Subject: AAP: Forgiveness In East Timor's Villages

AAP News September 10, 2002

By Sharon Labi

FATUK-HUN, EastTimor, AAP - The red juice of the betel nut stains her teeth and runs down her chin, settling in the cracks of her lips and the wrinkles of her weathered face. Maria Jose Barrato has no idea how old she is; her guess is at least 80, and it shows. Her tiny frame, hunched back, deep-lined face and stringy white hair are constant reminders of decades exposed to war, murder, rape and abuse at the hands of East Timor's aggressors. She says chewing betel nut keeps her teeth in place and her mouth fresh. Never mind that she has just a handful of rotting, discoloured teeth, barely enough to eat with. But then again, there's not much food to go round. Barrato lives in the village of Fatuk-hun, where she has defied East Timor's pitiful life expectancy of about 50. Here there is no electricity, no running water, and a lack of nutritious food. Homes have been destroyed twice in recent years, torched by the militia who destroyed everything in sight. But the children play happily, oblivious to their itchy heads and running noses. They line up in single file and wait patiently for their guests to help themselves to lunch and a dessert of green pancakes filled with shredded coconut and honey before eating themselves. Barrato is the village elder in Fatuk-hun, just 28km from East Timor's capital Dili, yet well over an hour's drive away because of the narrow, pot-holed roads. Burnt-out buses line the route, and huts along the way still display faded posters with pictures of their hero, independence leader Xanana Gusmao, now East Timor's president. Vota Xanana, they urge. But there is also tranquility. Buzzing dragon flies flit among the branches of the pretty pink bougainvillea trees, and children line the sides of roads selling bottles of water, bunches of bananas and firewood.

As a child, Barrato played in the coffee plantations and worked the fields with her parents. One of the old generation who still speaks Portuguese rather than one of the 37 East Timorese dialects, Barrato says her childhood was filled with struggle and hardship. "The Portuguese came into the village, they stole our sacred items and dumped them into the sea," she says.

Ask her about the Indonesians and she turns her back and raises her hand to cover her face, a gesture of scorn for those who murdered her loved ones. But still she won't express hatred. Hatred is too harsh and the East Timorese, who are devout Catholics, are the forgiving type.

"The Indonesians were much worse than the Portuguese. They burnt our houses, there were killings and they stole goods from people," Barrato says. "They murdered many members of my family." When the Indonesians invaded East Timor in 1975 and later rampaged through Fatuk-hun, murdering Barrato's parents, brothers and sisters, she fled until she found a hole in the ground beside a large tree. There she hid, catching sleep among the snakes as the sound of gunfire and bombs came closer to her hideout.

She fled again and eventually found a cave which was to become her home. She guesses she spent a few years hiding inside before deeming it safe to return to her village. "I've seen a lot of prisoners, it's been a waste of human life," Barrato says. "My son was saying I shouldn't talk like that, shouldn't criticise the Portuguese and Indonesians like that. But I tell him to shut his mouth because I've earned the right to talk." When she can muster the energy, she visits the Santa Cruz cemetery in Dili - the scene of the 1991 Dili massacre and the place where her family is buried. There she kneels on their crumbling tombstones and prays. Her story is common in East Timor.

There are few families who have not experienced murder and rape and theft at the hands of the Portuguese, Indonesians and, more recently, the Indonesian-backed militia. In this village of 55 families, there is hope that independence earlier this year will bring a better life, but many say it hasn't changed much yet. They still grow coffee, rice and cassava. The average wage in East Timor is $ 120 a month, but in Fatuk-hun many families survive on between $ 550 and $ 920 a year.

And with no contraception or understanding of it, families are producing, on average, eight to ten children. Distraught at having lost their homes at the hands of the militia in 1998-99, they won't talk about living conditions. They won't reveal how many rooms they have, nor how many children sleep together. There is no high school in Fatuk-hun and families often send only the brightest of the clan to be educated in Dili. But when tuition at a private Dili high school costs around $ 18 a month, plus living expenses, many villagers are forced to forego an education for their children. But there is some new-found hope in Fatuk-hun. Australian Margaret Flower, a retired widow from Adelaide, donated about $ 100,000 through aid organisation PLAN Australia to build a pre-school there. Mrs Flower was in Fatuk-hun to officially open the two-classroom school but, like the rest of the village, it has no electricity and no running water, at least for now. It does, however, provide shelter from the scorching sun for children aged three to seven. There are no blackboards, just wooden tables and chairs sheltered by a sturdy bamboo structure. Further down the rocky slope is the primary school. With no trained teachers, children are not yet learning to read and write. But that is about to change, with Mrs Flower due to provide another donation through PLAN for teacher training.

One little girl, three-year-old Nyly, says she wants to be a teacher when she is older. Most kids offer the same answer because they know no other professions. Farm life has been their world. Nyly walks to and from school each day by herself, something most parents of a three-year-old would never risk in western countries. In almost a whisper she says in her native East Timorese dialect of Tetun that she likes to draw, sing and dance. She has two brothers and two sisters and says her mama spends most of her time cooking rice. "Dada is a farmer and he makes money to help us go to school," she says. "He farms coffee and corn and vegetables."

Pre-school teacher Ermelinda Soares says the school has brought the village's children together in a safe and happy environment. Soares looks older than her 28 years, her hectic life consumed with the care of five children, a husband, a home and a field. She teaches at the school in the morning and works the field in the afternoon while her farmer husband travels long distances trying to sell vegetables. "I'm happy because I'm working. Teaching is good for me because there are no other jobs," Soares says. She is learning to read and write and teaches the kids to sing and dance. On pink paper, she draws outlines of flowers and distributes the few coloured pencils in the classroom so the children can colour them in. But Soares's responsibilities are a burden. Until recently a refugee in West Timor, she brings home $ 120 each month in wages through a PLAN subsidy, but she says there's never enough money for the family to live on.

Mateus Marques, a 28-year-old cassava farmer, is the community chief. He speaks briefly of the hardships but says they are not overcome by grief at the actions of the Indonesian-backed militia. "We try to put the militia behind us and get on with life," he says. The two biggest issues facing the village are unemployment and water. Villagers trek for an hour each way to the nearest river to get water but that provides just enough for the children. "My dream is to have clean water throughout the community. If we can get access to water, it will improve our income because we will be able to plant more things," Marques says. When it comes to money, much depends on the going price for coffee, the main cash crop. Villagers were once paid 90 cents a kilo for coffee; last year it was one fifth of that, leaving already struggling families with greater financial worries. Marques is married but unlike his fellow villagers, has no children yet. He says the new pre-school has created a happier and more optimistic mood in the village and he, like others, volunteers to help renovate the primary school. Once their two hours of tuition are up for the day, pre-school children gather with their parents and siblings for a rare community lunch to thank their Australian donor.

Soares sits on the wooden chair and waits for her eldest child to bring the youngest of her two babies to be breastfed. It is here that Barrato approaches Mrs Flower, two years her junior, clasps her hands together and bows her head slightly in an emotional gesture of gratitude. The old woman, once known as the Liurai, the elected head of the community, explains that the new facility will give her grandchildren and great grandchildren opportunities that she never had. "I had no opportunities to go to school, I'm illiterate," Barrato says. "I grew potatoes, coffee, corn, rice. There's a new generation and it will be educated. I am happy that the children are coming to school so they can become somebody one day." And she's delighted the school is in the centre of the village so children don't have to walk long distances on narrow roads busy with crowded buses and four-wheel drives. There was not much traffic in her day, Barrato says, and now it scares her. After her encounter with Barrato, Margaret Flower said she felt immense sadness at the contrast between their two lives. "I felt terrible because we have had so much opportunity and so much good food in our lives and she hasn't," Mrs Flower said. "She would have had a very hard life. I felt sadness really." * The author visited East Timor courtesy of PLAN Australia. AAP sal/jc

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