|Subject: SMH: Closed schools, closed doors
for East Timor's children
Closed schools, closed doors for East Timor's children
November 2, 2006
Years of poverty and conflict have undermined East Timor's sense of community and destroyed many of its social and educational institutions, writes William McKeith.
LAST week I made my fourth trip to Dili, which I first visited in 2000, soon after the widespread destruction caused by the retreating Indonesian armed forces. That first time I stayed offshore with US marines, such was the lack of functional housing and accommodation for travellers in the wasteland that was Dili.
Yet last week's visit seemed to be even more disturbing and upsetting than that first one and those that followed.
The purpose was to check on two small schools and to locate six local teachers who are being financially, emotionally and materially supported by my Sydney school. The schools' 90 pupils have not attended classes since the ethnic riots in April, and we had been able to make contact with only two of their teachers. Reports indicated the schools had been occupied by international military forces and the teachers and their families, fearing for their lives because of the actions of rival ethnic gangs, had disappeared into the mountains.
The people of East Timor are bruised and damaged. They are running scared of people within their country and they don't know whom they can trust. Years of domination, poverty and conflict have undermined their sense of community and destroyed many of their social and educational institutions.
Children are everywhere in the streets of Dili. Vacant land is occupied by tented UN refugee camps. From these supposedly safe sites, unclothed and food-deprived children wander, seeking scraps from the dust and the rubbish that lie around what remains of homes and stalls and from what is thrown from the four-wheel-drive vehicles of the international forces.
This little neighbour is only an hour from Australia, and Australian leaders pride themselves on their sense of mateship and concern for the welfare of others, giving everyone a fair go. Yet we cannot underestimate how much damage was done to relations with Australia by the protracted arguments and negotiations over the rights to gas and oil.
The effect of the perception of Australian bullyboy tactics on our relations with East Timor is yet to be fully worked out. Misinformation and wild speculation are further damaging the positive reputation developed in recent years.
The faces and the human condition of the people reveal the story the statistics hide. The future, the children, are growing up in a society with 80 per cent unemployment and riven by internal ethnic conflict. East Timor is competing with Malawi for the title of the world's poorest nation. The evidence is everywhere: the closed schools, the closed and damaged tertiary institutions, the children hawking cigarettes and phone cards, the number of aimless adolescents sitting along the roadways, idle and looking for trouble. But mostly it is in the faces of the people. In the loss of hope, the vacant expressions, the despair of those in the refugee camps.
I tracked down a third teacher. All three are in refugee camps. One is running a small kindergarten, yet the parents of the pupils are unwilling to risk their children's lives by letting them return to school. All six teachers are from the east of East Timor and the three that I located are too scared to return to their schools in suburbs of Dili where much of the fighting has taken place.
The displaced families are reluctant to return to the remains of their burnt-out homes. For as long as the dry season continues, the camps are relatively manageable, but with the onset of the monsoon season, a change in housing policy and direction is urgently required.
There is disagreement on direction and nation building among the leadership. The signs of social order and control we take for granted are virtually nonexistent in Dili. Many children are growing up with violent death in the family, with uneducated and jobless parents, and without attending school. The picture is bleak. Those of us working with teachers and young people are concerned about the absence of well-educated emerging leaders who can give vision and direction to East Timor.
The focus on policing and law and order is essential, but underpinning development with a well-supported, sustainable educational structure is the only way for social transformation to occur, and this will not happen quickly. Companies, especially those seeking to exploit natural resources, must have substantial social and environmental expectations imposed upon them. Employment creation, small business and agricultural joint ventures, and reconstruction of health centres, kindergartens, schools and tertiary institutions should be the focus of aid initiatives and institutional partnerships.
Australia's international reputation would be enhanced with a comprehensive partnering program targeting these goals. The need is now if we are to re-establish ourselves as genuine friends, concerned for the welfare of our nearest and poorest neighbour.
Dr William McKeith is the executive principal of PLC Sydney and Armidale.