Daniel Broadstock - Thoughts on East Timor (2013)

‘I feel that, to the local traders, I may as well be wearing an enormous sign saying 'rich foreign sap'. Indeed, given my skin color and height (spectacular even by Western standards, I feel rather like Gulliver happening upon the land of Lilliput), I seem to be an object of almost zoological significance. The common reaction of the locals is to either stare and point openly, if uninterested bystander, or grin expectantly, if they have anything to sell. As if the depth of my pockets should be proportional to the height of my frame. Although, given the standards of the country, it probably is.

My pleasant room in Hotel Audian is comparable to a fairly modest country motel room in Australia, which, by east Timorese standards, is spectacularly luxurious. From my hotel room I can see the corrugated iron roofs of the shacks behind the hotel, thickly dotted with palm trees, rising to a skyline of the mountains which enfold the coastal city. I try to avoid standing outside the hotel, as the drivers of the interminable passing taxis eye me like a hungry fox spotting a fat, lame chicken in the open.

Or perhaps it is not avarice, but poverty that lends hunger to their eyes. For, surely the poverty is inescapable. Everywhere you look there are people trying to scrape enough to survive. The dwellings are hovels, and those with the luxury of painted walls have peeled in the sun. Street traders wander the streets selling water from small carts, or mangos from wooden staves they carry on their shoulders, which I presume to be their richest possessions. Everything is eclectic and improvised. Here and there are works of pitiful construction as shirtless workers toil in the heat. The roads are thick with taxis and motorcycles who beep each other incessantly as they weave in and out of lanes (not necessarily on their side of the road) and traffic. Every so often there is a large, impressive Government building, but vigorously fenced from their surroundings, as if their architects were adamant that the splendor of the state not be interrupted by the suffering of the people. Dogs and children play in the streets, as the adults persist with the business of survival.’

‘The rhythm of life is different here. In Australia everything is regimented, streamlined, ordered. Acts of contemplation and community are in perpetual, irredeemable retreat; our souls groaning beneath the demands of efficiency and accomplishment. Here, the rhythm of life is played at a lazy legato. Despite the poverty and the need, there is a sense of community that is palpable. Children laugh and greet you, and adults wave in the streets.

At one point, people began shouting around us. Apparently, a driver had hit another car in a nearby parking lot. When this occurs in Australia, it is little noticed, and those who do strictly ignore it, to avoid becoming entangled in an affair which doesn't concern them, and have their precious time stolen away. Such is the nature of our individualist lifestyle. But here, all around us, a crowd began streaming toward the incident, to remark upon the driver or render assistance. Ann said that it could be because they were bored and the smallest of things were a source of ‘entertainment’, but I am convinced that it is the natural expression of a community in which curiosity is not an intrusive vice, but the emotional product of caring for those around you.’

‘Driving in Dili is a spectacular and terrifying experience, especially at night. The only road law appears to be that you must not hit anyone, and drivers and pedestrians consistently defy the laws of probability and physics in abiding by it. Drivers routinely weave in and out of gaps in the traffic which seem impossibly inadequate, coaxing their groaning engines onto the search for the next customer. How many of these engines continue to run is a mystery surely known only to God.

Of the cars themselves, only the steering wheel is consistently used, with the horn being the favored element. Brakes are only employed as a last resort, when the driver cannot avoid the approaching obstacle simply by swerving into the wrong lane, or off roading. There are never any traffic jams. Cars simply flow through the streets at a lazy 50km/h like the rippling current of a stream, constantly beeping other drivers and pedestrians as they negotiate for more space, or to swerve into another lane.

Whatever the living conditions of Dili, the local environment is surely a miracle of creation. Dili is enfolded within an arc of spectacular forested hills, and occupies a stunning bay of crystal blue water. When driving along the waterfront roads, I could only pray that the driver was not as entranced by our surroundings as I. Although, admittedly he could hardly have driven any more hazardously if he were.’

‘Despite the beauty and brilliance of such landmarks (the statue of Christo Rei), it is always with mixed feelings that I approach them. I cannot help but feel that they are in some sense the brutal symbol of an imperialist church. Surely, I thought, the statue is stained with the sweat and blood of the East Timorese people, just as the Catholic cities of South America and Africa had been by that of their own people. In my view, such monuments are little less than a blasphemy to the Christian gospel of equality and human dignity. It was then with some amazement that I was told that the statue had been built, not by the Catholic empire of Portugal, but by the Muslim occupation of Indonesia. It had been built, not as an act of religious colonialism, but as a monument to the faith of the Timorese people. The statue was, in fact, a remarkable act of kindness and religious pluralism. My heart was greatly lightened by this revelation.’

‘Our first visit was to a place called the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This organization had been created to investigate and report upon the human rights abuses which occurred during the colonial era and the Indonesian occupation. The place is both poignant and uplifting. It is located within an old prison, which had been used by both Portuguese and Indonesian governments to imprison and torture East Timorese political prisoners and dissidents. We visited what were called the 'dark cells', which are a collection of dark concrete cells, each roughly the size of an average Western bathroom, in which 20-30 east Timorese prisoners could be held indefinitely. The walls are scrawled with the graffiti of the prisoners, emblazoned with expressions of faith and hope, images of Christ and assertions of resistance and defiance, and affirmations of their fight for peace and justice.

It is truly an extraordinary place. The suffering of the East Timorese people, so long shunned and ignored by the powers of the world, were hidden no longer. There was not a trace of the complacency which now marks Western society. What had been a hellish symbol of oppression and injustice had been reclaimed as a most beautiful affirmation of human triumph. The East Timorese people have finally reclaimed their dignity, and independence is worn upon their shoulders like a golden cloak of glory, which not even the poverty of their present circumstances can disguise.’

‘Today, I saw a young Timorese man wearing a t-shirt that said 'Hope is the dream of a soul awake.' Oh, how these people hope. Here in this crystal jewel of the Pacific, hope is the only abundant resource. Their children may die of malnutrition, their only earthly wealth may be strapped to their backs, their survival may depend on the engine of a taxi that by every law physics should have failed years ago, and yet somehow their hope endures.

They have suffered every injury, indignity and injustice known to humankind. For 500 years their reality was death, rape, forced migration, the separation of families, the destruction of culture and the suppression of identity, and yet their spirit could not be extinguished. Somehow they defied all the powers of the world and won their freedom by the very strength of their moral courage.

The extraordinary courage and solidarity of these people endured to the end, as will the shame of the world, who permitted the oppression of these people for so long. Such is the distinct suffering of the people of East Timor that the complicity of the world's politicians transcended political boundaries. Gough Whitlam endorsed the Indonesian invasion in 1975, and Bob Hawke permitted the deal with Indonesia which divided East Timor's oil and gas reserves, and which Australia continues to steal to this day.’