Sunday, 13 January 2013

Independence days: the new nation of Timor-Leste

Young people watch the sunset at Dili seafront
© Andy Brown/2012/Timor-Leste
I’d only vaguely heard of Timor-Leste (or East Timor) before I went there last August. The tiny former Portuguese colony of just over a million people is most famous as the first new nation of the century. It achieved independence in 2002 after a long and bloody struggle with Indonesia, which invaded after the Portuguese left. The BBC describes the subsequent rebuilding of Timor-Leste as “one of the UN’s biggest success stories” so it was fascinating to visit with UNICEF, the UN Children’s Fund.

For the first time, I was working on what was essentially an army base. The office was a series of portacabins in a large fenced-off compound, next to a giant satellite dish. We shared our area with the other UN agencies, but the canteen and other facilities were on the peacekeeper’s base. Here, many of the buildings were in fact shipping containers with a few doors and windows, stacked on top of each other in much the same way as those at the nearby cargo port.

At lunchtime, I shared my table with soldiers from Egypt and Singapore, wearing their trademark UN blue berets. As the heat cooled off in the early evening, they could be seen jogging round the base or playing table tennis in the recreation area. It was like an idyllic version of the army bases you see at the beginning of war movies, where raw recruits are put through a punishing training drill before being sent out to face a pitiless and faceless enemy in the jungle, desert or alien planet. But these peacekeepers were here by invitation and their task was nearly done.

Mi Ann outside the UNICEF office on the peacekeepers’ base
© Andy Brown/2012/Timor-Leste
By the seaside

I was living and working in the capital city, Dili, but for me it was like a small seaside town – more Lyme Regis than London. It was basically a narrow, 5km strip of potholed roads and buildings along the bay. The guesthouse where I was staying was about 100 metres from the sea. In the opposite direction, you could see the town ending just five or six blocks away as the ground rose up to meet the foothills of the mountains.

The buildings varied from grand colonial-style buildings, almost all of which were government offices, to shanty homes down earth tracks between the tarmacked roads. “We call these ‘rural areas in the city’,” my colleague Indra said of living conditions in the latter.

Most evenings I went for a jog along the seafront, which was spectacular at sunset. The sky would enact a different drama each day, depending on the weather and cloud patterns. Some days, the orange rays of the setting sun would light up rotting wooden boat hulls stranded on the sand. Fishermen sat on the beach mending their nets, or walked down the promenade selling the day’s catch, with a line of fish strung from a bamboo pole carried over one shoulder.

Internet penetration in Timor-Leste is extremely low, at less than 1 percent of the population, but there is free wi-fi at the seafront and the benches and tables were full of Dili’s wealthier teenagers crowded around a handful of laptops. Further down the road was a small pitch where barefoot youths played football, taking advantage of the sea breeze and cool temperatures around sunset. I took some photos but didn’t stay long, as the young men kicked up clouds of dust from the parched earth with every footstep.

Boats, footballers and fishermen along Dili seafront at sunset
© Andy Brown/2012/Timor-Leste
On the road

With work, I took a three-day road trip through Ermera province to see UNICEF-supported projects there. It was the dry season in Timor-Leste and the road was covered in a thick layer of dust, which was churned up into dense clouds by passing vehicles, coating the plants and houses along the roadside in a uniform beige. In one village I saw an ancient sacred tree with a grisly pile of human skulls among its roots. No one knew for sure, but they were probably from a long ago tribal battle or war with the Portuguese.

I also got the opportunity to meet and interview former Prime Minister Gordon Brown. He had just been appointed UN Special Envoy for Global Education and was visiting Timor-Leste with Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. The communications team was snowed under with the logistics for the visit, so I volunteered to help produce the content. I ended up being the writer, photographer, interviewer and video editor for the visit.

The day started early at Cassait School in Liquisá district. We had to get there at dawn to prepare for the Secretary General’s arrival. As we drove out of Dili, my colleague Tony pointed out army snipers positioned on the hills above the road. At the school, I had a bit of time to chat to the headmaster and some of the students before the official visit began.

I talked to a group of boys playing with a giant snakes and ladders set. “I feel proud that Ban Ki-moon is coming to visit our school today,” fifteen-year-old Jamantino told me. “I like this school because the teachers are nice. My parents are cassava farmers. We live some distance away – about 30 minutes’ walk. When I grow up, I want to be a good man for the future of my nation.”

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon speaks at Cassait School
© Andy Brown/2012/Timor-Leste
At 8am, I saw the motorcade arrive. A convoy of white UN vans swept down the road in front of the school. Then Gordon Brown and Ban Ki-moon appeared at a side gate, flanked by a small army of aides and bodyguards. There was something clichéd and almost comical about the bodyguards. They all had short cropped hair and wore suits, dark sunglasses and earpieces. They were constantly scanning the crowd of school children and teachers as if looking for a potential assassin.

The event was carefully orchestrated and the press photographers were confined to two clearly demarcated areas. Initially, I was also herded there but I put away my camera and used my UN pass to get into the audience area, where I had the perfect spot to take notes and photos.

Both Gordon Brown and Ban Ki-moon spoke powerfully about global education – as you might expect from a former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister. Afterwards, the visitors toured the school and Ban Ki-moon read to a class. The children held up flags spelling ‘obrigado’ which means ‘thank you’ in Tetun, the local language of Timor-Leste.

We were back at the office by 10am and I spent the rest of the day frantically writing and photo editing. In the afternoon, I got my 15 minutes with Gordon Brown. He seemed relaxed and to be enjoying the visit – probably a welcome change from cut-throat Westminster politics. At the end of the interview, I asked him if he had a message for the children of Timor-Leste. “I think they have a message for me,” he replied with a smile. “They were singing about the importance of education. The children I saw were ambitious and enthusiastic and determined to work hard and we’ve now got to help them achieve their ambitions.”

Morning sun

Timor-Leste is home to some of the top dive sites in the world, so I spent most of my weekends under the waves. One Saturday, however, my colleague Mi Ann took me for an early morning hike up to the Cristo Rei, the iconic statue of Jesus that is Dili’s answer to Rio de Janeiro.

The Cristo Rei statue looks out over Dili bay at dawn
© Andy Brown/2012/Timor-Leste
We set off at 6am as the sky was starting to lighten in the east. It was dry season, so the hillsides were brown and yellow. It stayed cool for most of the ascent until we reached the ridge and with it direct sunlight, which slanted up from the horizon below. On the far side of the ridge was a wide sandy bay backed by dunes and long grass. It was idyllic but would not remain so for much longer. “There are plans to build a hotel resort down there,” Mi Ann said.

At the top of the hill, goats grazed on a precipitous rocky outcrop. Above them the massive statue of Jesus loomed up into the sky, with his arms raised and the early morning sun on his back. We looked back across the bay to Dili. It was a clear morning but a light fog hung above the town. “That’s the smoke from wood fires,” Mi Ann explained. “It means people are cooking breakfast.”

I asked her about the origin of the statue. “Actually it was built by the Indonesians during their occupation, as a gift to the people of Timor-Leste,” she said. Unlike most of Indonesia (which is Muslim), Timor-Leste is Christian. This is a legacy of two centuries of Portuguese rule and the statue was doubtless intended to win favour with locals. However, I also noticed an unsubtle piece of propaganda. Christ was standing on a model of the Earth, with the continents distorted so that Indonesia was stretched right across the front of the globe.

Interestingly, in their rush to reject Indonesian influences, Timor-Leste has ended up embracing its former colonial master, Portugal. Ethnically, people in East and West Timor are the same. What differentiates them is their colonial legacy: East Timor was Portugese and West Timor was Dutch. Hence the name Timor-Leste and adoption of Portugese as a national language. However, this has created new problems, with older generations speaking Indonesian and English, but young people taught in Tetun and Portugese. This means that to do business in Timor-Leste you now have to navigate four different languages.

For Timor-Leste, the end of another era was approaching, with UN peace keepers due to leave at the end of the year. The country has had a difficult and often violent history, but the people I met were warm and friendly. There are huge challenges remaining in education and other areas but I left feeling optimistic about the potential of this small, young country.

Children sit underneath a sacred tree at a village in Ermera province
© Andy Brown/2012/Timor-Leste

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