Subject: LAT: Timorese say independence worth cost

Los Angeles Times June 22, 2000



"Welcome to the most recent country in the world," proclaims the banner in Dili's scruffy little air terminal, and let there be no doubt: The hard-luck people of East Timor are, against all odds, closing in on their centuries-old dream of independence. It is a dream that will create one of the world's most improbable nations.

Cursed by nature, history and a vengeful Indonesia, East Timor will gain nationhood with an adult population whose average schooling stopped in the third grade. Per capita income is $ 240 a year. Jobs are few, and skilled carpenters or plumbers, let alone doctors and lawyers, are nowhere to be found. Seventy percent of the capital is in ruins, destroyed in September by retreating anti-independence militias.

"I don't know of any place, anywhere that ever started off from a position of ground zero like this," says Dineen Tupa, local director of World Vision, one of scores of international relief and development agencies that are here to stitch together a country from the wreckage of Indonesia's colonial-style rule.

So why are people like shopkeeper Filomeno Tilma so proud of their nation-in-waiting? Tilma sits in his small store, amid charred beams and scorched, crumbling walls. He is surrounded by a few bags of rice, some batteries, toiletries and household goods. Business is lousy. He is asked whether the price East Timor paid in suffering as a result of its August vote to split from Indonesia was worth it.

"Oh yes, absolutely," says Tilma, 45, who hid in the mountains for six weeks while wild-eyed militiamen rampaged through East Timor, killing, looting, burning. "There's not a person who wouldn't vote the same way again, even if they knew the consequences.

"We've got our freedom. We're rid of the oppressors. There's no price you can put on that, on getting your dignity back."

Or ask Gina Borges, 33, about the price of freedom. She returned to her homeland from Australia in December. Her aunt's six-bedroom villa had been burned and gutted by the militias, her uncle killed. Borges and her sister shoveled out the debris but left the fire-scarred walls and blown-out windows untouched as a reminder of the cost of independence.

"It will take a long time, but if the world doesn't lose interest and the United Nations can pull things together, one day we will be a real country," says Borges, whose aunt's old home, now the Burned House Restaurant, is one of Dili's most popular upscale eateries with the 10,000-plus foreigners--8,500 of them U.N. peacekeepers--who have descended on this remote backwater in the past eight months.

Foreign Aid Creates Economic Divide

With East Timor under U.N. sovereignty and buoyed by $ 520 million in foreign aid, the influx of foreigners has in effect created two societies--one poor and jobless, the other rich and employed. This in turn has created frustrations with the slow pace of development and a sense of unfulfilled expectations from the heady days last summer when the East Timorese voted, at great personal risk, for independence and finally saw Indonesia and its militias pull out.

The U.N. and nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, have occupied and renovated the best buildings in Dili as offices, and to alleviate the housing shortage, a British company has towed in a barge stacked five decks high with containers divided into $ 170-a-night rooms.

The 600-bed Hotel Olympia towers over the dark nighttime waterfront, its lights ablaze, its noisy rooftop disco packed with foreigners awash in cold beers, cheeseburgers and ringing mobile phones.

"You see the Olympia and all the Land Rovers lined up outside, and you know you're seeing the symbol of the foreign invasion and the gap between the haves and the have-nots," says Jake Jacobson, a U.S. liaison officer in Dili scouting a site for a new U.S. Embassy. "The East Timorese know that too. It's bound to cause resentment at some point."

Relations between the two groups already have been frayed at times. Local workers hired by NGOs go on strike at the slightest provocation, often are well meaning but lacking in skills, and sometimes back their complaints with death threats.

Ties between the U.N. and the resistance faction that led the independence struggle and will form the core of a new government are on occasion testy as both jockey to set an agenda on priorities, the pace of development and the shaping of an independent East Timor.

Part of the problem lies in history. Indonesia--which invaded the former Portuguese colony of East Timor in 1975 and annexed it in 1976--sought to create dependency, not self-sufficiency, here. It tried to buy obedience and complacency by giving virtually every local a low-paying job with no responsibility. Many now ask why the U.N. doesn't guarantee full employment and why it matters whether they have acceptable skill levels.

"Life is definitely tougher now than two years ago under Indonesia," says David Correia, the chief of Atabae, a village outside Dili. "There's not enough food. We get no rain for months, then we get floods. There are no jobs. I don't know if anyone cares about the people anymore. I'm not saying independence was a mistake, just that life is tougher."

Sergio Vieira de Mello, the U.N. administrator, hopes to hold elections for a national assembly by mid-2001. The assembly will draft a constitution and will evolve into a legislative body. Independence is likely by 2003.

In the meantime, transitional overseers have to create a judicial system, build a police force, decide on a national language--Portuguese, Bahasa Indonesian and East Timorese Tetum are spoken now--recruit prospective Cabinet ministers who are literate and resurrect an economy. They hope that Dili will eventually have a newspaper, a television station, perhaps even a library.

Signs of Life for Local Economy

Although 85% of the jobs in East Timor currently are provided by the U.N. and NGOs, there are hints that an economy is taking root. On the heels of the relief workers' arrival, scores of foreign businesspeople, mostly from Australia, have poured into East Timor, which now has a dozen restaurants, three land-based hotels, a car-rental agency, several construction firms, even a helicopter service.

Some Timorese shops, like Tilma's, have reopened, and young men with mobile phones stand in the street near the former Indonesian governor's office--now the U.N. headquarters--as money changers for the various currencies in circulation: Australian and U.S. dollars, Indonesian rupiah, Portuguese escudos. At the Hotel Olympia, the Singaporean-based crew is paid in Singapore dollars.

In the countryside, farmers have planted their rice, corn and sweet potatoes, and the season's coffee crop is being harvested, even though the militias destroyed $ 3 million worth of the industry's equipment.

In the capital, Portugal has opened the first bank and first post office in the post-Indonesian era. Dili has been allocated its own international phone code, an academic step at this point, because only mobile phones are used here and they are assigned an Australian dialing code.

"There's progress, a little anyway," says Fernando Corte-Real, 50, a teacher whose elementary school reopened in January. "We have never asked for much. Never had much. During the problem last summer, I was in the mountains with 200 families for three weeks, eating only cassava. So I am not full of complaints about the difficulties of life today. I can wait for better times."

GRAPHIC: PHOTO: An East Timorese girl plays next to a destroyed car in Dili. Seventy percent of the capital is in ruins, destroyed last year by retreating militias. PHOTOGRAPHER: Associated Press

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