Subject: The Age: Timor enclave remains isolated

The Age September 23, 2000

Timor enclave remains isolated


It is the dry season and the people of Malelat hamlet, a remote collection of thatch-roof huts in a parched mountain region of this tiny East Timor enclave, are discussing a problem of impending urgency.

An unfinished concrete bridge spanning a deep watercourse dividing the community needs to be repaired before monsoon rains arrive, otherwise the tiny village will be cut off from the nearest town of Passabe, about four hours' walking distance away.

Passabe, with a population of 3347 in the southern extremity of Oecussi enclave, faces a similar problem. When the rainy season comes the rivers will flood, isolating the small town from the district centre of Oecussi.

Plans to end almost 500 years of isolation with an overland route through West Timor linking Oecussi with the rest of East Timor were raised after an agreement was signed in February by the head of the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor, Sergio Vieira de Mello, and Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid.

But promised negotiations stalled, the issue was quietly shelved by the UN and the 42,000 residents of the enclave remain virtually as isolated today as their ancestors were in 1503 when the Portuguese first arrived on the small pocket of land on the northern coast of West Timor.

Recent militia violence and continuing turmoil in the refugee camps in West Timor appear to have finally sealed any hope of a road corridor to Dili in the near future.

As a result, local tempers are now on the boil. This week witnessed the first protests against the UN administration. On Monday and Tuesday about 150 protesters gathered outside the UN offices in Oecussi demanding action. They gave Mr de Mello 20 days to provide a plan for a regular passenger ferry linking East Timor with the enclave.

"Our situation is not like the other districts of East Timor. We are isolated and it is very difficult to find transport to Dili," said protest organiser Ana Paula, who heads a local non-government organisation.

Oecussi's isolation is best demonstrated by the only practical means of travel out - by sea.

While UN staff and aid workers are entitled to daily flights to Dili, local people have to travel in the damp cargo hold of privately run barges ferrying relief supplies to Oecussi.

The barges, under charter to UN aid agencies and non-government organisations, are Oecussi's lifeline and an informal passenger service is provided free by the ships' Australian owners.

Barges like the weekly service provided by East Timor Shipping and Supply, which operates a 500-tonne vessel, have carried as many as 200 passengers to Dili.

However, even this small concession is likely to end after orders by UN bureaucrats that UN charter operators stop taking passengers because the barges are unlicensed as ferries, do not have proper safety equipment and lack toilet facilities for large numbers.

"UNTAET must be more supportive for transport. They have the money to buy hundreds of Land Rovers and pay for their staff to go on holidays to Bali, so why can't they buy a ferry for the people of Oecussi?" Ms Paula said.

In a rare display of discord against the East Timorese leadership, she accused independence leaders Jose "Xanana" Gusmao and Jose Ramos Horta of ignoring the problems of the enclave.

Local journalist Amado Hei, 27, was equally unimpressed, and said he believed the enclave's problems ranked on the "lowest list of priorities" for UN administrators and the Timorese leadership.

Continuing isolation means economic development will be hindered, education opportunities limited, and the people will remain ignorant of the latest plans for independence and elections. There was virtually no access to UN radio or television broadcasts in Oecussi, Mr Hei said.

Residents of the main town say their plight is nothing compared to villagers living in the remote mountain communities where roads are more like four-wheel-drive tracks.

Angered at what they perceive as UN procrastination and a reluctance of many larger aid agencies to go near the border because of recent troubles, a handful of Oecussi's young people are banding together to form self-help groups. "I think a lot of NGOs (non-government organisations) and international organisations are too scared to go close to the border. It's 5.30pm so UNTAET staff are now in the restaurants drinking their beer," said local volunteer Eddie de Pina.

Accompanied by student colleagues, Mr De Pina, an East Timorese from Perth, said he had just returned from a delivery to a remote border community.

Border tensions with Indonesia have resulted in a tightening of the few official crossing points and this has caused severe shortages of basic necessities and increasing expense to an already impoverished population. Hardest hit are fuel and groceries, which used to come across the border after bribes were paid to local Indonesian military commanders.

Food scarcities have forced many people living near the border to make a perilous journey into militia-controlled West Timor to scavenge or barter. Some have not returned, raising fears of renewed militia violence among the families of the missing.

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