On the 12th May 2006 my wife Yvonne and I strolled along the unkempt esplanade of Dili’s beach front before walking through the streets of the town centre. Some of the buildings were still smoke stained and burned out shells, the legacy of the departure of Indonesia’s military five years earlier. The streets were littered with concrete debris and piles of rubbish. Smelly open storm water drains were clogged with rubbish and plastic bottles. There was very little vehicular traffic and few pedestrians on the streets.
Two days later on the 25th May, 2006 rebellious troops in Dili murdered 9 unarmed policemen near the Ministry of Justice building. The tranquillity and peace of Dili had been shattered. The rest is history – Australian peace keeping troops were immediately despatched to play a major part in returning stability to this small nation. More trouble was to follow in 2008 with the attempted assassination of two of the country’s leaders.
Return to East Timor – 2013
Upon my return to East Timor on 26th June 2013 as a member of the more recently formed Geelong Friendship Schools Inc. committee, (established in 2006), my mission was to inspect damaged schools so that we could allocate some of our hard earned funds to enable reconstruction of neglected schools. The 7 kilometre taxi journey from the airport to Dili included a number of pleasant surprises. There was clear evidence of a new era of peace and prosperity, there were many small businesses by the roadside and lots a pedestrian activity. There was also a new multi-lane bridge over the Comoro River. The highway was choked with motor cars, trucks, yellow coloured taxis and motor cyclists. The place was abuzz. There were also many newly constructed government buildings and private apartments as well as an impressive new shopping Plaza.
Unlike my previous visit when the only ship in port was a French warship, the port was now a bee-hive of activity. A measure of apparent prosperity was that sixteen cargo ships, including several container ships were at anchor in the bay. The Lecidere beach front esplanade had been restored and beautified by lawns, plants and trees. There was also a stylish water front public shelter with a long wave like roof. Students flocked to the cubicles beneath the roof and accessed the free power points for their laptops. Municipal cleaners were removing plastic bottles from drainage outflows onto the beach; other cleaners were performing the daily ritual of sweeping leaves from the footpaths.
Education – where we are assisting
The Geelong Friendship Schools committee is presently focusing upon rebuilding neglected and damaged schools close to Viqueque and at the township of Ossu (Population 5000). This initiative has been made possible by the receipt of a generous donation by a Geelong West family of $120,000. The school to first benefit will be Ossu Secondary School where three classrooms have been vacated due to rotting roof rafters and water damage. All of the existing schools have been neglected for several decades. Teaching requisites are basic and classrooms comprise of dirty white-washed bare walls and a blackboard. The use of text books is relatively unknown and the Friendship School committee is endeavouring to fill the gap.
Many primary school teachers are still untrained due to the exodus in 1999 of 80% of former Indonesian teachers. For a variety of reasons, the daily attendance of volunteer teachers is not guaranteed. School grounds are used after hours for students to socialise and to play informal games and sports. Many of these schools have no doors and are accessible after school hours. School perimeters may be unfenced and animals such as pigs, goats and horses can enter some of the class rooms with impunity. There is no such person as a school curator or cleaners.
There is no electricity, toilets or drinking water available in most schools. Many of the students walk barefoot for up to two hours to attend classes. A recent purchase of 200 pairs of sandals will go part way to bring a smile to the faces of some young students. Children in primary schools are required to bring one fallen stick each to school to fuel the fire that ensures that they have a cooked lunch of rice and beans. They are also required to bring a broom to school to sweep the earthen school yard.
Things are looking good for the future of East Timor. While the commitment to East Timor by a variety of NGOs and small community partners such as the Geelong Friends of Viqueque committee and Geelong Friendship Schools are but a drop in the bucket – we are comfortable that we are making inroads.
During the last few days of my visit to East Timor I relaxed on Atouro Island where I had an interesting conversation with a policeman. He spoke about his country’s turbulent past and the long road to recovery as well as Australia’s contribution to the fledgling democracy.
We eventually shook hands and as I departed he turned and said, “Thank you for helping my country.” It is encouraging to know that our efforts are appreciated.