Subject: SMH: Forgotten by time, perhaps the luckiest Timorese of all

Sydney Morning Herald April 17, 2000

Forgotten by time, perhaps the luckiest Timorese of all

By MARK DODD, Herald Correspondent in Duanalok, East Timor

Stunned residents, dressed in rags, stumbled out of their thatch huts to curiously face their white-skinned visitors: the first Europeans to stumble upon the hidden village in the remote mountain reaches of East Timor.

The village the locals call Duanalok is not marked on any map, so when Australian peacekeeping troops came across the settlement during a routine long-range patrol recently they added another name to a new list of previously undiscovered villages; self-sufficient, cut off from government authority and news from the outside world.

The 20 traditional thatch huts lie partially camouflaged by a thick canopy of lush foliage in a deep river valley flanked on one side by limestone cliffs, the only vehicle capable of clawing its way along the gutted track a military armoured personnel carrier.

As the APC rattled its way up the misty, rain-swept mountain range north of Balibo a lone East Timorese hunter, armed only with a stone spear, stared silently; a stark juxtaposition of modern tank and ancient weapon.

The village chief, Marcelino Pereira, 45, greeted the Australian troops warmly and accepted a gift of clothes.

"I haven't ever seen any European people come here, just the Australians from the United Nations," he said. "There used to be some Indonesians who came by five years ago.

"I know of Mr Xanana Gusmao, because he wants independence but I haven't ever seen his face," he said, revealing his ignorance of the dramatic violence which marked the passage to independence last year.

Duanalok was once home to 14 families but the population has now shrunk to five families numbering about 30 residents from infants to elderly. The villagers are master thatchers, and about 20 buildings lie in the valley surrounded by vegetable patches.

Food was scarce, the villagers said, but the community grew corn and beans and stringy chickens picked around the camp.

A prolonged rainy season has brought health problems such as malaria, fever and headaches. On this second visit to the village, an Australian Army medic was treating a baby with a chronic ear infection, his complexion deathly pale, his neck swollen.

Domingos Isaac, with a shock of grey hair, intense eyes and teeth stained bright red from chewing betel nut, introduced himself as one of Duanalok's senior citizens. He had forgotten how old he was but could remember Japanese soldiers in Balibo during World War II.

Briefly consulting his wife, a woman of similarly undeter-mined age, Domingos said he was unaware of the existence of pro-Indonesian militias. He had heard of Mr Gusmao, and thanks to friends in a neighbouring village "a few hills away" had been told of the result of the referendum.

Australian Army patrols are now reporting the existence of even more remote villages cut off from the outside world for decades, dubbed "dinosaur country" by one trooper.

Astonished patrol members arriving in Aitasabe, north-east of Maliana, said locals told how they were unaware of last year's UN-organised referendum. Others said they thought East Timor was still under the control of Portugal.

In early February, Private Denver Mallett, based in rugged hill country near Maliana, said he met a group of East Timorese villagers claiming that the last Europeans they had seen were members of the Australian World War II Sparrow Force commando unit.

Late last month another army patrol was helicoptered into a remote location near Poetete, about 20 kilometres north of Maliana and accessible only by air.

After a day's hard slog, crossing flooded rivers and hacking through close bush in pouring rain, the patrol encountered villagers who had never heard of the international peacekeeping force, let alone voted in the referendum.

Arriving in Aitasabe, the troops said they were given a thatch hut to sleep in while locals lit a fire, built a drying rack for their soaking clothes, and fed them sweet corn and coconut milk.

Platoon commander Lieutenant Stuart Purves said: "We were sitting in there just having tea and getting our stuff dry when the whole town came down to watch us. They said to us, 'This is the first time a lot of the people here have seen a white person.' The majority of the people had never seen soldiers before. They had never seen TNI [Indonesian soldiers] or Interfet [peacekeepers]. On the whole, the town had no idea what was going on - they were really oblivious to everything."

So remote was this second hamlet that the residents had no idea about the outcome of the referendum, the presence of UN forces in East Timor or who was in control of East Timor, he said. Some people still thought Portugal was in charge.

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