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East Timor Looks for Help with Growing Pains

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

We're getting reports of more looting today in the capital of East Timor. It's the latest bit of bad news for one of the world's youngest countries. Gang violence erupted there last month. Foreign peacekeepers moved in, but they could not protect tens of thousands of people who had to flee the capital.

NPR's Michael Sullivan has been visiting those internal refugees. Some are asking, what has happened to the United Nations?

MICHAEL SULLIVAN reporting:

An estimated 100,000 people are now living in temporary camps in and around the capital. Camps like this one, the Dom Bosco Catholic School near the airport. The arrival of the Australian-led peacekeepers almost two weeks ago hasn't convinced these people it's safe to go home.

For 65-year-old Joaquin Alvez(ph), being here at the school is depressingly familiar.

Mr. JOAQUIN ALVEZ (Resident): (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: We had to leave our home and come here in 1999, he says, when the pro Indonesian militias started killing and burning. But I never thought I'd have to be here again, seven years later. After independence, he says, things were supposed to be better. But now, they are even worse.

Adriano de Jesus is the headmaster at this school and the man in charge of looking after those who come here seeking refuge. He, too, thinks things are worse now than they were during the violent separation from Indonesia in 1999.

Mr. ADRIANO DE JESUS (Headmaster, Dom Bosco School, East Timor): It is because in 1990, we had only one enemy. Today, everybody knows (unintelligible) the Indonesian soldiers or the militias. But at this moment, the people more afraid, they're more traumatic rather than '99.

SULLIVAN: More traumatized because they simply don't know who the enemy is now.

Mr. DE JESUS: Yes.

SULLIVAN: It could be a neighbor.

Mr. DE JESUS: Yes, exactly. It could be a neighbor. And the reality is so in this.

SULLIVAN: De Jesus says about 13,000 people have taken refuge here at Dom Bosco, and that number is increasing every day.

(Soundbite of fire and explosions)

SULLIVAN: Increasing because the violence has not ended. Houses are still being burned and looted on a daily basis, despite the arrival of the foreign peacekeepers. This neighborhood is about a half-a-mile from Dom Bosco, a place where angry residents, mostly unemployed young men, roam the alleys with machetes, rocks and homemade spears looking for those who burned their homes.

Unidentified Man: What happened with our house in this area? We lost everything! This is the height of inhumanity!

SULLIVAN: The ongoing violence has taken on ugly flavor, pitting those from the east of the country against those from the west, creating tension that many here say did not exist before. The Australian-led peacekeepers do what they can to disarm and disperse troublemakers, but they can't be everywhere at once.

Ian Martin is a senior U.N. official who helped oversee East Timor's transition to independence. He's here now to assess the situation for U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Mr. IAN MARTIN (Special Envoy, United Nations): It's very sad, indeed, to come back after the hopes of independence and see again things that are reminiscent of scenes in 1999; houses burning, civilians having been killed, and this time, violence that can't be attributed to an external act (unintelligible) that is amongst Timorese themselves.

SULLIVAN: There are many here and abroad who say the United Nations was too quick to scale back its peacekeeping and nation building effort in East Timor. And one of those critics is East Timor's Foreign Minister Jose Ramos-Horta, the Noble Peace Prize winner and foreign minister, who, last week, became the country's defense minister, as well.

Mr. JOSE RAMOS-HORTA (Foreign Minister, East Timor): The U.N. left too early. The U.N. had a very short mandate to build a country out of scratch and turn it into a state.

SULLIVAN: Ramos-Horta says the U.N. simply could not build a modern state with a functioning economy in so short a time. But he also says the ultimate responsibility for the recent unrest lies squarely with East Timor's government, for its mishandling of the allegations of discrimination in the military, and allegations of government corruption. That, coupled with widespread unemployment, Ramos-Horta says, helped create the current situation.

Many here say the Prime Minister, Mari Alkatiri, should resign and accept responsibility for the unrest. Jose Ramos-Horta believes that would help. He also believes a long-term U.N. presence is needed, and soon.

Mr. RAMOS-HORTA: I would say, stay here at least five years to ensure that the country is finally stabilized. We cannot afford to have a foreign forces and the U.N. leaving in six months, one year. And then you go back to the same kind of instability. There has to be a strong U.N. engagement. That sound long, sound costly, but much, much less costly than you have to intervene in one year, two years, leave, and then come back a year later or three years later.

SULLIVAN: Ramos-Horta says his country, in theory, has the potential to deliver on its people's aspirations, with strong international support, with gas and oil revenue, and with a population of less than a million. The key, he says, will be good governance and help strengthening existing institutions to provide it.

The need for a long-term U.N. presence is one of the few things here that almost everyone agrees on. Few say they trust the government anymore. Many say the promises of a more prosperous future left when the U.N. wound down its operation last year.

(Soundbite of a crying child)

SULLIVAN: Not far from Ramos-Horta's house, Luis Netto(ph) and his wife Karen(ph) run the Cas(ph) bar and restaurant on the beach. They started their business a year after independence. And for a while, Luis says, things were good in part because of the large foreign presence.

Mr. LUIS NETTO: Lots of U.N. here, lots of Western people here, so we can open this business and make money so for our life.

SULLIVAN: It was a good life, his wife Karen says, until the U.N. and many foreign aid agencies scaled back their operations. She reckons about 75 percent of the bar's business went with them. Things got even worse two weeks ago, she says, when looters emptied their house in the center of the city and took everything, even family heirlooms she'd brought with her from Australia. But she and Luis are planning to stay despite the unrest and looking forward to more business in the near future.

Ms. KAREN NETTO: But hopefully with this presence, the peacekeepers here at the moment, if they're going to stay maybe things will get back to that busy time again. We hope, anyway.

SULLIVAN: What most here would settle for, at the moment, is simply an end to the violence and instability.

Back at Dom Bosco, 65-year-old Joaquin Alvez says that would be all right with him. But what he really wants is for the U.N. to come back and be in charge for good.

Mr. ALVEZ: (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: I'm just an ordinary man, he says. And I don't know a lot about politics, but I think our leaders have shown they're just not able to run the country. So maybe we should give the job to the U.N. and let them do it. Then, maybe we can go home.

Michael Sullivan, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.