Struggling to rebuild
I got my first look at East Timor through the plane window while holding the hand of the girl sitting next to me. (Terrified of flying, she braved the trip to visit her mother who worked for the united Nations.) The mountain peaks of the half-island formerly part of Indonesia jutted through the clouds.
After 25 years of Indonesian occupation — full of deprivation and torture — East Timor was granted independence in an August 1999 referendum. But the Indonesian military and pro-integration militia did not leave without destroying virtually the entire country.
Walking through the streets of the capital city Dili, you see building after building burnt out or demolished. People would point out where once had been a school, a business, their home. There is no social infrastructure; currently the unemployment rate is 80 percent. In rural villages, people starve since crops cannot be planted because seeds and ox were carried away to Indonesian West Timor. (Many Timorese were pushed there as well and still remain captive refugees.) Timorese living today have faced great hardship all their lives.
Perhaps the first (and only) time Americans heard of East Timor was when a U.N. peacekeeping force was finally sent to stop the destruction. Since then, East Timor has again become obscure to Americans — disturbing especially since in other nations like Australia it is a prominent issue.
But Timor is on the other side of the world, and media cameras turned their attention to Kosovo and now Israel. They have "unmade" the struggle in Timor, but in real life it continues.
I worked for the U.N., teaching English to their local staff. On one occasion, we climbed into a U.N. helicopter and headed for Suai, a rural border district. Militia still threaten the stability of the peace process, as we were reminded upon touching down. Be cautious. Don't leave town. A New Zealand peacekeeper was killed yesterday in a border confrontation. During our stay, conversations were often interrupted by the loud rumble of tanks passing to and from the border.
We came to survey the educational needs of the area. One school operated, thanks to about 30 volunteers. One teacher I met, Rogerio, taught high school biology — from what he remembers; there are no more books. A university student himself, Rogerio longed for the opportunity to return to school and again be challenged. If he did not teach, his only other option was household chores. As one friend from Suai recently wrote to me, while independence from Indonesia was the first resistance, the struggle against educational poverty is the second.
Another university student, Ajiza Magno, was forced to put off her education, making remarkable contributions in the meantime. Magno helped organize the women's national congress and even represented Timor labor issues to the U.N. in Geneva. Now she is traveling across the U.S., making people aware of her country's struggle. Come to the Hunger Banquet tonight (or Pangborn afterwards), listen to her speak and the struggle will no longer go on silently.
Welsh Family Hall
Nov. 14, 2000
All Viewpoint Stories for Wednesday, November 15, 2000