Subject: BBC: The world's youngest country

The world's youngest country By Jonathan Head

BBC, East Timor

Five years ago the people of East Timor had their first opportunity to choose their own future and a staggering 98% of registered voters turned out to cast their ballots in favour of independence.

What do people have a right to expect five years after winning a Titanic struggle for independence?

That thought played on my mind as the old Indonesian airliner made the familiar approach alongside East Timor's dramatic coastline, my 17th visit here.

It had always looked the same: barren, mountainous and poor.

The only time it had been different was when we arrived after the madness of five years ago.

Then, as a parting gift from the Indonesian military, everything was on fire. Everything. And even after 24 years of heavy-handed development by the Indonesians, East Timor did not have much to begin with.

So, you still see burnt-out houses everywhere, even in the centre of Dili, the pretty little capital.

But this does finally look like a real country, with its own functioning government, and with many of the modest, Portuguese buildings restored to what little colonial glory they had.

There are neatly uniformed policemen directing traffic and a bewildering one-way system around which the creaking taxis circle endlessly.

There is even a rusty old ice-cream van tootling around, playing the tune Greensleeves.

And, of course, there are the ubiquitous white trucks ferrying international workers between meetings and long lunches in the cafes, which sprang up after liberation in 1999.

Rocky road

Even with a much reduced UN presence here, East Timor is still an economic basket case, dependent for much of its meagre $70m (£40m) national budget on foreign aid.

Five years on though, you would have thought they would have time to fix the road up to Bazartete, or any of the other roads.

The Indonesian military used to maintain them, for its own sinister purposes - true - but at least the people of Bazartete could travel easily down from their mountaintop village to sell vegetables.

Today the road is a terrifying, crumbling track clinging to the slopes and it takes twice as long to make the journey to the coast.

And with a new high-cost dollar economy, what they earn buys them much less than it did in Indonesian days.

Few people here can afford electricity or healthcare. But the astonishing thing is that they do not mind being even more abjectly poor than they were under the Indonesians.

People here, everywhere, still take such heart-warming pride in their historic achievement five years ago. And who can blame them.


The day of the referendum was one of those moments no journalist who covered it will ever forget.

For the tiny United Nations mission charged with organising it, in the most impossible conditions and timeframe, it was even more moving.

Today, as I share recollections with Patrick Burgess - one of the UN team then who stayed on to help East Timor get back on its feet - the tears still flow freely as we remember that day, and, knowing now, the terrible violence that followed it.

East Timor had already been subjected to an occupation of unparalleled cruelty for over 20 years.

But in the months leading up to the vote, the Indonesian military inducted thousands of young men here, into militia gangs who kept up a relentless campaign of intimidation to try to deter people from choosing independence or from voting at all.

A large proportion of the population had been driven from their homes, and had to walk for hours to reach the polling stations, which were still menaced by militiamen.

Yet, there they were in their thousands, waving their registration papers, as the sun rose, waiting to vote for the very first time on their own future.

Many could not read or write. Many had suffered unspeakable barbarities. But etched on their faces was a determination that you can still see today.

"We knew", the old pastor of Bazartete church told me, "that this was our moment to show the international community what we really wanted and we were ready to die to prove it."

Fearless identity

There are some grubby realities facing East Timor now.

It is the poorest country in Asia, with a government led by exiles who fought in their own way for independence, but who lost contact with the struggle and suffering shared by the people who stayed.

Rumours of corruption abound. The police and judicial system are hopelessly inadequate to resolve today's disputes over how this country's very limited wealth should be distributed.

But ask anyone whether it was worth it and they all answer with a resounding "yes".

The government tells them to be patient, and even five years on with little to show for all their sacrifice, they are prepared to wait.

After all, it is their government.

And there is something else that hits me every time I come back. It is the families laughing and playing on the beach in Dili or eating grilled fish from roadside stalls.

We never saw that in the days of Indonesian rule.

Instead what we used to feel - taste almost - without anyone talking to us (because few dared) was the fear.

That has been lifted and it is something the East Timorese are still enormously grateful for. Even now, five years on.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 4 September, 2004 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Published: 2004/09/04 11:40:32 GMT


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