Subject: AGE: Let them eat grass

From Shirley Shackleton

This article was published in The Age, May 31st. on the Opinion page under the heading Downer’s Decency Deficit.

If anyone can think of anything or anyone would might be interested in helping me to do something practical to treat what should be minor medical problems, please contact Shirley Shackleton on (03) 9699 1002 in Australia.



During his quarter century long resistance to Indonesia’s illegal occupation of his country, Kay Rala Xanana had to eat quantities of grass to survive. One way to counter death from starvation on this inadequate diet was to add wild chilli to make the disgusting stuff go down. As a result Xanana Gusmão, President of Timor-Leste developed an allergy to the spice. Even today any tiny amount of chilli contained in his food brings him out in a painful rash.

Four years after the Timorese voted for their freedom, many who survived the murderous destruction of their country are still boiling up grass in a vain attempt to feed their families. Dr. Dan who runs a clinic in Dili, says, ‘Babies, young children and the old are dying from malnutrition and preventable diseases.’

The country remains one of the poorest in the world. Education and basic health care - even access to clean water - is still beyond reach of the majority. The situation is highlighted by the death of a 12-year-old girl, Julmira Babo who collapsed in September last year. Cause of death was established by an autopsy conducted by the United Nations forensic pathologist, Dr Nurul Islam at the Serious Crimes Unit in Dili. Squirming inside this child were hundreds and hundreds of parasitic round worms. Julmira was starving and the equally hungry worms travelled from her small intestine into her oesophagus and invaded her respiratory tract and mouth. She died from suffocation.

One Vermox tablet would have cured this child. In Australia it would cost $4.00.

Not knowing how ill their daughter was and unable to consult the medical profession, Julmira’s family did what a lot of us do in the western world - they tried alternative medicine, to no avail. There are only 20 doctors in the entire country and many hospitals have no medicine or electricity. Annual spending on health is about twenty dollars per person. Dr Nurul swears he has never seen anything like Julmira's case.

‘In my forensic experience I can't believe this, no never. In any tropical or sub-tropical country you may get some one, two three five ten worms that's not a problem But in this case, hundred and hundreds of worms, and so big, twenty to thirty, thirty-five...really, really unbelievable. And no I have never seen it in my lifetime.'

These facts make the remarks of Alexander Downer on ‘Rich Man, Poor Man,' Four Corners 10th May ABC TV) seem appallingly smug.

‘We won't be shamed into anything,’ he said, glossing over the fact that Timor-Leste loses $1 million a day due to Australia's unlawful exploitation of oil resources in the disputed area. While advisors to the Australian government haggle over legal background and the position of the Timor Trough, tragedies like the one that befell Julmira continue. Australia no longer accepts the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice on matters relating to its maritime borders, yet even Professor Triggs, legal advisor to the Howard government acknowledges that there’s a case for putting royalties into a trust account until the matter of the treaty is resolved. The treaty signed by Gareth Evans with the Suharto kleptocracy was illegal.

East Timor has a core of dedicated political leaders and civil servants, but the problems they encounter in their daily lives would thwart anyone: the Dili, Baucau and Suai District Courts have been unable to function properly for the past week for lack of funds. They cannot pay their telephone bills or buy fuel for court vehicles and therefore cannot deliver court documents. In addition, judges from Baucau have been unable to return to Baucau in their court vehicle due to an inability to buy fuel. Cases are delayed because the District Courts lack funds for basic daily needs.

Mr. Alexander Downer in the Age (Sat, May 15th) urges us to be proud of our overseas aid budget while admitting that aid alone will never be enough to meet the complex challenges facing developing countries. This rhetoric ignores the deplorable poverty facing the Timorese and Australians must wonder why our privileged masters deny them a policy of common decency.

While the Howard government continues to refuse to talk about the key issues, the oil companies continue to pump petroleum at a rate of $1 million a day, and to date this amounts to $1.5 billion.

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