Greetings from East Timor

East Timor
East Timor

East Timor
East Timor
Displaced people and the ramshackle camps that house them can be seen along many streets of Dili, the small and poor capital of the newest country in Asia. On Sunday we went for an early morning walk along the beach to the downtown and saw and heard a very lively mass in an overflowing church. Outside in the churchyard, were row after row of tents where Internally Displaced People (IDPs) who were driven out of their homes by violence been living since 2006. (As a result of intercommunity conflicts in 2006, over 100,000 people were internally displaced. Hundreds of homes and businesses were torched. 30,000 people have been living in camps in the capital.) The tents that face the church are fairly presentable and well kept, but one row back, they and their residents drop into the disorderly chaos common to camps where each family struggles to survive.

While the new government has developed a national recovery strategy, some of the camps are closing down and a number of IDPs are returning to their original communities, a large number of people are still unable to go home. Many fear for their safety and former neighbors who forced them to flee, do not trust the police or army to protect them or courts to prosecute former arsonists or violent criminals. Others do not have homes to return to. They have been burned down and have not been rebuilt, have other “non-owners” living in them, or original residents lack legal records to show clear title.

Little, beyond humanitarian aid, was done between 2006-2007, but in the last year, the government has introduced a new recovery strategy – Hamutuk Hari’I Futuru – to assist IDPs to return to their communities. To facilitate the process, the Ministry of Social Solidarity recruited a cadre of Community Dialogue Facilitators to help conduct talks between returnees and host communities. But their job is not easy. They mediate truces, conditions for return, de-escalation of inter-gang conflicts and conditions for returnees to repossess their houses and property. To do their job well, they need a range of conflict resolution skills, and that where we at CDR comes in. With the support of the Asia Foundation and the United Nations Development Programme, we conducted a rapid situation assessment and designed and presented a customized and culturally appropriate seminar for Community Dialogue Facilitators on mediation of community and land and property disputes, and developed a comprehensive long term capacity building training plan for them. Our current work complements CDR’s previous initiatives in the country to train Legal Aid lawyers in mediation procedures, and dispute resolution systems design assistance to the National Land and Property Directorate to help develop a new system to resolve land disputes arising from years of Portuguese and Indonesian colonial rule and the violence around Independence. In spite of the difficult situation we can see progress. People are going home, receiving small payments from the government to rebuild their lives and homes, reconciling with their neighbors and property ownership issues are being sorted out. We are pleased to have been asked and been able to make a small contribution toward peacebuilding and reconstruction of this poor and developing nation.

Beyond work, what is it like to be in East Timor? It is a lot like being in an Asian Latin American country, probably due to 400 years of Portuguese influence. The East Timorese are very vivo, upbeat and like to laugh a lot. It’s really fun to be with them.

Dili, is somewhat run down with a significant number of buildings either burned out or in disrepair due to two rounds of internal violence, one at the time of independence and the other in 2006. However, the town is gradually returning to normal. Lots of construction both private and by the government, with many buildings being built by the Chinese. So far, they have built the new Foreign Ministry, and are in the process of constructing offices for the National Land and Property Directorate and the President’s Office. They are having a big footprint here.

There is also much more traffic than when CDR was here before. Additionally, there are UN SUVs everywhere, which race up and down the street with great abandon, without showing much concern for pedestrians, bicyclists, dogs or other cars. We think that they do not set a very good example for the local people, and wish the UN would slow down a bit.

Our hotel is a small and very simple two-story affair, built in a tropical style with rather small rooms but a spectacular second-story deck and mediocre restaurant. However, we are the shore, with palm trees, a beautiful bay and an island that looks like Bali Hi in the distance. Very idyllic. Each evening after work, we come back “home” and sit on the deck and enjoy the sunset. Then, a quick meal and back to work to prepare for the next day of training and consultation.

Our hotel is also the home of a number of United Nations’ soldiers and squad of UN police from New Zealand. Each evening just before dark, the New Zealanders engage in a form of New Zealand or more accurately Maori (the local indigenous people of NZ) martial arts. They jump around like Maori warriors, shake make-believe spears, make faces, stick out their tongues, make loud grunting noises and then stamp and hit the ground with their feet and hands. Very impressive. We bet that in the past this ritual would really scare the heck out of an enemy force! It is great to watch.

Food is mostly imported from Australia, including the fish in the hotel. A shame since we watch fishermen come in with a catch everyday. The hotel is certainly not supporting the local fishing economy, something that the fishermen could really use. (Of course, we too would appreciate being able to eat fresh seafood…no self interest there is there?) We did learn of a vegetable growers’ cooperative that has developed a system for weekly purchases of food baskets by the international community. Not sure how sustainable this is over the long term, but it does provide income for a number of local farmers and organic produce for customers as long as the international community is here.

As there are many military and police here, there are also lots of guns. Coming from a society where the military and police are both lower in numbers and profile, and keep arms more hidden, it is always a shock to see so many of them even though we have been in so many countries where this is the case. Two days ago, a woman soldier brought her automatic rifle to dinner with her, and laid it at her feet in the dining room while she ate. Later she took it with her to the veranda for an after dinner drink!

In spite of the presence of lots of soldiers, police and arms, everyone says the place is pretty peaceful, with few incidents of violence, assault or theft. (However, people said that violence could break out at almost any time.) Most people in the know say that it is safe to walk around town, even in the evenings after dark. We’ve done so, but are never sure when we might get into the wrong neighborhood.