Subject: NYTimes: Emerging From Its Crisis, East Timor Rebuilds

The New York Times October 18, 2000

Emerging From Its Crisis, East Timor Rebuilds


DILI, East Timor --Terezinha Orleans is building a new home. Charred tin roofing for the door and shutters. Fire-blackened nails to hold their frames in place. No roof yet, only a blue plastic tarpaulin donated by the United Nations and held in place by dangling stones.

"It's the same house we had before," said Mrs. Orleans, an elementary school teacher. "But it's a new house built out of the burned materials."

The house is only temporary, she hastened to add. "It's for maybe one or two years, and then if we have the money maybe we can build another one."

Destroyed by rampaging militias after its vote for independence from Indonesia in August of last year, East Timor is coming back to life. But it is a slow and painful rebirth.

Its protector is still the United Nations, which saved it from the vandals and which for another year or so will continue to administer it and help put in place the basic structures of nationhood.

After a slow start, the process is well under way. Aid is reaching the people, job programs are functioning and policies are being made on everything from taxes to budgets to criminal justice.

In a sign that East Timor is emerging from a time of crisis, local leaders have begun to squabble over political power. In response, the United Nations has sped up plans to draft a law on political parties in preparation for an election expected in about a year.

A year after its national trauma, when more than 1,000 people were killed, 70 percent of the buildings destroyed and more than a quarter of the population of 800,000 forced by pro-Indonesian militias to flee their country, the violence has ended but the healing is only beginning. East Timor has breathed in; it has not yet breathed out.

Most people are no longer taking shelter in the hills, in soccer fields, on the waterfront or in cardboard lean- tos. But few live in real houses. The towns and villages, as well as the small commercial center of the capital, Dili, are vistas of smashed and roofless buildings.

And a year before it is to become fully independent, East Timor still has no constitution or set of laws or political parties. Its court system and police force are little more than training schools. There are only a score of Timorese doctors and few clinics. Schools have just reopened, but few have roofs or chairs or desks or pencils or trained teachers.

Small markets open at first light each day, and local residents wander Dili's rural lanes with shoulder poles selling a few heads of lettuce or tubers or bananas.

But apart from farmers, most people remain unemployed, and the only real growth so far is in the distorted and temporary economy serving thousands of foreign aid workers and United Nations staff members.

Indeed, Jose Alexandre Gusmao, the nation's de facto leader, said in an interview that East Timor would close a number of much-needed schools and hospitals because it could not afford to keep them open.

Beyond its lack of money, Mr. Gusmao said, East Timor suffers from a more fundamental scarcity of what he called human resources. During Indonesia's 24-year occupation of the former Portuguese colony, which it invaded in 1975, Jakarta did little either to develop the region or to train and educate its people.

Schools were staffed by Indonesian teachers, government was run by Indonesian clerks and services like water, electricity and ports were operated by Indonesian specialists. Most of the population remained illiterate.

Just to reopen most of its damaged primary and secondary schools, Mr. Gusmao said, East Timor would need $14 million. Its annual operating budget at the moment is just $45 million. But finding teachers is an even greater challenge.

"Besides the physical reconstruction, besides the establishment of government, besides some political activities and programs, the problems of human resources will be a permanent problem," he said.

This extends to politics and government administration. Many of East Timor's brightest and most talented people, like Mr. Gusmão himself, spent the past decades fighting in the hills, in prison or in exile.

Trying to address this need, the United Nations has begun what a spokeswoman, Barbara Reis, called Timorization. In a sort of on-the-job training for running a country, local leaders are playing an increasing role in the transitional administration.

It is a program that could be seen as on-the-job training for the United Nations itself. "This is the first time in United Nations history that international staff has worked under local nationals," she said, and some members of the international staff have not been happy about it.

The country's long-term challenges are highlighted by the difficulty the United Nations is having in filling those jobs. Although 80 people applied recently for posts running East Timor's 13 districts, only three were found to be qualified to be district administrators and six to be deputy administrators.

"There will be people making decisions, approving laws, who have no experience in these things," Ms. Reis said.

She acknowledged that the United Nations would have to play a continuing role even after its interim administration ended. "We are not crazy in the illusion that in a year we will have all the professions in place running the country," she said.

The creation of a self-sustaining economy is another crucial challenge. There are hopes that East Timor will become self-sufficient in rice and corn and that revenue from offshore oil will boost its treasury. But so far, few prospects have emerged for a lively market economy.

Mr. Gusmão has asked his largely jobless countrymen to be patient, promising that international investors would soon begin to fuel economic growth.

But after looking the place over, most investors have decided for now to stay away. Almost the only foreign projects for the moment are quick- buck enterprises targeting the foreign economy: restaurants, bars, car rental companies and temporary trailer-house hostels. All of them are wildly out of the reach of most Timorese. Very good cappuccino is served in the cafes, but it costs almost as much as the daily wage of a port worker.

Among the concerns for investors, said an entrepreneur from Hong Kong who runs a cafe but has backed away from more ambitious investments, are questions about East Timor's long-term stability, the poor quality and relatively high wages of the work force and the emergence of local gangs that extort protection money.

The biggest hurdles are the unwillingness of banks to lend money to projects here and unresolved questions about land ownership in a country where most buildings are ruins and most leases and other legal documents have been lost.

"If you want to go into business here, it's all your own money," the Hong Kong businessman said. "And how do you know your building won't be taken away from you in a year?"

Despite these overwhelming problems, hope for the future and pride in their new nationhood seem to be the mood today among East Timorese.

At the tiny airport, a woman in a new uniform stamped passports as her small daughter, in a frilly dress, played beside her. Someone had made a mistake on his exit form, and she corrected it. "Don't worry," she said, pausing, her stamp in her hand, to offer a proud smile. "It's part of my job."

The refugees are gone now from the little stadium in the center of town, and people are playing soccer again on the unmowed field. The East Timor Lawn Tennis Association has reopened beside a burned-out building, with two leaf-strewn hard courts and barefoot ball boys. Some of the players are barefoot too.

The residence of the Roman Catholic bishop, Carlos Ximenes Belo — the moral heartbeat of East Timor — which was ransacked and burned by the militias, has recently been leveled by workmen in preparation for the construction of a new building.

But buildings are not what it is all about, said Mrs. Orleans, the schoolteacher. "I'm not worried about the material stuff," she said. When people voted here last year, the militias had already warned them that they would kill and rape and burn if East Timor chose independence. Nearly 80 percent of the people voted for independence anyway.

"We knew — we were sure — that even if they burned everything, we would have our independence," Mrs. Orleans said. "We knew things would be better than before even if life was hard. We would be able to become a nice country just like other countries."

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