site menu spacer A Doctor's View of East Timor

Source : Publico
Date : 4 May 1999
Dateline: Dili
Byline : L. Alvarez
Original Language: Portuguese
Headline: "There are people starving to death" in East Timor

According to US physician Daniel Murphy, who has been working in the territory for the past 6 months, in addition to an epidemic of tuberculosis, people are dying from starvation in East Timor. He claims that never before has he had to treat so many people with bullet wounds, and insists there is a concentration camp in Liquica. In his view, the root of all this evil and main perpetrators of the violence is the Indonesian military.

Born in Iowa 51 years ago into a farming family, Daniel Murphy became a medical doctor when he was "very young". He began travelling the world as a volunteer doctor and enjoyed his work. Dr. "Dan", or "Mufi" as his patients call him, has been in East Timor for six months now, treating the many who seek medical assistance at the Motael "polyclinica" (general medical clinic). Interviewed by Publico, Daniel Murphy (in reasonable Portuguese) painted a black picture of the situation in the territory, and held Indonesia’s armed forces (ABRI) responsible for all the problems.


Interview :

Publico (P): What are the main clinical problems you have to deal with in East Timor?

Daniel Murphy (DM): For the past three or four weeks, they have been mainly injuries caused by bullets, machetes, arrows and sticks. However, for quite a long time now, there has been a very high rate of TB (tuberculosis). In fact, I would go as far as saying that there is a flourishing TB epidemic here. There is also a lot of malaria, like the endemic malaria that can kill, and a lot of diarrhoea and malnutrition problems.

P: There is an epidemic of tuberculosis in Timor?

DM: Yes, I am sure there is. About two weeks ago, the first five patients I saw in my surgery had advanced active TB. I see patients with pulmonary TB, and others with TB in their bones, meninges, kidneys... When a patient walks in to see me, TB always has to be uppermost in my mind. Many people are dying from TB. I have worked all over the world, but never found such a high incidence of TB as I am finding here. Malnutrition is also rife and causing extremely serious problems. My records show that out of every 100 children I see, 44 of them are suffering from advanced malnutrition.

P: Are people dying of hunger?

DM: Yes, and some of them are children. Although there is limited awareness of what constitutes a balanced diet, there are people who simply do not have anything to eat. I have no doubt that there are people who are dying of hunger.

P: How many people with bullet wounds and injuries caused by machetes have you treated in the past few weeks?

DM: Probably over 50 people. When I first arrived here, such cases were few and far between. Now, however, every few days someone is brought in with machete or bullet wounds.

P: Do you have any problems with medical supplies?

DM: Lately, we have been receiving drugs from abroad. The problem is, however, that in order to deal with the tuberculosis epidemic there has to be a plan for the whole community, and there just aren’t enough drugs for that here. In addition to there not being enough drugs, it would be impossible to implement such a health plan in a country where there is no security, and where it is simply not safe enough for people to get from one place to another.

P: How many doctors are there in East Timor?

DM: I think that there are about 15 Timorese doctors, and twenty or so Indonesians. However, more and more Indonesian doctors leaving for Jakarta.

P: Are doctors mainly based in Dili?

DM: Yes, most are in Dili, and the rest are scattered throughout the territory. Sometimes the craziest and most unfortunate things happen. In Oekussi, there were two Javanese doctors and one Timorese. Two weeks ago, the two Javanese ran off with all the hospital’s money. The Timorese doctor stayed on alone. Then, he was attacked by the paramilitaries, and he had to go into hiding. This is sheer madness….

P: Is there still an Indonesian ban on foreign physicians working in East Timor?

DM: Yes. Many medical teams - from Australia, the US, Europe … - are ready and waiting to come here and work – But Indonesia won’t allow them in.

P: There are some French doctors here though…

DM: Yes, but they’re only here on holiday. They are tourists (smiles).

P: Do you ever travel outside Dili?

DM: I used to, but I am no longer able to do so because the paramilitaries have set up roadblocks. The Indonesian Armed Forces (ABRI) are preparing to "clean up" the entire territory and they do not want any "witnesses" to their operations.

P: Where do you get your information?

DM: The patients, everyone. The people themselves cannot speak, but I certainly can. I do not mind. For example, right now in Liquica, where many people were slaughtered recently, there is a concentration camp. Three days ago, ABRI were rounding up people from all the villages and sending them to the camp in Liquica, and burning all the village houses. In the area around Liquica, everything was burned to the ground. Now, there are 20 thousand people in Liquica, many of them small children, with no food, sleeping on the ground. Every morning, they are all woken up by ABRI soldiers and forced to assemble, get into formation, and stand singing the Indonesian national anthem. The soldiers beat the people, do all kinds of things to them. It is a concentration camp.

P: Haven’t the military been denying all that?

DM: All lies. They control everything and, naturally, they are saying that there is no need for any peacekeeping force in Timor as they already have 20 thousand men to keep the peace. No. They are the ones who are to blame for everything.

P: Two days ago the Motael clinic came under threat at night. Does that happen often?

DM: Yes. Every couple of days they telephone, and say they are on their way to finish the job they started. I don’t know whether they are ABRI, paramilitaries, or who they are.

Buy the Indonesians off with money

P: Why did you come here to Dili?

DM: I have worked as a volunteer doctor in many countries. Most recently, I was working in Mozambique. When things started to improve in Mozambique, I decided to come to Timor because I was told that there were a lot of problems here. I was never a supporter of this invasion, and I do all I can to bring it to an end. I write letters to my President, and to other people concerned.

P: Did you ever get a reply from Bill Clinton?

DM: Yes, I received one of those standard replies that he sends out to everyone else that writes to him. Nothing very specific. Lately, however, the US has taken some important strides towards resolving the issue, but the military are still killing people in Timor. Talk alone is just not enough – more has to be done.

P: What needs to be done?

DM: An international military force should be sent here, or the Indonesians should be bought off with money, because they really like money.

P: Do you think the conditions here are suitable for a genuine popular consultation?

DM: Right now, that is totally out of the question. For example, the people who are being intimidated in Liquica have no food to eat. They will all be dead when the time comes to vote. That place is a concentration camp, and by the time 8 August arrives, there will be no people left there to vote. Right now, anyone of Timorese descent is liable to be killed in East Timor.

P: Your visitor’s visa expired a long time ago. Why have you stayed on in East Timor? Why are you putting your own life at risk?

DM: I wanted to see this country gain its independence, and to think that I had helped in some way. As far as the risks are concerned, I’m not too worried about that. I’m already old. If I don’t die here, I’ll die in New York, or in Lisbon, or some other place.

Dr. "Willy" on holiday

Every Monday, dozens of patients make their way to the Motael clinic to be treated by Dr. "Dan". For the past two weeks, he has had some invaluable help: a surgeon and an anaesthetist, both French, on holiday in East Timor, have been doing what they can to help the many people in need of surgery. Dr. "Willy", as the French surgeon likes to be called, is the only surgeon in East Timor. When it is time for him to go home, another of his colleagues will come on holiday to replace him at the operating table in the Motael clinic.

The only way that "Willy" managed to obtain a visa to enter the territory was to say that he wanted to spend his holidays there. If he had requested permission to go in order to give humanitarian assistance, his visa application would have been turned down. "People can spend their holidays doing whatever they like. I like to perform operations. So, I’m here just doing what I want to in my own time", says Dr. "Willy", smiling, while he instructs a nurse to get another patient ready for the operating table.

The French doctor complains about the lack of equipment in the operating theatre, even though Amnesty International had sent some basic supplies when they heard he would be spending his holidays in Dili. "This is beginning to function better now, though my holidays are almost over. But when I leave, another surgeon will come here on holiday. Right now I am the only surgeon in East Timor, and that is extremely serious", he says.

"Willy" is not prepared to say much more. Not only does he want to get on with enjoying the last of his own holiday, but to avoid jeopardising other doctors’ plans to visit Dili, and Dr. "Willy" doesn’t want to spoil anyone’s holiday plans.

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