|Subject: LeMonde: East Timor’s past
threatens its present
Le Monde diplomatique
<http://mondediplo.com/2008/02/> February 2008
‘A society beset by fear and mistrust’
East Timor’s past threatens its present
President Suharto of Indonesia, who died last month, was responsible for the invasion of East Timor in 1975, for its occupation for almost 25 years, for the murder of so many of its people and for the insecure and traumatised state it remains in despite its emergence as a free, new country six years ago
By Angela Robson
Maria’s skin is tanned and her long black hair has been washed and combed. She is feeling beautiful today. She does not register a ragged three-year-old boy standing still close by, although he is her son, focusing instead on two visitors who have just arrived. “How are you?” asks one of them, gently kissing Maria on both cheeks. A few minutes ago, Maria was locked away in darkness. Her house has been partly demolished and her bedroom flooded by rain.
Maria is a manic depressive, a danger to herself and her family, says one of the visitors, who is from the mental health group Pradet, which gives counselling and forensic examinations for victims of sexual assault in East Timor. Maria’s condition had been treated successfully. Then Pradet’s capacity to prescribe medication was suddenly withdrawn.
For many years Maria had been sexually assaulted by her husband, who (during the Indonesian occupation) also sold her as a sex slave. She is cared for by her mother, a tiny woman in her sixties who has tried to manage Maria’s condition by locking her in her bedroom. “She was fine until she got married. It was her husband who started locking her away,” says his mother. “She was 15. Maria was normal, she was doing well at school.”
The counsellor is feeling frustrated about the medication and is not sure when Maria was last assessed. She says there is only one psychiatrist in the country, from Papua New Guinea. When Maria is ill, she runs away and was found walking down the street naked, which makes her more vulnerable to sexual assault. Maria and her mother both receive counselling. Maria’s son is extremely withdrawn. He cowers when Maria glances in his direction. For as long as he can recall, his mother has been hidden away. At night, when he hears her sobbing, he wants to unlock the door and join her on her dirty mattress.
“The recent violence and the current state of insecurity have reopened wounds among the people in East Timor,” says Mira Martins da Silva, Pradet’s director. The collapse in state authority, following former prime minister Mari Alkatiri’s decision to dismiss almost half the army in April 2006, the flight of thousands from their homes and the emergence of rival gangs are all, she believes, “evidence of a society beset by fear and mistrust”.
Hardly a family in East Timor was untouched by the Indonesian invasion in 1975. In the occupation, a third of the nation may have died from bombing, starvation and systematic killing (1). This is besides the forced displacement of most of the population and widespread evidence of rape, torture and other human rights violations. It is the worst massacre, per head of population, in recent history, comparable to Cambodia under Pol Pot and to Rwanda.
In one of the first investigations into mental health in East Timor, carried out by the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) in 2000, 75% of the population had experienced a combat situation and more than 33% had symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); 20% believed that they would never recover from their experiences.
Mira Martins da Silva says that the combination of “occupation and conflict, and the consequences of not addressing PTSD, have resulted in persistent anxiety and mistrust, which we’re now seeing being unleashed on the streets of Dili. We get a lot of female clients who suffer from stress and trauma as a result of violence in the home, or public violence. They don’t talk about it generally with other people and so the anxiety bubbles up in other ways. For boys, it’s OK to show their anger, to get involved in gang violence, to engage in revenge. Over the past 10 years there’s been a realisation that children don’t just bounce back from the effects of trauma automatically and they’re extremely affected by their immediate circumstances. If they don’t have family support it can be quite damaging. If you look back at the events of 1999, and the bloody transition to independence, the children at that time who witnessed those traumatic events are now possibly becoming the perpetrators in the recent crisis and the ongoing unrest.”
The IRCT study also found that the East Timorese look first to family members, the church and the local community for assistance. “Pradet has a motto, ‘the family is the clinic and the community is the hospital’,” says da Silva. “There isn’t a lot in terms of services for people with psychosocial problems and people with mental illness. So we take a community approach and we work closely with families within each district to try and reduce the stigma and to increase the support for the patient.”
Birth of a nation
“Midnight 20 May 2002, the world witnessed the birth of a new nation. This was the moment I had long dreamed of but never thought I would live to witness,” writes Xanana Gusmao, prime minister of East Timor and resistance leader in the mountains from 1978 until his capture in November 1992. “We wanted to be ourselves a people and a nation! To stand on an equal footing with all other peoples of the world. It was the highest tribute to our people, to the sacrifices we made for more than 24 years” (2).
After the country voted overwhelmingly for independence in 1999, Indonesian-backed militias and soldiers repeated the violent events that had followed the invasion 24 years earlier. Massacres happened all over the country. Before peace was restored, three-quarters of the buildings in East Timor had been destroyed.
By the time East Timor gained international recognition as an independent state, with the inauguration of Gusmao as president and Mari Alkatiri as prime minister, it had experienced more than 400 years of Portuguese rule and Indonesian occupation. Parliamentary elections were held in June 2007, with Gusmao appointed as prime minister and sworn in with his new cabinet on 8 August. Fretilin, the former ruling party, was unable to form a parliamentary majority and is now in the opposition. Gusmao’s main rival, Fretilin leader Alkatiri, said he would not cooperate with an “illegal and unconstitutional” government, sparking violent protests from Fretilin supporters.
‘The leaders get what they want’
The missile seems to come from nowhere and cracks the back window of my vehicle. It is getting dark, and the gangs which terrorise Dili every night are flooding out on to the streets. On the bridge behind me, a group of youths are gathering by the edge of the road. One sports two-toned hair and a red bandana; three others strut into the centre of the road.
“Before, we had a common enemy, we threw rocks at Indonesia,” says Jose Francisco de Sousa, child protection adviser for the children’s development agency Plan East Timor, on secondment to the East Timor government. “Now people are turning on their own neighbours.”
A report by Plan East Timor says that it was the leaders who were the key orchestrators of the 2006 violence. Based on interviews with 450 young people from Dili and surrounding districts, it rejects explanations of a deep ethnic divide in the population. “Timor’s leaders gave (or promised) money, distributed weapons in the community, incited hatred with divisive words about East and West and vowed to take care of those who supported them. Security hasn’t been restored, despite the presence of the large peacekeeping force. Young people who’ve had their houses attacked think it could happen again. Young people are used, just like stepping stones in the river, so the leaders can get what they want and never get their feet wet.”
De Sousa says refugee camps are difficult places to live and work in. Two of its staff were recently attacked with machetes in the Metinaro internally-displaced persons camp. Plan East Timor’s regular activities are on hold while they implement emergency programmes. So far they have helped more than 15,000 displaced people, but de Sousa says far more still needs to be done. Long-term unemployment is rife. In Dili, more than 50% of young people are jobless. “Our young people don’t want to inherit a culture of violence and revenge. Despite what has happened, the youth are hopeful.”
TVs but no beds
In Motael camp, all mud and tent poles a stone’s throw from Dili’s waterfront harbour, Gervita listens to music pumping through the air and winces. “This loud noise, it’s not good for my heart.” There are six television sets on her tent floor but no beds. “My husband used to have an electronics business but last year our house was destroyed.” She throws a banana skin to a black-faced monkey tied up near her cooking pots. “We didn’t want to come here, but what can we do?”
Standing with her is Francisco Ribela, manager of the camp. He points to a large white Portuguese-style church on the camp edge. “The former Alkatiri government promised to create a neighbourhood for displaced people, but that pledge has not been fulfilled.” He begins to shout as the church bells chime eleven. “From what I’m seeing and hearing from the people here, most of the rioters in the barios are Fretilin supporters. They have one aim, to bring down the current government. When the crisis erupted last year, we had humanitarian agencies supporting us, but that help has been reduced. Six hundred people live here permanently, but another five hundred come to sleep at night. I can’t see them leaving.”
Both cause and symptom
A recent report, by the independent think tank International Crisis Group, claims that the roots of the 2006 violence relate to problems in the security sector: “The potential for political actors to use the army and police for their own purposes remains high. Shared responsibility between the president and prime minister confuses lines of authority. The security sector’s problems are both a cause and a symptom of wider political conflict. The UN is already on its fifth mission in the country. It cannot keep coming back to reform the institutions it helped establish. Unless there is a non-partisan commitment to the reform process, the security forces are likely to remain volatile.”
The 2007 Failed States Index, compiled by the independent Washington-based Fund for Peace, ranks East Timor in the alert category behind Sudan, Iraq, Somalia and Zimbabwe. Transparency International rates East Timor as highly corrupt. Although vast offshore oil and gas fields in the Timor sea hold much potential, with approximately $100m in revenues each month, the country is still largely dependant on donor country assistance. While the focus now is on rebuilding, there is widespread poverty: 40% still live below the poverty line, and East Timor ranks just above Sudan in the Human Development Index at 140 out of 177 countries. One of the biggest challenges for the new government will be whether the country’s estimated 150,000 internally-displaced people will feel safe to return home.
John Virgoe, Crisis Group’s South East Asia director, says: “The government has a chance while international troops maintain basic security and the UN offers assistance to conduct a genuine reform of the security sector, but it will have to move quickly.”
Recourse to martial arts
On her fridge in a free clinic for internally displaced persons in Dili’s Becora district, two photos compete for Maria Diaz’s attention. On some days she stares only at Christ; on others, Che Guevera. She was recently honoured as Woman of the Year by East Timor’s president, Nobel peace laureate Dr José Ramos-Horta for her outspoken stance on domestic violence. She teaches a weekly martial arts class for girls.
She was 12 when her resistance leader father was tortured to death by the Indonesian militia. When she entered a Catholic convent six years later, her fellow nuns had no idea why Maria spent so long in the bathroom each day. Although determined to devote her life to the church, Maria felt unable to renounce her passion for martial arts. Locking herself away, she would train daily in the convent’s bathroom. “Many young Timorese joined these martial arts groups to defend themselves and to channel energies which could not easily be expressed. I managed to keep the training secret, but I couldn’t stay silent when I knew people were being killed.”
Diaz was arrested and interrogated three times by the occupying forces. Her Mother Superior put pressure on her to leave and Diaz went to Spain, where she joined the underground independence struggle. “But I had to have something to defend myself, to protect myself physically and spiritually. I started to study martial arts very seriously.”
She feels that the assumption that gangs and martial arts groups in East Timor are always involved in crime is misleading. “Young women and men join these groups to find a sense of peace and belonging; to help unify their communities. Seven years on from independence, people are hungry and have no money. They are sad and angry and want revenge. We need to develop a strong energy in ourselves to transform this attitude.”
Rain is falling by the time I reach Laussi village, and the clouds hang low. The dirt track to Laussi from Aileu, a resistance stronghold in Indonesian times, traverses an open plateau of rice paddies and vegetable plots. Alisha Mendoza, a woman in her forties, greets me, smiling when I tell her why I’m late. Only 70km from Dili, the journey has been all twists and turns through mountains and dense eucalyptus forest.
During the Indonesian occupation, Alisha and her husband, a well-known commander of Falantil, the military wing of Fretilin, were both arrested for helping the pro-independence movement. She spent 18 days in a detention centre. Her husband was tortured. They returned to their village to find their home had been destroyed.
Alisha leads me to a classroom built from red adobe with a leaking corrugated iron roof. “Outside Dili, East Timor is moving forward,” she says. “Here, it is safe. It is peaceful. We’re seeing so many good things we never imagined. Hospitals, wells, schools.” What does she think about Xanana Gusmao calling on the people, in a spirit of reconciliation, to forgive the late former Indonesian leader Suharto and the Indonesian military?
She brings out a plate of banana fritters and changes the subject.
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