|An East Timor Village Before the Conflagration
by George Povey
George Povey was traveling in East Timor with Health Alliance International
in the weeks preceding East Timor’s vote for independence. On August
30, 1999, the results of the UN-sponsored referendum in that country
unleashed a wave of violence, leaving hundreds dead and sending over
200,000 fleeing into West Timor, the majority deported at gunpoint.
Instability continues to this day.
|Soibada lies in the southern rainshadow of the mountains
that form Timor’s spine. In July 1999, it lives in quiet fear.
I’m a physician spending two months surveying reproductive health
care in this future nation. I’ve been offered a lift by Sister Joan,
a nun from Australia, traveling with a driver and a light truck to
deliver drugs to Soibada’s parish clinic.
The trip from Dili, the Capital, takes most of a day. The road winds
eastward along the sea to Manatuto, then southward on gravel and packed
earth over the rocky shoulder of Mt. Calcun in perpetual fine rain,
descending to ford the Sahen River, ending in Soibada.
A friendly police officer in an open shelter lists the data in my
passport. Like everyone educated before the Indonesian annexation
in 1976, his second language is Portuguese. In answer to my question,
he reckons that Soibada holds some ten thousand persons, perhaps a
thousand of them refugees from militia violence.
|He walks with me into the village, past dwellings scattered
on a slope among great leafy hardwoods and vegetable gardens. Most
structures are traditional, with earth floors, split bamboo walls,
palm thatch roofs. Prosperity is evident in some with cement block
walls, roofs of corrugated iron, and sagging wires. A diesel generator
provides electricity, he tells me, evenings from 6 to 10.
Militiamen, shaggy, some with red headbands, some with balaclavas,
displaying spears and machetes, stare unsmiling from behind barriers.
Indonesian soldiers, young and scrubbed, in cool and colorful civvies,
stroll the dirt roads like a visiting soccer team. People, particularly
women, avoid their eyes.
Sister Joan arranges my lodging in a school run by Dominican nuns
from the Philippines, almost empty of pupils now. Several workers
there are quiet women refugees whose men have disappeared, some into
the resistance, some into Indonesian prisons or their graves. Their
children cling to my hands, craving masculinity, I think.
At supper Sister Manuela mentions that a famously brutal local militiaman
was found beaten to death. This is her quiet way of telling us, three
nuns and myself, to sleep lightly. Such an event, we know, can result
in the cleansing and incineration of a village. She passes the rice.
We laugh about the piglets they just brought in to raise, one of which
escaped to be chased through the mud by gleeful kids.
This seems a chance to feel the pulse of rural health, so I arrange
to stay for a week. Mornings I see patients in the neglected parish
clinic: three rooms; some battered chairs and tables; a dusty microscope
and bottles of dried-up reagents. There’s a cupboard stocked with
drugs from Australia, dispensed by two untrained young people, Mariano
and Domingas, who match a list of symptoms with a list of medications.
Headache? Paracetamol. Burning on urination? Cotrimoxazole. I teach
them what I can, particularly drugs to avoid in pregnancy and lactation.
Afternoons I do house calls, slithering through mud, sometimes climbing
a flimsy ladder to see a disabled elder in a dark room whose sanitary
facility is a gap in the bamboo floor.
Hunger and contagion dominate. They are a formidable team, malnutrition
lowering resistance, infection consuming energy in a truly vicious
cycle that often ends in death. Their cause is poverty, for which
health care offers palliation but no cure. It’s the result of exploitation
by Portugal for 400 years and by Indonesia for 23, and is worse in
times of unrest such as this, which make it dangerous to leave villages
to plant and reap and trade
Beyond extended families, two foreign and antagonistic social structures
count in Soibada: Church and Army. Two local structures count less
clearly: militia and resistance.
The crumbling Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus might be in the
hills of Portugal. The cheerful and dynamic Padre Julho, a Timorese,
is said to be connected with the resistance and therefore a marked
man. In his office he offers me a chair, a cup of coffee grown locally,
and a plate of cookies from an Indonesian factory.
Having visited a well-equipped Indonesian government clinic in the
village, where there were nurses but no medicine, I suggest that health
care could be improved by combining those resources with the drugs
stocked at the parish. He laughs. It would have to be approved by
both Jakarta and the Bishop. It can’t happen … now. His voice holds
the certainty that in a month the Indonesians will be politely shown
Since reconciliation is humanity’s only hope, I talk with soldiers
at a village shop, two of whom speak some Portuguese and one some
English. They later wave me over to their little fort, set back among
rice fields. On several days I walk across the dikes between paddies
to share their coffee and listen to their gripes.
There are about a dozen of them, a platoon. They are courteous, naïve,
commanded by an slightly less young, less naive officer, newly trained
to be skilled and eager killers, as I once was. Feared, hated, lonely,
bored, expecting a grenade in their bunker any night, their gripes
focus on the rain, the mud, the mosquitoes. I’m able to point out
that the army isn’t destiny, that I carried a rifle in Korea, then
As I speak I recognize my hypocrisy. For a poor boy in a poor country
the army may in fact be destiny, the one accessible track to a degree
of security, to status, perhaps to power. For his sister, the track
may be the sex trade, her goal not security but existence.
Militias, created by the Army a year previously to terrorize separatists,
consist of local mercenaries, migrants from other Indonesian provinces
and soldiers in civilian garb. In some localities they rule, invading
homes at night, gang-raping girls and women, abducting them as sexual
and domestic slaves. In April, in Liquica just west of Dili, they
attacked a church sheltering refugees, slaughtering more than 50.
Falintil, Forças Armadas de Libertação Nacional do Timor Leste, has
fought in these hills for 23 years, but now lies low on orders radioed
from leadership outside. The UN referendum, scheduled for August,
can’t happen if there’s widespread violence.
When my week is up I climb into the back of an open truck that contains
sacks of cargo, several local men and women (two of whom nurse babies),
and a motorcycle. I’m glad I can’t stay longer, for bonding is too
easy in such a place. I feel too loved.
Dili, a small seaport, still seems the quaint and decrepit, farthest
and most forgotten outpost of an Empire that once ruled Brazil. Its
streets are filled with a busy, friendly mix of Melanesian, Asian
and European folk, cheerful and full of hope in spite of ubiquitous
Indonesian solders and police, in spite of militias in balaclavas
that roll through town in open trucks, occasionally giving the straight-arm
Having commitments elsewhere, I leave on August 17, by chance the
23rd anniversary of Indonesia’s anschluss. Driving to the airport
we meet a convoy of open army trucks transporting an Indonesian youth
group in red berets, red-and-white flags flying, singing patriotic
songs, flown in to celebrate the event.
Although everyone expects trouble, no one expects what in fact happens,
except, we learn later, the Indonesian military leaders who precisely
planned it all.
* * *
On August 30, in a UN-mandated referendum, East Timorese vote overwhelmingly
for independence. The first days of September bring an orgy of ferocity
and fire that destroys the physical infrastructure of the region and
drives most of its inhabitants from their homes and many from their
I watch it happen on a TV screen in another world called Canada, wrenched
with shame, because I’m not there. Not that I’d have been much use;
disinclined to meet death yet, I’d have been evacuated with the rest
of the expatriates.
My first chance to return is in November. I see Dili from the air,
not a city, but a black crescent between blue bay and green-brown
hills. I walk amazed through devastated streets, ornamented with barbed
wire and sandbags, patrolled by an international force that includes
New Zealand, French, Thai, US, Canadian and British Ghurka troops
under Australian command. I see squatters returned from the hills,
boiling rice in battered pans on open fires, sleeping on beaches,
in fields and in shattered buildings under blue plastic UN tarps,
besieged by mosquitoes in this hot, wet season.
The region is clearly under a new occupation. In August it was Indonesian
and the language of street signs, businesses and administration was
theirs. In November it’s multinational; the traffic signs and those
labeling prohibited zones are English. A few old trucks and taxis
are the only civilian vehicles, while military vehicles are everywhere.
Armored personnel carriers with helmeted and flak-jacketed crews rumble
through the streets by day and night. Infantry patrols of 6 or 8 are
constantly about, among them Australian women in baggy fatigues and
floppy bush hats, all friendly and adored by kids.
The tensions between expatriate and local communities which will later
escalate have already appeared. The military are comfortably encamped
in damaged warehouses and tent cities. For civilians there are air
conditioned hotel barges moored at the docks, air conditioned cars
which drive them to air conditioned offices, and a few restored restaurants
where they dine on imported meat and wine while the children of the
Timorese scour their garbage dumps for scraps.
In those first days I still see the old colonial town superimposed
upon the ruins, and navigate by remembering which building was on
which corner, and which road led to a certain row of houses that are
no more. But the human mind is practical beyond belief; a week later
the old town is gone from my head, replaced by the reality of a ruined
urban landscape, with squatters and Australian troopers its natural
occupants. Except when rain falls, and the scent of wet ash rises.
Except at night, when black and silent streets are inhabited by children’s
I learn that the road to Soibada is impassible due to rain and is
still insecure. I learn also that a well-armed Falintil unit surrounded
the tiny garrison, which surrendered as the militia fled, and was
eventually repatriated. The brave sisters, the quiet women, their
kids, the piglets and Soibada Village were unharmed.
|George Povey is an obstetrician-gynecologist
who teaches international health at the University of British Columbia,
Vancouver, and at the University of Washington, Seattle. He has made
three trips to East Timor on behalf of Health Alliance International,
an NGO affiliated with the University of Washington. His email address