Subject: NYT: Ruined East Timor Awaits a Miracle

The New York Times April 22, 2000

Ruined East Timor Awaits a Miracle


DILI, East Timor -- People here have gotten used to the scene: a mob of unemployed young men shoving, shouting and weeping in anger outside the headquarters of the United Nations, held back by an impassive multinational police contingent.

"Nothing has changed!" they shouted the other day, and their complaint has become a theme for critics -- both foreign and Timorese -- as the United Nations passes the six-month mark in its first experiment in building a new nation.

As monsoon rains bring added misery, whole towns and villages still stand burned, roofless and silent, devastated by the rampage of destruction that followed East Timor's vote last August to end 24 years of Indonesian occupation.

As many as 80 percent of the territory's 700,000 people still have no jobs. Another 100,000 or more remain in camps across the border in Indonesian West Timor, still afraid to return.

The desperation of East Timor's unemployed, and the first spasms of violence it has spawned, are the sharpest signs of a swelling discontent in this physically and emotionally traumatized land.

Aid workers and diplomats say they fear that this discontent could lead to lawlessness and political disarray and could open the door to trouble from the Indonesian-backed militias that crossed the border to Indonesian West Timor after laying waste to the territory last September.

Despite an invasion of peacekeepers, bureaucrats and aid workers in the months since, much of this battered land remains, as officials like to say, at ground zero. There is still no working police force or justice system, no government structure, few schools, no working water or power or transportation system, no post office, not much of an economy, little reconstruction.

"Very sad story," said one young woman, summing up this moment in her country's history in halting English. "Hungry. Cry. Hope."

The slow pace of recovery has called into question the capacity of the United Nations, with its lumbering, centralized bureaucracy, to address urgent needs and operate as the government of a nation in crisis.

"It's hard to conceive of how anybody could go in there and make an instant success out of such a complex set of problems," said Sidney Jones, who heads the human rights office of the United Nations.

It has never tried anything quite like this before: to create and administer a nation from a fresh blueprint of its own. When it tried to do so in Cambodia nearly a decade ago, there was already a government structure to work with. In Kosovo today, the United Nations effort is closer to traditional peacekeeping.

"It's a huge machine, an enormous machine," said a Canadian aid worker, speaking of the United Nations. "Every time you want something done it has to be checked and rechecked. If something needs to be done right away it's not unusual to take a week, two weeks, three weeks."

An urgent multimillion-dollar job-creation program that was approved in January, for example, is now scheduled to go into operation in June, if indeed there are no further delays.

"For the United Nations that's moving quickly," said Manoel de Almeida e Silva, the chief spokesman for the United Nations here.

"Definitely we are dealing here with a level of expectations that is not being met by international community mechanisms," he said. "You can destroy in a matter of days but you don't reconstruct in a couple of days or a couple of weeks or a couple of months."

Before the reconstruction can begin, he said, "you need to establish a central payments office, a border service, a fiscal authority, a civil service commission, because you are really starting from scratch, from zero."

East Timor, a former Portuguese colony, was invaded by Indonesia in 1975, touching off a resistance war that eventually took as many as 200,000 lives. Last year nearly 80 percent of the population voted for independence, despite a campaign of intimidation by the Indonesian-backed militia groups.

That vote was followed by a brutal organized campaign of destruction in which 70 percent or more of East Timor's buildings were destroyed and more than one-fourth of its population kidnapped and forced into exile.

International investigators say as many as 700 people were killed and an uncounted number of women raped.

Much of East Timor is agricultural, but most farm implements have been destroyed and most farm animals killed.

Now the international community has pledged more than $500 million to build a new East Timor during the next three years under the guidance of the United Nations. For aid groups and development specialists, East Timor is a sort of petri dish of nation-building where everything from the Constitution to the currency to the national language has yet to be determined.

One predictable, almost instant effect has drawn the most criticism: the creation of a giant gap in wealth that threatens to distort East Timor's economy for years.

Dili today does not present a pretty picture, with a separate expatriate world superimposed on a scene of destruction and poverty. The foreigners are rich, with cars, offices, hot running water, Sunday barbecues. The East Timorese have almost nothing.

"They can't take a table out to the side of the road to sell things," one United Nations official said, "because not only do they not have anything to sell but they don't have a table."

A new Chinese restaurant serving $50 meals is so crowded with foreigners that it has made a chic annex of the burned-out building next door, stringing it with Christmas lights. Just down the street, Eugenia Gago feeds her extended family on less than $5 a day, selling grilled meat to passers-by from the rubble of a burned-out shop. Unlike the Chinese restaurant she has no generator, so she stops when it gets dark.

As the head of security for an international agency put it: "Salary scales are a real problem. We pay $3 a day for unskilled labor. I can get a good cappuccino at the Dili Cafe for $3."

Given these problems, some local people have begun to give up hope that the United Nations can fix their broken country, said Milena Pires, one of the few expatriate Timorese who have returned to help rebuild.

"There is a growing impatience because people do see the United Nations embodying all these ideals," said Ms. Pires, who leads a campaign to establish women's rights.

"People see all these cars going back and forth and they think, 'If the United Nations is doing so much work, why don't we see a difference in our own lives?' " she said. "So now some have begun saying, 'O.K., wait two years until the United Nations is finished. Then we'll begin to rebuild.' "

The view of one Western diplomat was only slightly more moderate.

"What everyone has to do is lower their expectations a bit," he said. "The most they could hope for, I think, is to just get through, to keep the political process stable, to keep divisions within the community to a point where they are manageable."

If this fails, some people fear, die-hard militia groups that still lurk just across the western border may try to stir trouble. If they cannot reverse East Timor's independence, perhaps they can at least vindicate their predictions that independence would be a catastrophe.

Small groups of armed men continue their forays along the border, occasionally eliciting exchanges of fire. "The militia are still around and they are still getting some support," said James Dunn, author of the basic history of East Timor, "Timor, a People Betrayed" (ABC Books, 1996). "The militia wouldn't exist if the Indonesians really wanted to switch them off. It's a bit dangerous. It's tricky now."

One critical problem, as the United Nations looks ahead to an eventual transition to local government, is that relatively few local people are being given important roles in the planning and running of the reconstruction effort.

Foreigners, rather than local people, have been named as district administrators. And East Timorese deputies within the United Nations structure tend to have little influence, officials here say.

"I thought they were coming to work with us, not us with them," said Father Jovito de Jesus Rego, an influential young Roman Catholic priest. "Now everything is being determined by outsiders. We have these big, big, big nations here and it seems we are becoming alien to our own culture and history."

But given its history of colonial domination, East Timor is desperately short of the qualified people it needs to administer itself.

When the United Nations set out to create a court system, for example, it found only 70 people in the country with law degrees, not one of whom had been allowed by the Indonesians to work as a lawyer or a judge. Legal training is proceeding on an elementary level, starting with the concept of the presumption of innocence.

Under Indonesian leadership, most senior civil servants, teachers, doctors and technical workers were Indonesians. Virtually all of them have fled. As schools prepare to open later this year, high school students are being drafted to teach. And given the repressive nature of Indonesian rule, a new police academy is refusing to accept anyone who has ever worked as a police officer in East Timor.

At the demonstration outside the United Nations headquaters the other day, none of the young men demanding jobs appeared to be qualified for the available openings as interpreters, clerks and computer operators.

The rally was calmed only by the arrival of José Alexandre Gusmão, East Timor's independence hero and its moral center. Don't count on government jobs, he told them. He said Indonesia's bloated East Timorese civil service of about 30,000 people would be replaced by a government roster only one-fourth that size.

East Timor will grow on the basis of private enterprise, not government make-work, Mr. Gusmão told them. "Just guarantee the peace," he said, "and we will guarantee that investors will come to help East Timor."

Ted Loh, a potential investor who was visiting from Hong Kong, was not so sure.

"It's too early for anything," Mr. Loh said. "They've got to give investors peace of mind. Everything is still wait-and-see. One problem is land ownership. The United Nations loves to say, 'Where is the document? Where is this? Where is that?' But all the documents are burned."

The delays, the discontent, the confusion, the bureaucratic nightmares -- all may simply be "bumps in the road," as Mr. de Almeida of the United Nations put it.

It is easy to be cynical about this, like the Western diplomat who smiled and muttered, "Optimism is a wonderful quality."

But indeed, there is no shortage of optimism among the East Timorese, who have so recently been rescued from a time of horror.

"We are really happy to have the foreigners here," said Mrs. Gago as she sold grilled meat from a broken building, her hungry children sitting around her. "The foreigners have made everything safe. We don't have to be afraid anymore."

Xisto Soares, 23, who teaches English at a seminary, summed up his view in this way: "For now in East Timor, just hope and try."

Mr. Soares represents that rarest of qualities here, normalcy.

With his excellent English, he could easily find a high-paying job with the United Nations or a foreign aid group. But he said: "I love my students. I will always be happy among my students. And also, this is my profession."

Photos: Since a rampage by militias last year, some in Dili have reoccupied their homes, like these children, who make a game of playing in the rubble, top. The violence, which occurred after a vote for independence, left most East Timorese buildings in the same condition as this onetime store, now inhabited by a man who finds better shelter there than in his former home, bottom. Photographs by Anastasia Vrachnos for The New York Times

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