Subject: Washington Post: Rebuilding East Timor--From Scratch

Washington Post Sunday, October 10, 1999

Rebuilding East Timor--From Scratch

>From Ashes of Turmoil, U.N., Relief Agencies Will Try to Create a New Nation

By Keith B. Richburg Washington Post Foreign Service

DILI, East Timor—In their two-week outburst of violence following East Timor's vote for independence, Indonesian soldiers and militiamen managed to take this small territory back to what some are calling Year Zero. Now the United Nations and relief agencies arriving here just behind international peacekeeping troops are trying to figure out how to put East Timor back together.

The job is daunting. In Dili, the capital, the central business district has been destroyed by fire, according to a preliminary U.N. assessment. All the banks have been burned down, as have the restaurants. The markets are all gone.

The destruction caused by militias and members of the Indonesia army angered by the independence vote was wide and severe, particularly in the western part of the territory. According to the U.N. assessment. Maliano is 80 percent destroyed, Balibo is 95 percent destroyed, Liquica 60 percent destroyed, Glenois 80 percent destroyed, and Suai 90 to 95 percent destroyed, with "all major government buildings . . . the fuel storage facility, water reservoir and marketplaces destroyed," according to the assessment.

More than 80 percent of the territory's civil servants, most of whom were Indonesian, have left--and that includes hospital staff, port workers, municipal employees and 87 percent of the teachers.

There is no government, no court system, no legal system, no police. The only functioning justice system is that imposed by the Australian-led peacekeeping force, which has been detaining suspected militiamen and holding them for 72-hour periods.

"This is no man's land now," said Ross Mountain, the U.N. humanitarian affairs coordinator, as he ticked off the problems facing the world body as it tries to shepherd East Timor toward nationhood.

"This is about nation building," he said, and the incoming U.N. Transitional Authority for East Timor is "going to have to more or less run a country with a civil service that has been decimated."

Since East Timor voted Aug. 30 to separate from Indonesia after 24 years of harsh occupation, the list of questions about its future is has grown.

For example, what will be the official language? Indonesian is almost certainly out, because of the association with brutality and the violence of the first two weeks of September after the election results were announced. The pro-independence Falintil guerrillas would prefer Portuguese, the language of the former colonial power, but they have been isolated in the mountains for more than two decades and few young people speak or understand the language. The language commonly used here is Tetun, but it is not spoken outside East Timor--and for now many civil servants and teachers likely will be foreigners.

Another question: What currency will be used? The Indonesian rupiah is still the common currency, although once the territory formally breaks from Indonesia after the election is ratified in the People's Consultative Assembly, there will be strong pressure to change that. But to what? And how will a financial system be constructed?

"There's no bank operating anywhere in this territory," Mountain said. "You can walk by and see they're pretty well gutted."

The U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF) would like to get primary schools up and running quickly, and is looking at a Dec. 1 start date. Primary school teachers, who were mostly East Timorese, have largely stayed. But they have no textbooks, no curriculum. Also, all the principals, teaching instructors and Education Department administrators are gone.

There is also a question of what to teach. "The curriculum is unusable," said Robert Bennoun, UNICEF's director in East Timor. "Is it a history of East Timor? No. It's a history of Indonesia. They have to develop a curriculum that's consistent with the people, culture, history and aspirations of the people of East Timor." Asked how long it would take to develop it, he sighed and replied: "About 200 years."

One surprising aspect of the wave of destruction here has been that school buildings were left largely undamaged. But since they are among the few buildings still standing, most are being used either as U.N. facilities or base camps for the peacekeeping troops.

Even seemingly simple jobs like getting water and electricity restored to the capital are time consuming and costly. The central part of the city was served by a water pipe system that is intact. But six of the seven supplementary bore holes are inactive because there is no electricity to run the pumps.

Most of the outlying areas of Dili are served by a ground water system that relies on hand pumps, and many of those are not working. UNICEF's water expert, Philip Wan, said they are trying to assess how many hand pumps need to be replaced, and he has ordered 1,000 sets of spare parts and 1,000 new pumps. The bigger problem, Wan said, is finding mechanics who can fix the systems.

Restoring the agricultural sector is another major challenge. The rainy season begins in just a matter of weeks. But hundreds of thousands of people are still displaced, and might have already missed the planting season. With no crops in the ground, the marketplaces in towns and cities cannot be revived.

The larger questions, of course, are how much this massive reconstruction will cost, and who should pay.

The United Nations and relief agencies are planning to launch an appeal for an amount initially estimated at $135 million, although that figure--which would cover a period up to nine months--is being revised constantly.

Despite the massive problems, relief officials are optimistic. For one thing, they say, East Timor has two institutions active across the territory--the Roman Catholic Church and the main independence group, the National Council for Timorese Resistance. The council is already helping relief groups organize food distributions around Dili neighborhoods.

Also, the United Nations is hoping to persuade some of the thousands of East Timorese expatriates to return. There are an estimated 22,000 East Timorese in Australia, with huge numbers also in Portugal, Mozambique and Macau. "One would hope one could find talent there that can be attracted back," Mountain said.

"This is a very doable operation," said Michel Barton, spokesman for the U.N. humanitarian affairs office.

"I don't believe East Timor is going to be an Asian Tiger any time soon," he said. But he added, "What's been destroyed is shelter, they haven't destroyed hope."


Back to October Menu
World Leaders Contact List
Human Rights Violations in East Timor
Main Postings Menu

Search this site                 powered by FreeFind


If your browser does do not support forms use: Search   Site Map   What's New

Note: For those who would like to fax "the powers that be" - CallCenter V3.5.8, is a Native 32-bit Voice Telephony software application integrated with fax and data communications... and it's free of charge! Download from http://www.v3inc.com/