Subject: IPS: Limping to Recovery, Frustrations Run High in E Timor

EAST TIMOR: Limping to Recovery, Frustrations Run High

By Sonny Inbaraj

DILI, Jan 4 (IPS) - Life in devastated East Timor is returning to normal in the new year, but jobs are hard to find and food prices exorbitant, making daily life a struggle.

In the capital Dili, restaurants and cafes have sprung up and at street-corners Indonesian clove cigarettes and cans of Australian beer are offered for sale. Fresh vegetables and fish are now available the main Mercado market and few stalls even sell petrol at 2,500 rupiah (35 U.S. cents) a litre.

Many small traders and shopkeepers, like Pedro Lebre, are trying to rebuild their businesses. His cafe was completely destroyed when four months ago, pro-Indonesia militias went on an orgy of killing and destruction after the pro-independence vote of Aug 30.

Today, Lebre is the proud owner of Dili's first restaurant in what he calls ''the new East Timor''.

''I find it hard to keep up with demand and I have had to turn people away during Christmas and New Year because there's no space,'' said Lebre. ''In my old cafe, my diners were mostly locals. In the 'new East Timor' it's mostly foreign aid workers.''

Indeed, the prices in Lebre's restaurant are beyond the reach of many local East Timorese, whose average salary is 3 dollars a day. A simple meal for three, with Portuguese and local dishes, costs 15 dollars.

Add a couple of cans of Australian beer and the bill could easily come to 25 dollars -- nothing much to a foreign aid worker on a US- dollar salary but certainly unaffordable to a Timorese scrapping to make ends meet.

For Angelos Gusmao, it will be a long struggle ahead in the world's newest country in the third millennium.

Gusmao, a former mechanic, now makes a living by driving a pick-up to the town of Maliana along the border with Indonesian-controlled West Timor -- a six-hour drive west of the capital Dili.

On the way to Maliana he picks up passengers, charging them 25,000 rupiah (4 dollars) for a one-way trip.

''Food prices are really expensive in Dili and because of this many people make their way to Maliana. Here they buy fish, vegetables, meat and cigarettes from the locals in West Timor and bring them back to Dili,'' he said.

Gusmao wants to start his own garage repairing cars, but lacks capital to do so.

''I don't have the money and neither do I have tools to start the garage. The militias just destroyed everything, '' said Gusmao.

Gusmao's main preoccupation now is having enough money for food to feed his six children. ''I can't bear to see my children go hungry. The little that I make from the trips to Maliana helps buy fish and vegetables for my kids,'' he said.

Added Gusmao: ''I need at least 50,000 rupiah (8 dollars) a day to feed my family if I buy food from Dili. And without a regular income, I just can't afford it.''

But the road trip to Maliana can be at times dangerous.

Last week, multinational peacekeeping troops fired warning shots at the border with West Timor to stop a group of Indonesian soldiers from firing close to civilians. This happened at the border crossing of Memo.

There are reports that some of the East Timorese are becoming frustrated and annoyed by the UN and NGO presence as well as the many foreign businessmen who are here to explore the opportunities in the newest country open for business.

''The UN thinks it has to rebuild everything from zero, including our brains,'' said Virgilio da Costa Guterres.

''They keep forgetting that there is a skilled pool of young East Timorese students who really feel frustrated because they're no jobs,'' he added.

Allegations about discrimination at UNTAET, the UN Transitional Authority in East Timor, are being voiced by many East Timorese staff. They said their wages and conditions differ from their international colleagues and access to UN facilities such as the transport shuttles were not available to them.

''The promised overtime payments have not been paid,'' said one national staff member who did not want to be named, ''and the November salary was only paid in late December''.

Apparently, the reason UNTAET gave for the delay in payment was that they had no rupiah and lacked the staff to process the accounts.

UNTAET personnel declined to speak to IPS when contacted about the allegations from the local UN staff.

But the young East Timorese have already begun to bring their frustrations on to the streets.

Last week, 14 East Timorese youths, some of them intoxicated, had a confrontation with UN staff working on floating accommodation barges, which are moored in Dili's Harbour and used by UN staff. Such confrontations have now become an almost nightly occurrence.

One night, the tyres of UN vehicles parked in the street were let down.

In order to help dispel local frustrations, Jose Ramos-Horta, deputy leader of the East Timorese political alliance, the Council for East Timorese Resistance, said last week that UN peacekeeping forces and non- government humanitarian organisations will be taxed through customs duties, excises, landing fees and business taxes.

''We hope that in the next two to three months those who have been making huge profits in this country will start paying taxes,'' Ramos- Horta said. ''And they should not have any illusions that they have got away scot free for three months. They will pay. If they want to stay on in this country they will pay taxes.''

The head of UNTAET, Sergio Vieira de Mello, confirmed recommendations on new taxes would be promulgated by mid-January.

''We have decided to refer draft regulations on the establishment of a central fiscal authority, main payments office, use of currencies in Timor, the new taxation regime and registration of commercial enterprises to the technical committee on financial and micro-economic issues,'' De Mello said. 


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