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East Timor: Karyn Hay

East Timor Diary

Karyn Hay

Day 1
I've been reading John Martinkuss A Dirty Little War: East Timors Descent Into Hell, 1997-2000 so Im mentally prepared for the worst. I cant believe how East Timor was ignored by the international community for so many years.  Its a long journey. The streets are quiet: its Sunday. East Timor is Roman Catholic (from its Portugese heritage) and most people are attending church.  My first impression is that its very run-down but
beautiful. No jungle. I think I was expecting to step straight off the plane into a steamy jungle scene. Take my first anti-malarial pill; the four wheel drive Im travelling in is swimming in mosquitos: all full with blood!

Day 2
My driver's name is Manuel and hes a laugh. Loves the ipod which were playing through the car radio. The roads are treacherous the further we get up into the mountains. Its cold up here and a very different feel to Dili: very primitive. Children line the roads, most of them smiling; a lot of them are under five and too young to have seen the violence the country has witnessed. I begin to sense an undercurrent to the smiling faces: this is a nation in shock.

Day 3
The food in East Timor is surprising, delicious. We eat buffalo, chicken (organic of course, no growth hormones here), and tons of vegetables: snow peas, strips of pumpkin, and plates of mustard-tasting greens.  In Maubisse I spend a night in a beautiful Portugese villa on a hill overlooking the town. There is a flower garden at the villa; flowers arent something you see very often in East Timor. The town below is an entirely different matter: extremely poor, and quite threatening. I think back to the reality of the war, and imagine how utterly terrifying it must have been for these people.

Day 4
Oh yes, the great Mt Ramelau how could I forget this part of my journey?  The last time I climbed a mountain it was Mt Te Aroha and I was a Girl Guide. We stay in a freezing guest house at the base of the mountain. Alex, a former resistance fighter is our host. His philosophy is to forgive the Indonesians for what they did to the East Timorese and his country. Manuel who has been listening to our conversation tells me afterwards:
Karyn, I can  never forgive them. Never. I can see his point. Some of the worst crimes perpetrated in the 20th century have occurred here, on a scale with Nazi Germany.
The mountain awaits. Up in the cold and the dark at 3.30am, no breakfast, and the track up the mountain has been destroyed by a landslide, so we are basically climbing up a goat track in the dark, 3000 metres of it. My torch gives out and Im surprised my heart doesnt. I surprise myself by making it, and the sunrise from the top is nothing short of breath-taking, or was that the wind?

Days 5-6
Ive read a lot about the Suai Massacre in Martinkuss account of the war, but the reality is very strange. Strange in that everything is relatively normal. (Surely this couldnt have happened here?) Alberto Moniz survived the massacre (he was 18, 23 now) and shows us the alter under which he hid, whilst friends and family were slaughtered all around him. It was 1999 and two days after the national referendum in which 80% of the
population voted for independence from Indonesia. Hundreds of people were sheltering in the church grounds when members of the local militia, the Indonesian military and the police attacked. I ask him how the local militia (many of them East Timorese) could do this to their own. Money, he replies, and a drug the locals called mad dog. The Indonesian military would slip it into their drinks and within minutes they would be acting crazy. Alberto now teaches English at the school here. The children run around happily, peering from the top floor of the unfinished cathedral, the same spot that women and children were thrown off, alive.

Day 7
A reprieve. On an island no less. The boat trip over is pretty hairy to say the least. The hand-operated bilge pump is seeing a lot of action. I chose to ignore imminent drowning at sea. Atauro Island has a holiday resort which is eco-friendly an attempt to get tourism off to the right start.

Day 8
When we arrive back in Dili the streets are deserted. Theres been a protest by the Falintil (former members of the guerrilla movement) demanding reform of the police force. Tear gas was fired. Its nothing compared to whats happened here in the past, when the militia and military would walk up and down the same streets killing people randomly.

Days10 -11
My first overnight stay in a nunnery. Goodness. Certainly it wasnt what I was expecting. (Im not sure what I was expecting to tell you the truth.) Compared to the rest of East Timor everything is very clean and organised and I imagine its quite a blessing to live and study here, if only for the fact that your day is scheduled, theres food on the table and a bed to sleep in (albeit dreadfully uncomfortable). Theres no power in most of East Timor and the generator gets turned off pronto at 9pm.Goodnight and God Bless.

Days 12
Los Palos. The Village of Widows is depressing beyond belief. Most of the men have been killed and theres no money. There are some community development projects underway including the soap-making factory we visit.  This is a tin shack with no windows and they have one cardboard box of soap.

Day 13
We visit Jaco Island: it is stunningly beautiful, glorious. The contrast couldnt be greater.

Back to Dili and the relative comfort of the Tourismo Hotel (a hotel that features highly in all war correspondents accounts of East Timor; the Indonesians used to terrorize journalists staying here, and theres a story floating around every room). My Itinerary states that its a time to reflect on all the incredible experiences youve had in peaceful and independent Timor-Leste, East Timor. Indeed. This journey has been has been a life-enhancing experience for me. I am going to send books to Alberto for the school, and on a lighter note a copy of the Pogues for Manuel. It made him laugh.