THEY were rapid truths, brought home to me over two weeks like the sharpness of the mountain slopes of the country.
My wife, Severina, saw East Timor after leaving years ago the worst of a series of very real threats.
I had entered the half island long after my early, unrealistic efforts to promote a cause which had led to controversy, division and confusion.
The world was to realise, along with myself, that the invisible embrace of the Vatican was to give sanity and direction to those who had endured the mortality which followed a whim of realpolitik.
The word ‘rebuilding’ could well be a cliche, but it was something unmentioned because of its obvious need.
The media had affirmed that this was the newest of nations and the poorest in Asia.
I saw the culture and worship of the people over this brief stay and felt that beneath the smiles of their existence was an endurance, watching and waiting for change and wondering how to cope with it.
This is so with all of us, but I will try to outline why it was felt so keenly in East Timor.
We travelled with one of the two bishops of East Timor, Dom Basilio do Nascimento, a member of Severina’s family, and with Teresa, Severina’s sister from Portugal.
Dom Basilio was returning from his yearly visit to Portugal. We were to stay at his residence in Baucau, away from the border and from Dili, the capital of the tiny country.
The friendship with Dom Basilio had begun 10 years before, while visiting family in Portugal.
The casual approach of the newly appointed officials gave some balm on entering Dili through President Nicolau Lobato Airport, named after the original resistance leader who died in battle.
The uniformed officials were efficient, but amused to have become part of the world of scrutiny and rubber stamping.
Faces I had never seen and who we had not expected waited to greet Severina.
There was a short silence, full of a deliverance of a kind.
Then Dom Basilio’s driver led us to the four-wheel drive which would begin the trip along the seaboard and up to Bacau.
Dili had darkened as we climbed the broken surface of the narrow road.
With many questions to ask Dom Basilio, who sat beside his driver, I was grateful for his command of English whenever my Tetum vocabulary exhausted itself.
Baucau finally presented a roomy residence set high beside the main street.
This wide building, set on a rise overlooking the sea, had undergone changes to accommodate guests.
The night had moved on, and after a late meal, and being greeted by another sister-in-law, Rosario, secretary to the bishop, we were fresh after showering in our ensuite, relaxing in our bed beside the wooden shutters at the window, half open to the sea breeze and the sound of traffic and the crowing of ever present roosters.
The road and the sun intensified early in the morning, with foot travellers mixing with traffic as buses honked their horns.
Walking to the marketplace we saw reminders of past violence at the side of the road – a small wooden cross or two, secured by a hollow cement block and strung with a thin black ribbon, a request for prayer for those lost in the Baucau region.
At the market, fish were kept fresh with sprinkled water, while flies were waved away.
But the freshest fish came on a day we went in three four-wheel drives to visit the islet of Jako at the eastern tip of East Timor.
We set out to round the island in two outrigger canoes with outboard motors, while two young men trailed lines.
Soon a fair-sized red reef fish was dropped into our boat.
Then, while circling the island, the lineman at the stern of the other canoe strained to pull in a larger, grey fish, cousin to a tuna, from the ocean.
I could see Dom Basilio laughing as they cheered.
Back on shore the crew and passengers of the luckier craft would not let us forget how the better fish was caught in the presence of the legate of Peter the Fisherman.
After the markets, on the first day, we were taken to what Dom Basilio described as ‘the heart of the land’.
This was where the people of the marketplace lived.
The bishop was greeted along the way by children, running to slap his outstretched hand as we drove along and laughing all the happier at having scored a hit.
The bishop had struggled to keep their schools open.
We had come to the land of the lulik, which in Tetum means sacred.
The lulik is also a symbol of animism, often seen in miniatures of stilted huts. The practice of the people’s twin religions of Christianity and animism is undeniable.
Before East Timor was invaded in 1975 an estimated 90 per cent of the population were animist.
After the invasion, those people were all received into the Church.
During our short stay I saw nothing to suggest that their devotion would flag when the cloak of guidance and protection might be challenged by the worst of our worldliness.
The land was awaiting the wet season, grass and shrubbery were being burnt off for another season of crops.
But the smoke was also coming, densely, from the burning of wood fuel.
According to an East Timor newspaper which I found at the airport on our last day, wood is being used as fuel because kerosene has become unaffordable.
Wood was stacked and sold by the roadside and water was carried in containers in carts and often in pitchers balanced with grace and skill on the heads of women who walked many kilometres.
The water would be drawn from a spring – for a price.
The price was often determined by senior citizens whose lulik was precious to the earth, a price which could run as high as a buffalo for a certain tenure.
Police were at the roadside at one village, investigating a murder. Factions lay dormant here, and erupted afresh with violence.
Village people were without radio or television, yet Dom Basilio found they received the most important news concerning life and death long before he heard it elsewhere.
Not far away there was a school for manual trades, run by the Marist Brothers.
Australians seen in East Timor, besides those belonging to the United Nations or the army, were working to bring employment or to improve the health of the people – like a small group of optometrists we met who were working through Apex, and who found the incidence of myopia to be present 10 years earlier than normal.
One day we visited the Canossian Regional College to see two sisters we had befriended when they visited Brisbane a few years before.
This was a training centre for computer skills, sewing, cooking, music, religion and the use of whatever could arrive as surplus equipment from other countries.
The equipment could be used once a 10 per cent gift tax had been paid.
The children of the villages were the same children I saw from the railings of the residence, walking the slopes to and from far distances, sensing the tight traffic, immaculate in their uniforms as they laughed in a happy discipline, daring to try their English on an Australian and more than willing to use their Portuguese, now the official language, on a visiting Timorese who had known a Portuguese East Timor.
They came from homes with a 57 per cent illiteracy rate, and in their joy at achievement, they knew nothing of the dearth of funds which threatened to close more than half of their schools.
Dom Basilio has a sponsorship scheme whereby US$50 will support a primary school student for a year and US$125 a secondary school student.
While we did not discuss a system of barter, there was obviously a wide and informal co-operative in trading.
I had no idea the smartest of school uniforms were cut and sewn beneath a roof I had hardly noticed across the road.
Because we travelled with the bishop I was sometimes mistaken to be a priest.
Usually I could enlighten people, with some humour.
But at Baguia, where almost 200 children received confirmation, I was lost for words.
After the ceremony a young woman walked directly through the crowd and threw herself at my feet.
Children were looking on but were not surprised.
I signalled for Severina to come over and help me out.
The woman pointed to my pocket notebook so I opened it and gave it to her with my biro. Severina had arrived and was telling me gently the woman had a mental health problem.
She gave me back my notebook and said “Don’t forget”.
I promised her I wouldn’t.
When I was able to show Dom Basilio the notebook he said he had seen her in the crowd.
She was disabled because she had been interrogated by the occupying army and beaten about the head in a way which stamped her for life. There were many cases of people who had been falsely accused.
In our travels through the villages I had become curious about the presence of signs erected by the Indonesian army which were left intact. When I mentioned it, Dom Basilio told me the signs were neither here nor there to the people, except as signs.
So the East Timorese had their Christianity, they had their luliks, their long memories, and yet the past could be the past.
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