Subject: E Timor: No Quick Fix for Scars of Terror

The Australian 18 November 99

No quick fix for scars of terror


HOUNDED from their homes, confronted with threats, rape and killings, the people of East Timor have been subject to all manner of emotional and psychological disturbances. Although experts agree the incidence of post-traumatic stress is high, they differ on the best ways to deal with it.

Even the East Timorese with some balance in their lives have been adversely affected. Jenny Grant, an Australian journalist who has been training East Timorese to work in UN radio, said her students ­ some of whom worked with the UN before the violence following the independence ballot ­ now lacked concentration, were continually hungry and easily distracted. "We're acutely aware of the extraordinary circumstances people are working under," she said.

Public drunkenness is far more common than it was and, in some cases, the trauma has produced signs of mental instability ­ in public places such as markets, there are often people muttering to themselves.

Peter Hosking, a Jesuit priest and psychologist, says that although the East Timorese were oppressed and harrassed for 24 years, the three weeks of military revenge in September after the poll were among the hardest of their lives.

"The tragedy is that although people are now returning to a new life, knowing they have won their freedom, many have lost everything," he said. "At the border crossings in Maliana, or the villages near Luro, incredibly poor people have had everything burnt. These people have nothing but their spirit."

Humanitarian agencies recognise the problem, and action is under way under the banner of the World Health Organisation, among others, but Father Hosking wonders how effective psychological intervention can be. "A lot of people have a lot of pain just beneath the surface," he said. "A small opening can unleash a lot of strain, a lot of bitterness. It's terribly important for the community to grieve, but to know they face the future together."

The approach taken in the Rwandan and Balkans crises was for teams to arrive for a short time, conduct debriefings and leave, he said.

"Although I think that's helpful, there are NGOs and churchworkers, people who have been at the forefront of trauma counselling here for a long time, they need further training, as well as being debriefed themselves. Above all, people need companions, people who can stay with them as they build the future."

Kristine Tang, who is working with a coalition of agencies and the University of NSW on a program for psychological recovery in East Timor, is due to arrive in Dili today to begin liaising with the East Timorese health taskforce.

Lack of food and shelter, and missing family members, all compound the problem. Ms Tang says the return of a relatively normal life will help to ease people's pain, and says the sooner schools open the better, both for the children and to allow the adults some breathing space.

More structured counselling will have to wait until life is calmer, she says. "We don't want to rush in. We don't want to open up a lot of issues without ongoing support."

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