Subject: Washington Post: A Normal Life for E. Timorese

Washington Post Sunday, August 27, 2000

A Normal Life for E. Timorese

Photo: A flower girl peers out from between a bride and groom during a mass wedding ceremony in Dili, East Timor. (AP)

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran Washington Post Foreign Service

DILI, East Timor – Sitting on sleek chrome chairs under a blue sidewalk awning, patrons at the chic City Cafe spend balmy evenings chewing on T-bone steaks and quaffing $25 bottles of cabernet sauvignon. A few blocks over, customers jostle through the freshly scrubbed aisles of a Dili supermarket that offers imported brie and salsa. Nearby, small shops sell mobile phones, televisions, air conditioners and even fancy car stereos.

"People are starting to rebuild, to work, to get their lives back to normal," Joao Moreira, the owner of an electronics store, explained over the din of a Britney Spears tune thumping from his array of speakers. "Now we can finally afford to buy things and relax."

These are heady times for the world's newest nation as it recovers from the militia violence that followed its overwhelming vote for independence from Indonesia one year ago this week. After seeing post-ballot euphoria give way to terror and then to prolonged frustration over the pace of reconstruction, Timorese people now are gushing with optimism about their future.

Millions of dollars in foreign assistance have started to flow, providing loans to aspiring entrepreneurs and funding salaries for people rebuilding destroyed roads, schools and village markets. Although most of the country's population still lives in abject poverty, the economic opportunities have given rise to a new wave of Timorese merchants like Moreira, who drink beer alongside expatriates in Dili's bars and drive around in used Japanese sedans shipped from Singapore.

The United Nations, which has assumed the unprecedented role of reconstructing East Timor from scratch, has started to appoint local leaders to key posts in the transitional government and train ordinary citizens to become police officers, firefighters and other public employees. And in what may be the most positive development in fostering a new civil society after 24 years of Indonesian occupation and four centuries of Portuguese colonial rule, independence supporters are welcoming back low-level anti-independence militiamen who have apologized for their actions.

"This country was destroyed completely. It was Genghis Khan in the extreme," said Jose Ramos-Horta, the Timorese independence leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner. "What has happened here in the past year – the reconstruction, the reconciliation – has been very significant."

In the days and weeks after the Aug. 30 independence referendum, militias backed by the Indonesian military rampaged through this territory of 800,000 people, killing hundreds of independence supporters and removing a quarter-million others to refugee camps on Indonesian soil. In the cities, militiamen looted and burned blocks upon blocks of houses and shops. In the countryside, they destroyed crops, cut up fishing nets and slaughtered livestock. By the time an international peacekeeping force arrived in mid-October, more than 85 percent of the houses, businesses and government buildings had been gutted.

Beginning from what many here call "ground zero," the United Nations has been forced to create basic institutions that people elsewhere in the world take for granted. During Indonesian rule, for instance, Timorese people never were selected to be judges or prosecutors, so the United Nations was faced with not just the task of rebuilding the Dili courthouse but of training people with no practical legal experience to prosecute, defend and adjudicate.

Now, with the help of an international group of law professors, the court is operating, an achievement the top U.N. official here, Sergio Vieira de Mello, has called "a miracle."

"In Kosovo, I found many Kosovar judges, prosecutors and public defenders," said de Mello, the special representative of the U.N. secretary general and effectively East Timor's ruler until elections are held next year. "Here what we had were Timorese students with law degrees, none of whom had the slightest law experience."

Early on, attempts at nation-building were fraught with mistakes and criticism – that it was too bureaucratic, too slow and too secretive, that its staff members zipped around in shiny white Land Rovers while locals struggled to find plastic tarpaulins to cover their demolished roofs. Earlier this year, hundreds of Timorese youths held noisy demonstrations criticizing the United Nations for not creating jobs faster. Forced to wait in long lines for food handouts and sleep in tents, some independence supporters questioned whether they had made the right choice at the ballot box.

Nowadays, though, the protests have died down. Aid workers say food distribution is no longer necessary. People are finding employment and realizing that reconstruction is a much slower and more challenging process than they expected. But Timorese leaders also say that the U.N. administration here, despite its bureaucracy and its inexperience in nation-building, is starting to hit its stride. The U.N. Transitional Administration for East Timor, as the operation here is formally called, plans to reopen schools this fall with a new crop of 3,500 teachers selected through proficiency exams. The first batch of recruits recently graduated from a new police academy. And in a large gymnasium, dozens of international experts are training aspiring civil servants.

Four of de Mello's eight cabinet members are Timorese, putting U.N. staff members in the unusual role of working for someone outside the U.N. hierarchy.

Speaking last week at the opening of a club for the 800 international U.N. staff members here, Ramos-Horta asked the crowd to remember what they started with last fall. "When you walked into this country, there was nothing here," he said. "This is a success story for the U.N."

But some U.N. officials, international experts and Timorese leaders quietly worry that the good days are numbered. In particular, they fear that delays in prosecuting militia leaders, continued attacks by unrepentant militiamen with ties to the Indonesian military and the eventual departure of big-spending international workers and aid organizations could plunge the country into another round of political and economic chaos.

Timorese and U.N. officials involved in efforts to reconcile supporters and opponents of independence fear that delays in putting on trial the militia members arrested for crimes during and after the referendum – and the possible release of some suspects – could lead to a wave of retribution aimed not only at those who are let out of jail but also at low-level militiamen who have moved back to their villages.

"The victims of the militia violence are very frustrated," said Ai Kihara, the U.N. human rights officer in Liquicia, a former militia stronghold about 30 miles west of Dili. "They ask, 'Where's the justice? Where are our rights?' Holding trials is really important for people to go on with their lives."

Equally troubling to U.N. officials is the escalation of attacks by militias operating out of the western half of Timor island, which is controlled by Indonesia. In the past month, more than 150 militiamen have infiltrated from western Timor, raising the possibility that the East Timorese will have to combat a long-term guerrilla insurgency and that international peacekeepers will have to stay long after the U.N. civilian administration hands over power. Two peacekeepers have been killed, and troops have been placed on high alert along the rugged, 100-mile border.

There is also concern that destabilizing political feuds dating back to a civil war in 1975 – which began in the wake of the Portuguese departure and was not quelled until the Indonesian army invaded – could resurface. During the Indonesian occupation, most politicians were united under the banner of the National Council for Timorese Resistance, but with no one to resist anymore, the council likely will split into several political parties.

To people in Dili, though, the biggest concern is what will happen to their wallets when the United Nations and other international organizations leave. The presence of hundreds of U.N. employees, aid workers and foreign businessmen who spend their salaries here has created a need for new hotels and restaurants that employ scores of young Timorese.

"The impact of such a huge number of international personnel in Dili is causing a big bubble effect," warned Sarah Cliffe, the World Bank's mission chief here. "On the one hand, it's not a bad thing. It provides short-term jobs. But it's not sustainable. There's a worry that when the U.N. withdraws, the economy will crash."

The World Bank and the United Nations have been trying to create more sustainable employment here and outside the capital. The bank, for instance, is offering loans to people who want to start businesses, and most of the money is earmarked for people who do not live in Dili.

Sitting at the City Cafe, de Mello said that in the wake of crises in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, the United Nations should have been more prepared to assume a nation-building role. "We were not ready for this," he said. "But we are improving."

Asked about Ramos-Horta's praise, de Mello pointed to an eviscerated structure across the street that used to be an auto-parts store. The owner has not yet returned to Indonesia to reconstruct the building, still littered with rubble. "You call that success?" de Mello said.

Then, a second later, he looked around at the patrons in the cafe. "And there is this," he said, pointing to the neighboring tables.

"This is Timor," he said. "We have come so far, but there is still so much that needs to be done."

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