There’s a certain rhythm to life in Dili 6 months on, and although most times we aren’t sure what’s going on, we can be sure that there’s something.
On a Sunday this mostly Catholic nation can be guaranteed to be either on their way to church, lots of traffic, at church, no traffic, or on their way home from church, more traffic. We avoid the roads if we can on weekdays about 12noon, and on the first Monday of the month when flag raising ceremonies stop all traffic dead we try and head in to work before 8am or after 9.
We wonder what the new banners being put up are about reveal and we know when the kids start practicing their drumming (for up to 6 hours a day) that there’s some festival coming up.
So, it’s not without precedent that today after brunch and before a massage that our trip to the pool (posh place, $180 a year membership) gave us something to ponder. And yes I know, the list of todays activity, so far so bourgeoise.
Walking through the glass doors (members enter from the rear) we found our usually abandoned spot resembling a watering hole in Darwin. Hearing them before we saw them, aren’t they really just like their native birds, all squawking and bright colours, the pool was crowded with Australians.
That in itself isn’t unusual. There’s plenty of Aussies here, volunteers and contractors, and you can usually tell the former by their lean and hungry look, they’re a little threadbare and the latter by their natural habitation of the only real sports bar in town. Today’s visitors lounging about had a more well healed appearance. Most were in-house guests.
It’s been a big few weeks in Timor-Leste with this unusual influx of visitors, with that familiar sense brought from home of putting out the good tablecloth and the family silver. Everyone on their best behavior and that slight tension bubbling under the surface (what will Uncle do?).
Streets were swept more frequently, flags hung, bits of road finished, a bridge opened. Everyone seemed to have at least one foreign dignitary on their welcome list and there were parties organised left, right and centre. We stood on the street for an hour watching the official bridge opening, shoulder to shoulder, snuggled up with the locals and caught bits of conversation about who was who. For even the most uninformed it became obvious who were the biggest of the bigwigs by their number plate and how close they got to the podium before they had to walk from their car. Nothing says look at me like a VVIP tag (Very Very Important Person).
You see it’s a big deal celebrating the birth of a nation. 20 years ago, the Timorese came out in droves to vote in a referendum that ended 24 years of Indonesian occupation. They were up before dawn in the villages, a turn out of nearly 98 percent at the makeshift voting polls and about 5 days later when the count came in, a massive 78.5% of the voter chose independence over autonomy within Indonesia.
Imagine the despair wrenched from joy when between August and September pro-Indonesian Timorese militias and the military commenced a scorched earth campaign of retribution. Killing approximately 2000 Timorese, they displaced over 2/3rds of the population and destroyed the bulk of the country’s infrastructure, homes, irrigation, water supplies, schools, government buildings and nearly 100% of the country’s electrical grid. This provides little comfort but at least a reason why the power is off a couple of hours 4 days a week. Formal institutions and government structures disappeared overnight.
In September the International Force East Timor (INTERFET) made up of 22 nations and led by the Australians arrived in Dili. Included were around 1200 New Zealand soldiers (NZ’s largest overseas military deployment since the Korean war), and the frigates Te Kaha and Canterbury and replenishment ship Endeavour. Their goal to restore order and independence was achieved when on May 20, 2002 the Timorese elected resistance leader Xanana Gusmao as president.
In Dili today, there’s a shadow of what was left behind when the UN left in 2012. Restaurants that once hosted staff now lie empty. Down by the waterfront towards Cristo Rei you’d not be surprised to find the odd tumbleweed rolling down the street as the doors flap open on their hinges. 2 or 3 staff sit around, waiting. High noon at the Not Ok Corral.
Apartments are closed. The Australian hairdresser at the local spa still talks about the ‘boom’ times and there’re ghosts of drunken soldiers past lurking about in the corners of the Sky Bar at Timor Plaza. There’s even a massive concrete kiwi at the old New Zealand base in Suai.
Once buoyed by the presence of so many people with cash to burn, you can’t just suddenly take that away from such a fragile economy. Since 2012 Timor Leste’s gross domestic product has crashed by half to less than $3billion. The change in circumstances is ever present.
So that’ll be the Aussies at the pool. Friday will see a day programme including speeches and songs at the palace, a march and a football match between INTERFET forces and the local F-FDTL (Timor-Leste’s Defence Force). New Zealand is sending Minister Ron Marks and others, there’ll be a matching set from Australia and there’s bound to be roadblocks, traffic issues and much flag waving.
Remembering the past is a critical part of Timorese culture, hoping for the future is mine.