A quiet feeling

Ten years ago at this time, I was going to the expanse outside Dili called Tasi Tolu, to see East Timor’s flag raised publicly for the first time on the territory since 1975.

May 21, 2002, the next day, I wrote

I just wanted to share this moment of joy. Today I woke up in an Independent East Timor. Four years ago, East Timor’s plight represented for me the plainest example of the callousness, cynicism and injustice of the media, of politicians, of the mystical “international community”… it was a source of a sort of bitter personal awakening for me at age 18.

Now I can say, that while living in East Timor for 9 months has only deepened for me the complexity of the words “justice” and “independence,” I can see today as the truly emotional and unforgettable day that it is. […]

And no matter how bogged down any independent country becomes in irritating and mundane politics, I can verify that this moment of Independence: to believe and know in your heart that you are no longer subject to an aggressive foreign occupier, is too profound to describe.

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Men of Timor

High-ranking Portuguese politician Miguel Relvas visited Dili last week. Relvas’ grandfather José Miranda Relvas was held in Timor as a prisoner during World War II, and his father was apparently born there.

The Portuguese narrative of the War apparently continues to be one of heroic victimization. Relvas was quoted as saying  “Our territorial sovereignty was violated and Portuguese there heroically maintained their position, preserving our values and defending our flag.” Sounds like the colonial koolaid has still not run out! Continue reading

Tumults and brinks

I feel an unavoidable heaviness triggered by the unrest. I remember reading the ICG’s blog entry of July 9

Concerns that the formation of a new coalition government might give rise to violence, as occurred following the 2007 elections, now look misplaced

And thinking, well that’s a bit premature. In 2007, the tumult came after the announcement of the coalition. 

Who knows what will happen this afternoon. As I have mentioned before, Timor has an eerie way of going “to the brink” and stopping.

If there is any pattern in relation to urban/political violence in Timor, to start, it is that the international community (and English-speaking media) always seems somehow completely taken aback, as though it was completely blind-sided. Continue reading

Lords of the land, lords of the sea

I really do not want to have to write about politics and conflict. Certain things must be said about these elections, just that I am not going to be the one to say them.

So instead, how about the amazing and FREE work of Swedish scholar Hans Hagerdal? He just published his new massive book “Lords of the land, lords of the sea” as an open access work. This is VERY exciting. (Thanks to one of my 11 readers for the tip-off.)

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RIP Avó Xavier

I cannot really summon the mental space to write as I would like to about the passing of Avó Xavier.

He was simultaneously an important historical figure and a down-to-earth man. I believe I met him first as an election observer, chatted to him once in a lobby event on child rights (!!), interviewed him as a researcher on late Portuguese colonialism, and lastly, I ran into him wearing shorts when I was on the way to Turiscai.

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Unfacebooked, or a telcoms monopoly as seen from space

I’ve written before about Timorese interest in Facebook.

But with the continuing telcoms monopoly, Timorese people simply remain offline.

Below is a section of MIT grad student’s rendering of the “unFacebooked” world. Indonesia, including West Papua, is super connected. And Timor… increasingly has electricity (yellow dots) but no Facebook (dark green).

(The Facebook friendship map is dated December 2010. Let’s hope with the introduction of 3G the situation is no longer so bleak.)

Fatin Histórico

More history developments!

A friend on Facebook drew my attention to this exciting site/project to help Timorese people document the history in and around them. “Fatin Historico” (Or “Historical Place”) is a blog in English and Indonesian (with Tetum language videos) where editors hope people will contribute photos, video and text. I can’t endorse the idea enough.

They write

This project is a labor of love of several youths who want to document the sites that made Timor Leste. We are interested in buildings from the ancient, Portugese, Chinese, Japanese and Indonesian era, urban (and village) planning, hideouts, old conversations and the soil and sea of Timor Leste.

Take a look at the post about the Japanese caves in Venilale, a place that you may have noticed from the car and been curious about.

The editors are Kamil Muhammad of the University of Melbourne’s Architecture program, and Pedro Ximenes, a Baucau based journalist. They will be partnering with Architects for Peace.

I hope to contribute material when I get a chance. I think it would also be great for them to include an interactive map of the posts they publish.

The little prince

Here I hope to bring to a wider audience the tragic and compelling story of a Topass “prince” from the island of Timor who was essentially kidnapped by a Dominican priest and abandoned in France in 1750.

Pascale Balthazar, the 12 year old son Topasse ruler Gaspar da Costa was taken with a couple of dozen slaves to Macau. There his charlatan “protector” Dominican Father Ignácio sold most of his slaves in Macau and his nice clothes in Canton, after which time they continued on to France, in a journey which took about nine months. During the journey, the priest convinced the boy not to reveal his status or walk around freely on the ship, as the French sailors were monsters and would eat him.

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Collapse three years into one

South Sudan gains its independence today – with many more dark clouds than East Timor had at the time. Troubling reports of fighting and of mass displacements in the border regions.

East Timor’s struggle against an invading force was quite different that South Sudan’s. In 1998, a referendum (and a half-hearted ceasefire) was brokered. 1999 was the year the referendum, the build-up and the bloody aftermath and mass displacement of the East Timorese population.

After a horrendous scorched earth campaign which cost many lives, transferred much wealth to Indonesia, and seriously disrupted the territory, East Timorese had over 2 years of UN administration before they formally declared independence (for a second time).

I cannot help but see events in South Sudan as a sort of “pile-up” of Timor’s 1999 and 2002. Continue reading

Search terms

I have been watching over the years what search terms draw people to this blog. Most visits are from search engines, which makes sense because I am infrequent blogger and the “blogging community” if it exists in English is very weak. Also because I mention obscure places and historical events that people are curious about, but as there is so little material available to Timorese they end up here. (Which somewhat saddens me.)

I think these are of interest because they give us some (limited) insight about what information people are seeking on the internet on Timor.

(That said, a look at the statistics reveals that US Marines are my most frequent visitors, thanks to a post I wrote comparing Alfredo to a rooster. Which leads me to think all military men are actually peacocks. But we’ll leave that for another post.)

Timor related top search terms in the past year are (in descending order of number of hits)

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Crowdfunding for Timor

I still work in the “development” business. I confess my sins elsewhere, i.e. Twitter.

But I will say, I have been searching for alternatives to help people support people in other places that does not involve big international organizations with operations and ‘footprints’. So I have been reading a lot about crowdfunding.

The idea of creating an online, global “kitty” is nothing new. Kiva has been around for years, but has recently undergone much scrutiny. It is hard to get these systems right, so that they are fair to recipients and donors.

That said, I wanted to draw attention to two crowdfunding experiments in relation to Timor. This is not a full moralistic endorsement of either, this is more like a plea to “give it a shot because everything else is annoying me right now”.

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Arbiru. It’s an adjective and adverb in Tetum. Quite useful and on a list of words that are important and tough to translate. Interesting that I grasp for other Asian words in the English language to translate its meaning. Somewhere between kamikaze bravery, running amok, randomness. As a memory aid, I would think “arbitrary” in English.

Arbiru can go right and it can go wrong. It is somewhere on the edge of chaos, and something essential to the war machine.

Looking through Luis Costa’s Tetum-Portuguese dictionary, I notice that there are few words in Tetum that have ar- as a prefix. The only other words from Tetum (Terik) are aruma (meaning whichever, whatever) and aran (meaning to hate, synonym with hirus).

But the word’s second and third syllables are more potent. A biru is a totem, or an amulet, possessing power to turn its holder invincible in war. Falintil guerrillas used these.

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Dear Juba

Independence was a vision shared by hundreds of millions of people culminating in decolonization and independence for most after the Second World War. Being involved in the Timorese cause for self-determination I got a taste for what that must have been like. But in the years following, I also got a taste of the “after.”

I remember one of the lines of conversation most repeated in East Timor. I have had this conversation multiple times over the past ten years. To paraphrase

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Nativity scene hangover

This post goes out to all those Timorese youth who woke up under flashing lights in a manger this morning.

Those who have spent time in Dili in December, or who go by the name of Bishop Ricardo, will know what I am talking about. Timorese youth have long made nativity scenes into mini discos. Given the lack of nocturnal recreation in most of the country, it’s hardly a wonder people confuse that a hut with flashing lights with a happening night spot.

Unfortunately, either some kids have taken it to excess or a certain Bishop whose name is an anagram for killjoy has finally decided that these nativity nightclubs are the worst thing since Martin Luther.

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Dengue in Dili

[Note: This was written a couple of weeks ago. With La Niña wreaking havoc on Timor, and non-stop rains, dengue appears to be more prevalent than normal this year, although I cannot find real data to back this up. This blog entry is dedicated to my bestest friend in Dili and her UNTL-attending sidekick, who nursed me back to health.]

I was about to start and finish this blog entry with “It sucks.” But that was me somewhat feeling sorry for myself, bitter and exhausted on the morning of Day 5.

Now I am at the tail end of Day 6. I am simultaneously irritated by one of the last symptoms, “tingling hands and feet” (read: this HORRIBLE itching that can last for 2-3 days) and bored out of my mind, I thought I would try and offer some tips to those who will not dodge the dengue bullet in Dili.

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Fake plastic flowers

I have never seen so many fake plastic flowers for sale in Dili. A week away from Loron Matebian – or All Souls Day, probably East Timor’s most important holiday – the streets near the Stadium, in Bairro Pite and other strategic parts of town are lined with lurid plastic flowers. “Loose” ones, fake bouquets, strings of flowers. They are bright purples, pinks, oranges, explosions of color.

The production of fruits and vegetables has caught up with demand in Dili over the past couple of years to an impressive degree. It seems a shame that the shame work to jumpstart these markets could not be done with cut flowers.

The fake flowers are probably an indication of the unparalleled disposable income of Dili residents – of the money splashed around with various cash transfer schemes and compensation schemes.

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Crowdmapping colonialism and occupation

Perusing through the photos on Panoramio, a platform that georeferences photos and places them on the Google Earth map, I came across a number of users – mostly Portuguese – who have put images from their time in Portuguese Timor in the 1960s and 1970s.

This and reading about the efforts of veterans of the Colonial Wars in Africa to “piece together the puzzle of memory” got me thinking about the power of technology in the future to help fully invoke the room of mirrors, or palimpsest, that (is/)was (post)colonialism.

I spent hours, many hours fueled by Tiger during the dark evenings of 2006, sorting through terms of vassalage and kings (and sometimes queens), attempting to plot them on a map with Professor.

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“I feel like my soul flew away from my body”

Today is both the anniversary of the 1999 Referendum and the International Day of the Disappeared.

Researcher Simon Robins wrote this assessment of the needs of families of the disappeared in East Timor earlier this year (pdfs in English and in Tetum). He quotes a representative of a womens group from Liquiça

I watched very closely the needs of victims‘ families; firstly it is important to have justice, secondly to have reparation for the victim’s family, that way they can live and carry on with their lives. Through reparation, the person can continue her life, look forward to the future and to be back again as she used to be. Looking at the side of education this time the Government has done some part of its duty as well as some payment for mothers to pay children school fees, again not all are getting this, only some of them. Another issue is the economic and especially health: why is that, because during this period, some of the victim’s family, wives are the most affected mentally. For these women, what they saw and what they’ve been through was notorious and they took it badly. A person like that had trauma and what will we do to heal that or to help them out of trouble? If there exists a treatment or counselling that can help her out so that person can continue her life normally.

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I am not going to lie. I found Pedro Rosa Mendes’ book Peregrinação de Enmanuel Jhesus extremely challenging. Starting of course with the variation and density of language, which some Portuguese critics have compared with Faulkner.

I know what kind of reading experience I had, as a person who has spent a long time in archives, and time crisscrossing the east of Timor talking with people.

The novel is presented as a number of interweaving narratives by different characters – none of them Portuguese! – Rosa Mendes is very much at home playing with identity, perspective and the kind of (post)-colonial house of mirrors. At first I found none of his characters remotely sympathetic. But the book is not sentimental and it is certainly not about sympathy. A kind of self-destructive empathy perhaps. These are the kinds of relations, and the kinds of characters, that come from occupation(s).

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Ruben “Aru” Barros Soares

For the past couple of days, I have been noticing a haunting Google search leading a reader to my blog.

“ruben barros soares staf unamet”

Towards the end of August, every Timorese family who lost loved ones before or after the Referendum must start to remember.

Barros Soares, known as “Aru”, was one of 14 UNAMET staff violently killed by Timorese militia and/or Indonesian military for helping to set up the UN-sanctioned vote on the “special autonomy” offer.

The son of the head of his village, he was working as a language assistant in Bobanaro district. For this, he was brutally murdered.

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Prison island and boat people

On the issue of a detention center in East Timor for those seeking asylum in Australia: continued insensitivity by both sides, especially in what relates to the eventual location. One Timorese minister has suggested what he deems to be a “win-win” idea to resolve the impasse – put them on the Island of the Island.

What follows is some historical perspective on the island that is the namesake of this blog, prisons and boat people.

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Touring troubadours

This week I had the pleasure of seeing Ego Lemos – currently Timor’s most famous singer songwriter – who is in the UK promoting his new album and playing a couple of shows. Unfortunately, many dates were canceled due to the unexpected illness of his touring partner Geoffrey Gurrumul.

Ego dropped into my place of work – a development agency where his ties as a permaculture activist go way back. I hope he does not mind me sharing that he talked at length about what he sees as his dual role as permaculture/community development advocate and songwriter/musician. He strongly believes that they two are not only compatible, but mutually reinforcing.

He told us about as a songwriter, he “hears” things, and is particularly sensitive to what people say and how they live. His work as a permaculture worker takes him to places where he hears about aspects of rural life.

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Semo time

Flying over Timor is a thrill. I’ve only had the privilege a handful of times. This past trip we arranged a Saturday morning, paid joy flight with Mission Aviation Fellowship. MAF does essential medivacs and transport services for NGOs, and is extremely cordial and professional – we felt very safe.

The idea was to fly up the Lacló River and over Funar. It was spectacular. Flying only 500 feet over the ocean, we saw a massive sea turtle, dolphins, small whale (?), and a large crocodile near Taci Tolu.

We also noticed a rather amusing pattern in the small fish collection pools created for low tide on the Taci Feto. Amazing how a whole new world is revealed only a couple of hundred feet above.

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