Subject: IHT: UN Challenge: How to Bring East Timor Back to Life

International Herald Tribune Thursday, December 9, 1999

UN Challenge: How to Bring East Timor Back to Life

By Michael Richardson International Herald Tribune

LOS PALOS, East Timor - When Elsa Magno, a schoolteacher, stood up the other day at a crowded meeting with visiting East Timorese leaders, she raised a question that went to the heart of this soon-to-be-independent nation. ''What languages will we teach in our schools, where will we get enough teachers, and how will we pay them?'' she asked at the gathering in a traditional community hall with no walls and a thatched roof.

In a former Portuguese colony that was invaded and occupied for 24 years by Indonesia, such a question had many heads in the audience nodding in agreement. For a generation, the language of instruction in East Timor's schools has been Indonesian, not Portuguese or the widely spoken indigenous dialect, Tetum. Many schools were staffed by Indonesians who fled as violence between supporters and opponents of independence intensified this year.

The conflict culminated in a systematic campaign of terror, burning, looting and forcible displacement of the population by pro-Indonesian militias and hard-line nationalists in the army after nearly eight out of 10 East Timorese voted for independence in a UN-organized referendum on Aug. 30.

Slowly, painfully, but with surprising resilience, East Timor's traumatized people are piecing their lives together again. With international aid, families are being reunited, given temporary shelter and food, and hope for the future. In the past few weeks, for example, UN officials say that 51 of the 65 schools in Los Palos district have reopened. ''The local community and the Roman Catholic Church have done an amazing job in getting kids back into classrooms,'' one official said. ''For the moment, it doesn't matter that we can't pay the teachers.''

While the emergency relief effort in East Timor has been hampered by some delays caused by supply and coordination problems, aid workers said it had largely achieved its aims and would soon be superseded by a longer-term reconstruction and development program. The aim is to provide a firm foundation for East Timor's independence within three years. ''The sooner the better,'' said the independence leader Xanana Gusmao. ''It should take no more than two years.''

But the questions posed by Miss Magno and other residents of this town 180 kilometers (110 miles) east of the capital, Dili, indicate the magnitude of the task facing the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor and the pro-independence leadership group, the National Council for Timorese Resistance, which Mr. Gusmao heads. The Los Palos residents wanted assurances not just about improvements in education, but in employment, public health, agriculture, government and the rule of law.

East Timor is likely to be the first new state of the 21st century. It is both a major challenge and a unique opportunity for the United Nations.

''This is the first time the UN has been given responsibility and massive resources to take over the complete running of a country,'' said Jose Ramos-Horta, a senior member of the council who for years acted as its chief spokesman abroad. ''If we fail, it will be a disaster for UN credibility as well as the people of East Timor.''

Dili, the wrecked capital, is slowly coming back to life. An estimated 60,000 East Timorese have returned to the town from hiding places in the hills or from camps in Indonesian West Timor. Power supply has been restored. The market is partly occupied again by people buying and selling food and basic household items. Vendors have set up stalls on the streets, although almost none of the shops have reopened.

A few taxis and microbuses ply town routes. In the past few days, following two fatal traffic accidents, UN-trained traffic wardens have started directing vehicles and pedestrians at some busy intersections. But the task of rebuilding public administration and institutions almost from scratch, training East Timorese, reviving the economy, and providing enough jobs to sustain viable independence is daunting. ''The key issue is employment, especially for young people,'' said the owner of one of the few restaurants operating in Dili. ''Without that, the promise of independence will turn sour.''

The World Bank last month estimated that the cost of a three-year reconstruction program for East Timor would run from $260 million to $300 million. Representatives of the East Timorese, the United Nations, aid agencies, international financial institutions and foreign governments will meet in Tokyo next week to discuss the program and how to fund it. A recent draft report by a World Bank-led survey team said that the violence after the independence vote had caused ''catastrophic human and physical damage.''

East Timor had an estimated annual per capita income of $431 in 1996 and 30 percent of households lived below the poverty line - double the average for Indonesia. The survey concluded that more than 75 percent of East Timor's population - thought to have been around 850,000 - was displaced in the weeks following the ballot results, and almost 70 percent of the country's physical infrastructure, including homes, schools and administrative buildings, was destroyed or rendered inoperable. ''Both the public and private sectors have suffered almost total collapse in the aftermath of the violence in East Timor,'' the survey report said. ''The civil service is not currently functioning at any level.''

While the destruction provides an opportunity to build something better for the future, the United Nations and the nearly 60 different aid organizations working under its aegis in East Timor are racing against time and conflicting pressures, not least the need to get things done as quickly as possible while ensuring that East Timorese are properly consulted.

The recently arrived head of the United Nations in East Timor, Sergio Vieira de Mello, has acted speedily to overcome tensions between locals and foreigners by setting up a National Consultative Council with a large majority of Timorese members to advise him on all major policy issues. ''I don't want the Timorese, who feel weak, to be asphyxiated by a huge international superstructure under which they feel crushed and denied initiative, latitude and participation,'' he said.

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