Thursday, October 6, 2011

Poignant and life-changing markers in time

In recent travels around Timor-Leste I’ve been awestruck by sights, moods, anecdotes and intuition that reveal the prolonged agony and short-lived euphoria of this inspirational nation.  The litany of abuses perpetrated, under colonization and illegal occupations, against the Timorese people and their land appear to be never-ending and exceedingly difficult for the human condition to comprehend. Historical accounts suggest that the genocide carried out during the period of Indonesian occupation far surpassed, proportionately, that of Cambodia’s infamous Killing Fields enacted by Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge. The ebb and flow, over time, of dark subliminal forces and the consequences of an unresolved, traumatic past on human spirit and development are reflected upon particularly as Timor-Leste struggles to meet unrealistic international expectations as a robust and emerging democratic state. Views reflected here are entirely personal and do not represent those of any other person or organization.  

Relatively little is known or recorded of the mark that Portuguese colonization, over 400 years of it, left on Timor-Leste. The most obvious are the ‘enlightenment’ and wholesale ‘conversion’ of Timorese to Catholicism; remnants of an antiquated and often conflicting ‘continental’ bureaucracy largely misplaced within the Asian context; and an ‘enduring’ commitment to the colonial lingua franca to the extent that it is still recognized as an official language although spoken by few locally and most definitely, fewer, in the broader geographical region. Indications are that life under Portuguese reign was relaxed and not too different from pre-colonial times. Theirs was largely a benign and ‘hands-off’ rule reinforced by the colony’s vast distance from the homeland and the ‘hardship posting’ label that soon became associated with Timor. There are historical accounts of periodic uprisings by tenacious, district-based Chieftains which required ‘pacifying’ but even in those times Timor appeared to be ‘two countries in one’ with a developing urban-rural divide. Portuguese rule and administration rarely went beyond the major towns, villages and military outposts. One can be sure that Timorese were repeatedly press-ganged into various ‘public works’ projects (agricultural, road, fort, irrigation, drainage, bridge building) over the centuries and examples of their handiwork, especially masonry work, can be found throughout the country. This backbreaking work obviously exacted its toil upon successive generations of Timorese but also succeeded in opening up the country and benefitting all.    

Opposing eras of collective colonization and illegal occupation - ancient remnants of a Portuguese fort (left) with a more recent WWII Japanese garrison (right) located at Aipelo, Liquica
The advent of the Second World War ‘shocked’ Portuguese Timor out of its geo-political isolation and ushered in what was to become a period of unprecedented change. Whereas Portugal stepped aside from hostilities declaring its neutrality status they ‘permitted’ (against the wishes of the Portuguese administrators and without consulting with the Timorese), in anticipation of a Japanese invasion, a combined Australian-Dutch commando force of between 400 - 700 troops to land on the island in December 1941. Barely two months later Darwin was heavily bombed and the Japanese invaded Timor.      

The Australians and their Timorese allies waged a year-long guerrilla campaign against a far superior Japanese force (numbering between 12,000 – 16,000 troops) until the commandos were ‘strategically’ evacuated in February 1943. Timorese resistance fighters continued to harass the Japanese invaders offering little or no collaboration, often to the detriment of the civilian population. Many villages were raised to the ground; food seized; and numerous other atrocities perpetrated. Timorese young girls and women experienced severe deprivation and sexual violence when forced into ‘comfort work’ by their Japanese masters.  It is estimated that 40,000–60,000 Timorese died during the 1942–1945 occupation. Whereas the ‘heroics’ of the Australian commando force and the bombing of Darwin were widely reported and have been commemorated (partly) ever since, the suffering endured by the Timorese resistance fighters and civilian population have largely gone untold or acknowledged.  

Contrast this with another threat posed, on a second front, to Australia by an ‘imminent’ Japanese invasion of Papua New Guinea at the same time. Perceived as more dire than real, the Kokoda campaign is recorded in history as Australia’s last stand against amassing hoards of imperial invaders. Ironically, the seeds of this were sown decades earlier by Australia itself and fellow League of Nation members’ abysmal treatment of the Japanese after the First World War at the Paris Peace Conference.

Some will argue that the Kokoda campaign was, perhaps, the equivalent of the Gunfight at O.K. Corral – a relatively insignificant one in relation to other more costly and fiercely contested WW2 campaigns. In recent years it has filled the psyche of many Australians and together with Gallipoli has been immortalized and glamorized by prime ministers, politicians and the media to the extent that those wanting to experience a rite of passage, conceivably for the only time in their lives, have flocked to labour over the Kokoda Track. Images of benevolent fuzzy wuzzies and fuzzy wuzzy angels; deep dark tropical jungle; unrelenting natural elements and an omnipresent enemy only serve to reinforce the frenetic appeal for this ‘canned’ experience. Suffice to say, much less has been said and written from the perspective of the other protagonists – Japanese and Papua New Guineans.

The African Connection - a shared struggle and hopefully a common destiny
Original Tetun-Timorese version

Mai ita hamrik hamutuk;                                     Let us stand together;
Halo ita nia mundu sai nudar we matan;              Transforming our world into a water spring;        
Ne’ebe bele tonka tane ita nia futuru;                  That will sustain our future;
Nudar ema iha planeta ida ne’e.                          As human beings on this planet.


 Inevitably, there is always an African link whether its casual interactions one has with African peacekeepers as part of the UN Integrated Mission to Timor-Leste; other chance connections or associations or the fact that, subconsciously, one is always trying to ‘conjure’ up one because of a proudly, African heritage. In this case the link was tangible and inscribed upon an impressive monument, located at the approaches to the largely symbolic Mt. Ramelau, commemorating the Timorese struggle for independence. Both Mandela and Ramos-Horta were awarded Nobel Peace Prizes for their respective liberation struggles and nation-building efforts and there is clearly a well-defined sense of solidarity between the famous statesmen and their countries.

Best of mates!
How things have changed since then – I can’t but compare the countries respective struggles (although there are no real grounds for comparison) likening South Africa’s to a half-marathon and Timor-Leste’s to an ultra-marathon – the Comrades or even a triathlon.  The internecine nonsense happening currently in South Africa with the young lions pitched in battle against the old foxes seems so pathetic and tarnishes the legacy of ANC stalwarts from a bygone era. The offending young lions should be shipped off to Timor-Leste to experience hardship and struggle firsthand – perhaps as crash-test dummies - on an ‘accelerated development’ course in humility all wrapped into a form of compulsory boot camp. They will soon lose their luxurious lustre and excess adipose tissue when deprived of copious amounts of quality inyama and vitamin B as a result of slightly inferior, mid-strength Asian beer substitutes as opposed to their customary full strength, Guess-the-Colour-of-the-Label. On second thoughts, one suspects that many of the fat cats have ‘graduated’ from beer to Chivas and other more expensive whiskies (rainbow coloured labels under the JW brand) and cognacs.

Timorese-styled Boot Camp for SA's 'young' ANC Turks

Recently, in search of my own favourite tipple I wandered into one of the many beachfront Timorese restaurants and was taken aback when I found, amongst many other national flags adorning the establishment’s walls, the old South African flag beaming down, sheepishly, on dining patrons. Many of them could not care a ‘F’ and that’s the beauty of this country – anything goes and it’s not at all big on political correctness. I was quick to point out, an almost automatic and duty bound response, to the proprietor that many of his ‘international customers’ would find this display somewhat offensive and disrespectful.  

It’s amazing to find in such a distant place an equally innocuous fruit that so aptly describes and symbolises the emerging leadership in SA – clearly green on the outside and wannabe white on the inside.  Of course, there is another far more fitting Asian fruit to best describe the situation on the home front – for those familiar with the durian will immediately appreciate the analogy (prickly on the outside and generally foul-smelling once opened yet deliciously sweet once you can get your nose beyond the overpowering aroma). Back to my favourite tipple and coconuts. I’ve only recently discovered that fresh, green chilled coconut juice / milk is the most amazing and refreshing re-hydration fluid one can find and beats all other substitutes hands down.  

In an article penned by John Pilger (February 1994) entitled ‘The West’s Dirty Wink’ he relates to the ‘developed’ world’s own but not dissimilar ‘brand’ of KKN – a widely used Bahasa-Indonesian three-letter acronym to denote corruption, collusion and nepotism  describing the ‘collective betrayal’ of East Timor by the West during the 1975-1999 period. It’s ironic that the unwilling trio then, consisting of US, Britain and Australia, would later became the Coalition of the Very Willing running interference in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Based on first-hand accounts, Pilger describes countless crosses littering the entire mountainous area of Matabian and subsequently turned into ‘dead earth’ by aerial bombing with incendiary ordnance by the Indonesian air force. Other sources suggest the widespread use of chemical defoliants and napalm, reminiscent of another failed war, poisoning the soil and food chain. Furthermore, Pilger refers to the ‘extinction of the Timorese civilian population – whole families, wiped out in the space of a year, a month, a day.’

Skeletal remains of Timor mountain gum forest on the lower slopes of Mt. Ramelau either clear felled or ring barked during Indonesian occupation

 Britain ‘profited’ considerably from defence contracts with Indonesia running into hundreds of millions of pounds and it was their low flying, ground attack Hawk aircraft that decimated concentrations of civilian and guerrilla populations around the Matabian mountain range and the lowland coastal plain of Natabora. In the initial of part of this campaign the Fretilin guerrillas held their own and inflicted considerable losses on the aggressors through hit and run tactics. This soon changed with a substantial Indonesian troop surge and particularly when they unleashed their superior firepower as part of a conventional warfare strategy which included a sustained campaign of air and sea bombardment. Bronco OV-10 anti-insurgency (US) and Nomad Search Master (Australian) aircraft, piloted by Indonesians, flew many sorties in this and other campaigns. The US A4 Skyhawk, one of their workhorses in Vietnam, was used extensively and to very good effect with the ability to saturate wide areas with accurate cannon fire and high explosive bombs.

This poster found, partly obscured, on the wall of a rural Timorese home may have faded but have the memories, anguish and trauma?

Fretilin resistance soon crumbled with surviving fighters heading deeper into the mountains and civilian populations retreating into lowland concentrated areas under the control of the Indonesian military. The Indonesian counter-insurgency strategy was in a sense a two-pronged one. The divide and conquer aspect entailed cutting Fretilin’s links with the civilian population denying them intelligence, food, shelter and supplies. The other part of the strategy was a scorched earth one where infrastructure, food crops, and livestock were eradicated indiscriminately and natural mountain/forest habitat, providing valuable cover, was modified through systematic clear felling of trees and aerial bombing. Some of the more sinister yet highly effective tactics employed included large-scale forced removals of civilian populations (often away for highly productive agricultural areas to areas less so and often undesirable for human habitation); creation of local-area Timorese militia exploiting political, social, regional and tribal factions; and the ‘blanketing’ of urban and rural areas with a heavy Indonesian troop and/or militia presence severely curtailing freedom of movement and access to the populace.

Clear-felled Timor mountain gum transformed from thriving montane forest to open grassland

When the Indonesian military finally withdrew after the August 1999 referendum they left a trail of destruction in their wake. Besides general wanton destruction to property and infrastructure, they ‘cannibalised’ whatever they could and shipped or trucked it out of the country. Occupation-related fatalities range from 100,000-200,000 with little hope of accurately verifying the figures. Even to this day, thousands of Timorese remain displaced across both the western and eastern parts of the land mass.

Findings of a recent World Bank Country Program Evaluation for Timor-Leste (2000–2010) revealed that there has been progress in many health indicators, particularly at improving the population’s access to basic health services. Health centres were built; mobile clinics increased and operationalized, hospitals rehabilitated and reconstructed and the supply of medical equipment and drugs was improved.

Oscar (left) and Nuno on the summit of Mt. Ramelau where they honor and celebrate the life of his departed son, Israelito Levi and his recently born sister, Andreia. 

In spite of these medical advances, Israelito Levi the first born child of proud parents Oscar and Paula contracted what was suspected to be cerebral malaria at the age of 16 months. In order to confirm this diagnosis Israelito was required to undergo a CT scan. The only machine available in Dili at the time happened to be out of service posing a terrible dilemma for his attending doctor and parents. Whilst considering a mercy flight to either Bali or Darwin for emergency treatment, Israelito slipped into a coma from which he never recovered. Israelito passed away on 23rd March 2011. Barely three weeks later, in a bitter sweet but miraculous occasion Oscar and Paula celebrated the birth of their precious daughter, Andreia.  As friends we commiserate and celebrate with Oscar and Paula over their mixed blessings. This is a very real story which will be played out by countless other Timorese families (re-lived and re-told) for some years to come. We share, together with Oscar and Paula, in the life and memory of Israelito.    

Israelito Levi cherished, loved and remembered forever by Oscar, Paula and Andreia

All too soon the UN and countless other agencies that make up the international donor community will pack up their kit-bags and head off to the next emerging crises – the Sudan, Libya or Egypt confident with a job well done. Boxes ticked, budgets blown, buildings built, systems in place, capacity developed, skills transferred to be farewelled, to be sure, by a more than audible sigh of collective relief from the Timorese. Given Timor’s turbulent history (especially the accumulation of deprivation, suppression, violence, and trauma across successive generations ….. on the spirit, soul and the psyche of this nation) and the recent unprecedented change that has engulfed this country, I cannot but wonder whether there is still some very, important unfinished business at hand. Some aid initiatives, particularly through the non-governmental and community-based organisations, have directly provided psychosocial, coping or change management support to marginalised groups such as War veterans, disabled and displaced people and victims of conflict or domestic violence. Despite this, there is a lingering sense that mainstream Timorese society, as resilient as it may appear, is still haunted and indelibly affected by the more and less recent past. This begs the question: has the development community done enough to support the emotional and psychological needs of the Timorese? 

Love, hope and charity springs eternal for the people of Timor-Leste

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