indonesian military and the most brutal members of the local militias. They are a very forgiving people.

Following the fall in 1998 of the military dictator, Sukharto, the new Indonesian government offered the Timorese a chance for independence. A referendum – the popular consultation, as it was called – was organised and supervised by UNAMET – United Nations Assistance Mission in East Timor, for September 1999. In the months leading up to the referendum there was much violence and intimidation against the population by militias – armed gangs of pro-Indonesian Timorese and Indonesian civilains who were organised by the Indonesian military to scare people into voting for Autonomy. This meant East Timor would remain part of Indonesia.

UN armoured vehicle in East Timor

UN armoured vehicle in East Timor

Despite the threats and violence, East Timorese turned out to vote in their masses (some in isolated villages walking for days to get to a UNAMET polling station). The vote for independence was overwhelming. Following the result a wave of militia violence swept East Timor. Without protection, UNAMET staff were evacuated to Darwin, while the militia – and some elements of the Indonesian army – burnt down entire towns and looted personal belongings – from TVs to the iron-roofing from houses – which, were taken back to Indonesia. The militias, sympathetic to the Indonesian cause, some paid, some under the influence of drugs and drink, committed many atrocities including: raping and torturing women, hacking to death nuns and children with machettes. There were two large massacres of entire congregations within churches in Suai and Liquica.

Numbers are uncertain, but the bodies found number around 1000+ and many remain missing. And two hundred thousand people were forced to flee across the border into West Timor (INDONESIA); where 100,000 still remain as refugees today (mostly ex-Indonesian migrants and militia members). While their homes were destroyed, village and towns people hid in the mountains – for a month, without much food; before a military force – INTERFET: International Forces for East Timor, led by Australia, approved by the UN and Indonesia, entered a completely devastated East Timor to restore calm. In most towns and cities across the country the damage was 95% complete. A war zone. This was the Indonesian military’s revenge on the Timorese vote for separation and independence: to destroy all that they had given East Timor.

Since first arriving in East Timor during January of this year, as a traveller / escapee from Indonesia, things have changed a lot … nothing changed the first few months. But reconstruction and commercial activity, particularly in Dili, has been very rapid over the past 6 months, while slower in the regions, such as Ainaro.

As you’ve probably concluded after reading this letter, my East Timor experience has been varied: interesting as a UN employee, fulfilling as a traveller, rewarding as a teacher. I’ve lived among the people, attended their birthdays, funerals, weddings, religious and official ceremonies. I’ve met many friendly folks from dozens of countries worldwide – UN international civilian staff, police and military. I’ve travelled across mountains and along rugged, lonely coasts by helicopter, plane, and 4WD, made some serious money and suffered malaria and had the odd dose of the shits; was sometimes lonely or bored but more often I was intoxicated by this country and it’s proud, friendly people.

Had an awesome party this past Sunday, in Ainaro. My students organised it and I financed it and sent out invites. The female students and family spent half the day cooking at our place, over fires, beef sate sticks, rice, noodles, etc – great food. Meantime the male students got chairs from all over town and firewood and helped skewer the sate. There were my 40+ students and friends and my Timorese family and neighbours and kids and some UN international staff and police and the commander and officers of the UN PKF – Portuguese paratroopers; cool guys – who bought a big sound system. Wild dancing to techno, and toasting, a speech or two, guitar sing-songs. Was given 5 thais – traditional woven shawls by students and family. About 80 people attended and extras later on, partied from 4pm to 1am.

We drank 20 dozen cans of beer – 240 cans (bought from the UN military), 70 coca colas, 30 litres of mineral water, 6 bottles of whisky and 1 bottle of Tequila – which, we did as shooters around the dance floor around midnight, during the most manic discos moments.

Sad to have left today, Timorese family and friends came out to see me off at the helicopter.

Love, flowers & Timorese shine – MRP

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