Subject: Townsville Bulletin : HOPE for violent youth

Townsville Bulletin

November 11, 2006

HOPE for violent youth

Karen Michelmore

Gang violence has left East Timor's capital devastated and its residents shaken. But, as KAREN MICHELMORE reports, one project rising from the rubble is offering new hope to Dili's violence-prone youth THE tension in East Timor's capital is palpable.

It's there in the piercing, angry gazes of the youths who sit in the dusty streets of Dili's outer districts, itching for a fight.

It's in the empty feel of entire neighbourhoods, shops and houses shut up, alongside rows of burnt-out, vandalised buildings.

Violent clashes can spark from the most trivial disagreement between neighbours, or even a rumour circulating on the street, true or otherwise.

The tension has at times exploded into full blown riots, involving hundreds of people armed with machetes, guns and slingshots, leaving a trail of destruction and death.

The presence of hundreds of international police and 1000 Australian soldiers, including 100 from Townsville, hasn't yet put down the simmering tensions.

Occasionally, the international forces have themselves become targets for angry mobs.

East Timor -- a nation proud of its successful 24-year struggle against Indonesian occupation -- has had a tumultuous existence since an overwhelming majority voted for independence on August 30, 1999.

Much of the violence is being wreaked by its young people, who hold the nation's future in their hands.

Youth workers warn that the potentially explosive mix of poverty, alcohol, unemployment, long-held rivalries and a high tolerance of violence among Dili's youth needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.

Two in three people in East Timor are aged under 25, and more than half of them are unemployed.

Most are impoverished. East Timor, just 500km to Australia's north, is the poorest nation in Asia and 40 per cent of people struggle to survive on just 70 cents (AUD) a day.

Some families cannot afford the $A7.70 a month it costs to send their children to school.

And many of the nation's young men spent their formative years immersed in a culture of violence and lawlessness during the Indonesian occupation, or as fighters themselves for the resistance movement.

''If the gangs from Redfern were as well trained as these guys are, Sydney would be in trouble,'' Umajuentude youth worker Jose Sousa-Santos says.

''Especially because they are traumatised, there is almost this willingness to die. It's one of the things that they say with a lot of pride, when they are actually out battling on the streets -- Timorese aren't scared of dying.

''They say that in a chorus and it's because, to them, the people that have died in these conflicts are also their heroes.''

It is thought that some of the violence is also stirred by individuals with political ambitions, who 'rent a crowd' to destabilise the country for their own grab at power, or hire thugs to burn down houses in individual property disputes.

Australian researcher James Scambary says there are some 22,000 unresolved property disputes in Dili dating from the 1999 violence when thousands fled after the nation's historic vote for independence.

About 50 per cent of houses after 1999 were occupied by squatters, he says.

''People have lost patience with trying to settle things through the courts,'' Scambary says.

Authorities say that when violence does flare, it often takes on a life of its own, with revenge attacks and counter attacks, fuelled by gossip and rumours. But still, there is hope for a different future.

In the shell of a large burnt-out old house, hidden in the shadow of a bridge in one of Dili's poorest districts, a pilot project is underway to try to reverse the trend towards violence.

Two youth workers -- one Australian, the other American -- are trying to push one group of young Timorese back onto the right path.

They are building what they hope will be the first of six youth centres across Dili aimed at giving bored youths an alternative to fighting.

With few tools, the as-yet unresourced project has managed to get 40 to 50 young people to show up every day for the past two weeks to turn the dilapidated home into a functioning youth centre.

It's the first project specifically targeted at that demographic, with most non-government organisations previously unwilling to work with such a potentially troublesome bunch.

''Unfortunately the kids have been left on the sideline,'' says Sousa-Santos, who has been working with locals for four years to try to develop the project.

''Most youth centres were built around church groups, and they are the kids that are already under control.

''This is a long-term project but we believe the effect that we can have on these kids is tremendous.

''These are the kids that would normally start a lot of the trouble, under the pretext of protecting the neighbourhood or defending their homes.

''These are the same kids that were carrying guns, these are the same kids who right at the beginning we were treating for gunshot wounds -- and you look at their faces now and they are quite hopeful about what's happening here.''

Surveying the grey crumbling, graffiti-filled walls, the project's other youth worker, Justin Kaliszewski, proudly explains the centre will one day boast a gym area, computer and English language classes, and an outdoor basketball and volleyball court.

''I think it looks really good right now because we have done a lot of work on it already,'' says Kowalski, head of Colorado-based charity Edge.ucate.

''Essentially we have got a crowbar and a home-made sledge hammer, we did all of this with our hands.''

The youth centres have the backing of Prime Minister Jose Ramos Horta, and have been promised funding in the future.

Until the money arrives, the group is being creative, using sheets and empty sacks to remove piles of rubble from destroyed walls.

Local teenager Teo Costa admits it's hard work, but everyone is pitching in.

''We are together, even if we are tired we take it together,'' the 19-year-old says.

''I want to work here because after all this is cleaned up, they are going to open English courses and computer classes. I like that.''

The boss of East Timor's oldest martial arts group Korka and former resistance fighter, Nuno Kork, believes the centres might help reduce the violence across Dili.

''Lots of my kids are working here now -- it's a very big change,'' Kork says.

''Before the project started, 75 per cent of the youth here were just sitting by the street drinking, but now we can see . . . they are working really hard to build this place.

''I'm not saying it's going to stop it (the violence), I'm just saying it's going to decrease it.

''To stop you have to ask the government to do something (about unemployment). It's going to be complicated.''

About 75 per cent of Dili's youth belong to large organised youth groups, martial arts organisations or gangs, some formally linked to political parties.

Sousa-Santos describes it as a 'corrupted warrior culture'.

''These kids want to be part of something, they want to feel like they are contributing, and if the only way they can feel like they are contributing is to be part of the violence, then they will do that,'' he says.

''It's all about giving them options, if they have nothing else the only way they are going to feel respected, or feel like they are part of a group, is to join a gang, to join neighbourhood violence.

''What you have got to do is give these kids other skills, which will give these kids a bit more pride than what they are doing at the moment.''

The centre will service four surrounding villages, or about 500 local youths.

More than 100 teenagers and children turned up for a recent test to determine levels for future English classes, Sousa-Santos says.

''It's almost heartbreaking. You look at the heavily tattooed kids, but you look at their faces and they have this absolute hope that things are changing now for the better,'' Sousa-Santos says.

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