Magazine article Geographical

Birth of a Nation: East Timor Is about to Gain Full Independence after a Long, Hard Fight but It Has Paid a Colossal Cost. It Is Ranked among the Poorest Countries on Earth and Faces a Herculean Struggle to Drag Itself out of Abject Poverty. (Rebuilding East Timor)

Magazine article Geographical

Birth of a Nation: East Timor Is about to Gain Full Independence after a Long, Hard Fight but It Has Paid a Colossal Cost. It Is Ranked among the Poorest Countries on Earth and Faces a Herculean Struggle to Drag Itself out of Abject Poverty. (Rebuilding East Timor)

Article excerpt

JESUS SAT LOW IN THE DRIVER'S SEAT. HE WAS not sure whether the car was a Nissan or a Toyota. It was so badly rusted and peppered with dents -- and a couple of bullet holes of which he was quite proud -- that it was hard to tell. He knows the road from the airport to the centre of the capital, Dili, well. It is the city's main highway, although in parts resembles little more than a 4WD track. He drove with great caution, cruising around potholes the size of plunge pools and creeping over piles of burnt rubbish smouldering in the middle of the road. He steered with the smoothness of a 747 pilot but got so close to the fish stalls that the stench flooded in through the space where the window should have been and the stall holders cried out to him to keep his distance.

Driving is something Jesus can do, and as an 18-year-old growing up in the fledgling nation of East Timor, that useful skill could mean the difference between riches and poverty. During East Timor's long battle for autonomy it has been reduced to rubble and is having to start from scratch.

More than 78 per cent of the population voted for independence from Indonesia in a referendum in August 1999 which prompted the Indonesian-backed militias inside East Timor to let slip the dogs of war. A bloody month later an international peacekeeping force led by the Australians landed to crush the militias. The first democratic election last August -- which saw the socialist party Fretilin (Revolutionary Front of Independent East Timor) take 55 of the 88 seats in the Constitutional Assembly and the lion's share of posts in a new Cabinet -- was a milestone.

A constitution has been written and will be formally implemented by East Timor's first president. The elections are supposedly imminent, although in Dili dates have a habit of changing. Former freedom fighter and once a leader of Fretilin, Xanana Gusmao, who was jailed for his part in the resistance guerrilla movement, looks likely to win the top job.

These are the kinds of events after which streets and buildings are named in honour of the triumph of good over evil, and freedom over subjugation. New `Independence' Avenues, `Contitution' Drives and `Freedom' Squares are likely to spring up all over Dili. With the signing of a declaration in the next two months or so, East Timor will finally become a fully independent nation. It will also get control of its bank account which should be 312million [pounds sterling] (US$500million) in the black from funds donated from all around the world, though possibly minus 50million [pounds sterling] (US$80million) reportedly spent already by the UN. East Timor will no longer be an outpost of the sprawling Indonesian archipelago riddled with local agents spying on their friends and neighbours for Jakarta; no longer a territory of distant Portugal, which it was from the 1500s to 1975, when Indonesia invaded; and most importantly it will no longer be a war zone. It will stand on its own feet, make its own laws, build itself up and live in peace -- at least, that's the rhetoric.

The reality is that much of East Timor lies in ruins. When the Indonesian-backed militias were chased out in September 1999 they trashed everything. It was known as a `scorched earth policy', a systematic and deliberate demolition to punish this upstart of a place for daring to challenge the might of Indonesia, and it worked. In a catastrophic three weeks, 70 per cent of the nation was destroyed. Entire villages were flattened and Dili became a bombsite.

The head of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Finn Reske-Nielsen, compared it to Dresden after the blitz. Houses were burned down, churches desecrated and looted, schools and offices razed, and roads torn up. Instead of just bulldozing the odd telegraph pole to wreck the communications network, retreating troops cut every individual telephone wire along the roach leading from Dili. Not content with smashing lights in houses they unscrewed and stole thousands of light fittings, while others removed shower fittings and taps. …

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