Born from resistance
Timor-Leste is relatively a baby of a country. Except it was not born fresh and new but battle-scarred and abused.
1999 welcomed in the country’s independence after twenty-four years of violent opposition against Indonesian invasion. It is now, ever so slowly, rebuilding and revealing its beauty of place and people.
Situated in the Malay Archipelago at the eastern end of the Lesser Sunda group of islands with the Banda Sea to its north and Timor Sea to its south. The island is divided in two. The eastern half is the new sovereign state of Timor-Leste. The western half is Indonesian, which ironically, contains the East Timor enclave Oecusse.
Timor-Leste lies 687 km (426 miles) north of Darwin, Australia and 1139 km (708 miles) east of Denpasar, Bali via air travel. The only other city with a direct flight is Singapore 2652 km (1648 miles) north-west.
Only three airlines fly to Dili’s Presidente Nicolau Lobato International Airport. They are:
- AirNorth from Darwin daily (1 hr+)
- Air Timor from Singapore Tuesday and Saturday (3 hr 45 min)
- Sriwijayaair from Bali daily (2 hr 45 min)
Darwin International Airport
My travel to Dili began at Darwin International Airport on AirNorth flight TL514. The only airline that flies between Australia and Dili. As Darwin is situated at the top end of Australia, the flight took only a little over an hour. The plane, an Embraer 170 Jet carries a maximum of 76 passengers with a two-by-two seat configuration.
There was just enough time to lick my fingers after savouring the scone and strawberry jam to prepare for landing. With Visa and custom form filled in, the first glimpse of the island showed a rugged southern coastline with a mountainous backdrop crowned by storm clouds.
Flying over the interior to get to Dili on the North coast showed the island’s volcanic origin. The dense forests and sparsely scatter tiny villages finally opens up as the plane follows the northern coastline towards Dili’s Presidente Nicolau Lobato International Airport. Through my rain drop window I see the distinctive totem style roof-line of the terminal with the Timor-Leste flag proudly raised above.
Dili’s Presidente Nicolau Lobato International Airport
The terminal is small, functional and situated only five or six kilometres from the city centre. Plenty of taxis and mini buses are waiting for you thanks to the scarcity of incoming flights.
My accommodation is the Hotel Esplanada on Avenida da Portugal. A rather unimposing street front but a pleasant internal courtyard pool and spacious, relaxing first floor restaurant overlooking the Banda Sea and Atauro Island.
Hotel Esplanada pool and view of Atauro Island from restaurant
I’m not here for a holiday, though it’s Easter time…which is something I’ll touch on later. I’m here to research an idea I have for a story I want to write. There’s nothing like getting the feel of a place. To walk the streets and understand the layout of a place. To meet the people and delve into their character and to lock the sights, sounds and smells into one’s memory.
My interest is in the bloody struggle for independence and the resulting devastation and rebuilding. As my time here is limited, I did not venture out of Dili except for a day on Atauro Island. So, for your benefit, here is what I discovered.
Cristo Rei of Dili (Christ the king of Dili) looks over the town and harbour. For the energetic a 600-step climb to the top.
Smiling faces of those too young to remember
The Portuguese colonised all of Timor Island until ceding the Western half to the Dutch in 1859. During WWII Imperial Japanese forces occupied the island after Dutch, Portuguese and Australian resistance failed. The Japanese surrender in 1945 saw Portugal regain authority. In 1949, Indonesia proclaimed independence from the Dutch and took over West Timor.
On 28 September 1975 the Portuguese decided to rid themselves of control of East Timor and give the people their independence. In just nine days Indonesia invaded. Over the following twenty-five years more than 200,000 East Timorese died from the ravages of war, famine and disease.
A 1999 referendum allowed all East Timorese to vote for independence. Almost 80% of the people voted in the affirmative. This was despite a violent intimidation campaign by pro-Indonesian militia.
In the transitional three years before declaring itself the then world’s newest nation on 20 May 2002, East Timor was governed by the United Nations.
They is still much rebuilding of lives, homes and infrastructure to be done.
The United Nations Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste (UNMIT) is was closed on 31 December 2012 having completed their mandate to provide law enforcement and public security. The Timor-Leste national police now perform these roles.
Though progress is slow, there are signs of improvement. China is now the major economic supporter of Timor-Leste since relations with Australia dampened over disputed maritime boundaries. They have built most of the Government office buildings including the Presidential Palace.
Government House and Dili Stadium
Directorate of Vocational Training and Dili University
Technology and communication is catching up and the Military Police Headquarters
Despite the above, the most tardiest of rebuilding are the roads. While some major roads are sealed most are making peering through stone-cracked windscreens and punctured tyres the norm.
But life does go on…
…around the streets
…under the trees
…on the beach
…no matter how slow — which brings me to Easter.
One thing I didn’t reckon on—and I offer this warning—Easter can mean days of worship, ceremonies and parades, but it also means many places close for up to a week.
…no matter how slow — which brings me to Easter.
One thing I didn’t reckon on—and I offer this warning—Easter can mean days of worship, ceremonies and parades, but also days and days of closed places of interest.
The Xanana Gusmao Reading Room was another museum important to my research. Disappointingly it remained closed while I was in Dili. I was not the only one expecting the room to be open as I was joined by a number of students sent to research their assignment.
It wasn’t till my last day in Dili that another important museum opened. The Chega Exhibition at the CAVR (Timor-Leste Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation) building is not easy to find nor familiar to all taxi drivers . Ask to go to CAVR building and not Chega.
The Portuguese word Chega means ‘stop’ or ’no more’. Appropriate, as it is in the cells of this prison, that some of the worst atrocities inflicted on the resistance fighters were carried out.
CAVR was a commission set up to compile witness statements of brutality and human rights abuses during the almost three decades of Indonesian occupation. Their “Chega Report’ of almost 3000 pages was finalised in 2005. Unfortunately little has been done since to bring those responsible to trial.
The English version of the 3000-page report, a cramped cell and the flower garden referenced in the words surrounding the CAVR symbol “CAVR has shown that flowers can grow in a prison”.
In one room is a chronological display for each year of the bloody and political road to independence. But don’t be put off by the splattering of red. It’s not blood but the stains of betel nut spitting. Since frowned upon but maybe just as off-putting as blood.
Understandably there are monuments dedicated to the struggle for independence and those who lost their lives. The Monument to the 13 Regions of Independent (below) is on the waterfront. Generally it’s not draped in white cloth and no-one could explain to me why it was during the period I was there.
Monument to the 13 Regions of Independent
But there can be a no more stark reminder of Timor-Leste’s deadly past than the small child’s grave isolated under the foreshore trees.
Other graves are not so isolated. Crowded and stretched to capacity by those who died fighting or through famine is the Santa Cruz Cemetery. Site of the 12 November 1991 massacre of 250 peaceful demonstrators by Indonesian police and soldiers. Australian cameraman Max Stahl was there and captured the massacre as it happened. A most engrossing and horrific video.
The black cross stands as a central point of offering. Flowers are constantly left and candles lit resulting in an ever thickening layer of melted wax. A testament to the depth of pride to those fallen and the foundation they left to build on.
A woman from Atauro Island
Lying about thirty kilometres north of Dili, Atauro Island is on the rim of the volcanic arch that cradles the Banda Sea. Rich in sea life and a popular dive destination. With a population of 8000 spread over the 140 square kilometre island allows for a peaceful and relaxed atmosphere…now.
The only way to get to the island is by sea. Charter taxis can be hired or for US$5 each way you can go by the Saturday weekly ferry. I chose the ferry. Tickets need to be pre-purchased at a small booth at Dili Harbour.
The morning ferry not only carries passengers, but also a vast variety of produce including livestock. I advise boarding early to get a window seat if you decide to sit inside. This can get hot during the two-to-three-hour trip so you will most likely end up on the upper deck to get some air.
Once on the island there is plenty of transport on offer. Mostly motorbike carts to navigate the various conditions of the roads.
One important thing to keep in mind is that the ferry returns to Dili at 3pm that day and will not be back till the next Saturday. So don’t miss the boat unless you intend to stay on the island.
There are places to stay but usually require a booking. Barry’s Place (below) is popular with divers.
I took a ride south to Maumeta, the second largest village on the island. The backdrop of towering mountains echo the past when the island was a Portuguese prison, and during the Indonesian invasion, many fled Dili to take sanctuary on the island. The ruins of the past and comfort given can still be seen .
As you travel around you are always greeted by smiling faces that are reflected on the faces of the locally made Boneca Dolls. Each doll is hand-made with its own personality and owning one supports the local community.
Returning to Beloi Pier in time to catch the ferry back to Dili allows a stroll through the beach-side market. An endless array of produce and products are displayed under the welcoming shade of trees.
Then it’s back to wait for the ferry to be loaded with local cargo before boarding.
Farewell Atauro Island.
And farewell to Dili and Timor-Leste.
Oh, the story? I’m still working on it as of this moment!