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Personal Reflections On East Timor

East Timor - an aid worker reflects [courtesy of World Vision www.worldvision.org.nz]

Personal Reflections from East Timor - from James Wackett, World Vision Australia Media Bureau

When I arrived in Dili almost two weeks ago, the entire city was a vacant, smoldering ruin. It was an effort to find a building that wasn't burnt or still burning, and those I did see were looted and waiting their turn to be torched. In the streets there were no people, no cars, no commerce of any sort. Anything that wasn't nailed down was smashed, burnt or stolen. Money was almost useless. Just thousands of TNI troops and the slowly growing INTERFET force. Several thousand displaced Timorese huddled in makeshift shelters on the city's shorefront. The rest of the city's population had vanished into the hills.

Within a few days the TNI began withdrawing in large numbers, burning their barracks as they left. Through the large iron fence at the quayside the departing soldiers would sell their rations at exorbitant prices to the hungry Timorese who were brave enough to venture out of their makeshift camps on the nearby sea-front.

World Vision was amongst the first NGOs on the ground and despite having only a handful of staff, no vehicles and no relief supplies, became operational within 24 hours, delivering desperately needed rice to the town of Dare, an hour's drive south of Dili. The few tonnes of rice came from one of the Indonesian Government warehouses or 'Bulogs' in Dili which collectively contained several thousand tonnes of rice. After careful negotiation by WFP and World Vision with the TNI colonel in Dili in charge of logistics, transport was provided by two of about only half a dozen notoriously unreliable local trucks that remained in Dili.

WV staff spent their first four nights in Dili sleeping on the floor of an abandoned Nunnery. One of the few places in Dili with electricity and running water. However, the thinly stretched INTERFET forces in Dili were not able to guarantee security at the Nunnery. Twice, Australian soldiers informed us that they had intelligence that the Aitarak Militia were intending to attack the Nunnery that evening. Neither threat amounted to anything, but Aitarak's scare tactics were enough to disrupt the 60 or so journalists in the Nunnery compound and drive 40 terrified Timorese into the increasingly cramped facility seeking safety.

With the departure of most of the TNI and the predominance of INTERFET in Dili, thousands of people began to return to the destroyed capital from their hiding places in the hills. Within a few days of arriving WV took delivery of a number of vehicles and our operational capacity quickly increased. More vital commodities and logistics staff arrived. Regular distributions of food, blankets and tarpaulins were taking place in Dili suburbs and the Dili Stadium to thousands of returning families. Other distributions were undertaken outside Dili in Dare, Remexio and to Baucau. Office and accommodation space was secured adjacent to the UNAMET compound under the protection of the British Army Ghurkas.

The number of buildings being torched each day began to decrease and more and more people were out on the streets. A handful of taxis appeared. Small, outrigger fishing boats began going out on the harbor. A few tiny stalls began to appear selling tomatoes or mangoes. All encouraging signs, but all visible activity ceased at sunset.

The Timorese are an incredibly proud and resilient people. Over three days I saw hundreds of them returning from the hills through the dry river bed at Moto Laran. Their faces gaunt, their bodies tired and hungry. Yet always a smile, always a greeting ("Bon dia!") and a genuine gratitude, humbling to witness. The kids, as always, seemed to bounce back quickly. Skipping and playing and butchering the few words they knew of English! But you know their cheeky play is just a coping mechanism, suppressing dark and desperate memories they will take years to come to terms with.

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