Enclave pt. 1

I hopped on a MI-8MTV-5 Russian helicopter on Thursday to return to East Timor. Well, technically, for the past day I had been in East Timor, just in its extremely isolated enclave Oecussi. Sitting next to me was an extremely friendly South Korean peacekeeper who said “whoaa, we are taught how to shoot these down! These are the enemy’s!”

I could not help but expose myself as a hopeless tourist, with the digital camera, trying to shoot photos out of its round, porthole like windows.

My mission on this trip to Oecussi had been to observe the workings of the CAVR, the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation. One of the main functions of the Commission is to promote “community reconciliation” via hearings and agreements conducted in the traditional way at the community level for lesser crimes committed in 1999. “Crimes of blood” and rapes are to be sent to the Serious Crimes Tribunal run by the UN.

My interest, in the hearing to be conducted in Sakato, a hungry coastal community just east of the largest town in Oecusse, was to see how a juvenile offender would be processed. One of the 11 deponents was under 18 in 1999. I knew only this.

When I arrived to Sakato, with members of the Commission, the women were banging gongs and drums (babadok in Tetum). The men were stomping around with these beautiful silver anklebells, which are made of “osan mutin,” or Mexican silver pieces which mysteriously ended up in Timor at the turn of the century. Some of the deponents were surrounded by a group of community members and having animated discussions. Others sat in the shade, near this bizarre sacred totem formed with a eucalyptus trunk and a large palm frond. Traditional cloth, or tais, was wrapped around the totem, and a sword was hanging from it. I think the intent was anthropomorphic.

I was introduced to the “labarik,” the child, who was now 19 years old. He was extremely shy, probably had never met a white woman before. He looked down at the ground bashfully as I explained why I was there, to see if people consider his case special because he was a child. He had a very young-looking face. The Commission member interpreted into Vaiqueno, because the boy could not speak Tetum. He answered that he is a fisherman now, and does not go to school. In 1999, he stole four chickens from a neighboring town. He was clearly there just to clear his name.

A little before noon, the ceremony started. All 11 deponents gave their statements or confessions from a stage made of trees limbs and palm thatch. (The Commission provided wireless microphones.) The “panel” of respected community members sat behind and played the role of inquisitors at times, asking for more detail and information from the deponents.

Then the victims were called up to explain how they were hurt by the deponents. The most amazing speech came from this little man named Agus. He could have been 28 or 58, I could not tell. His voice shook, his hands shook, as he described nearly being beaten to death by the Sakunar militia. He escaped Oecussi and then came back, when he was beaten again by exiting militia.

“I hurt again so much, I took more medicine. I thought soon I would die. I went crazy, crazy, crazy with pain. I am still sick today. I wake up in the middle of the night from shock… I am still very sick inside. I am a stupid, simple man, I do not understand politics. But when they looked at me they did not see a man.”

He named three names, and said the others he could not identify. I was not clear whether any of the names corresponded to those of the deponents.

The community was riveted by this testimony, as none of the deponents had been very emotional or graphic in their confessions. The other victims were only victims of harrassment, theft and minor assault. At about 3:30pm, we broke for lunch, the VIP members of the community invited to eat buffalo. We had to pass the sacred totem, where there was a basket full of rice and buffalo meat. Everybody was supposed to pick up a handful of rice and meat and eat it while passing, they called it traditional “communion.” I pretended to follow along.

The women were furiously serving up various forms of buffalo meat in a covered structure on the beach. There were no vegetables in sight. (I found out later that at ritual events, vegetables are not to be served.) So, as I have done before, I broke my vegetarianism for cultural reasons. It was unbelievable how many people could eat from only one buffalo.

It turned out, that while we were eating, the victims and the deponents both sent representatives up on stage to sit on the mat the “biti boot” and negotiate the prices of the crimes. I was told in advance that Oecussi customary law is more oriented towards material restoration, and not symbol restoration. In fact, our sad Agus had asked for 6 juta (6 million rupiah) or just under $600. Big money in Timor. So the negotiations continued intensely throughout lunch, with the “panel” mediating.

After lunch, the deponents presented their offerings to the victims. Most were tua sabu, or highly refined palm wine which is up to 60% alcohol. Tais were also presented, as well as small sums like $2. I never understood what happened to Agus’ request for $600. The boy I talked to earlier paid two bottles of tua sabu to the elders of the town where he stole the chickens.

Then the crowd formed around the sacred totem. And the traditional priests began chanting in this extremely rhythmic, beautiful ritual speech, which cannot and should not be translated. I just listened to the sounds, very percussive and melodic at the same time. Then they splashed water over the deponents, who were absolved. The priests then cut open a goat’s heart, which had been hanging from the totem. Blood spurted all over the totem.

The band started playing happy songs, and the deponents went around the area shaking hands of the VIPs and the victims. There was a palpable feeling of relief. From everyone, for we had been sitting there for 6 hours straight.

I soon realized that I was to be the white guest of honor at the villages’ all-night party. I said I would go back to the town, freshen up and think about coming back. Probably. (Yeah right.) Coming back would mean having to waltz until three in the morning with people I cannot even communicate with. Plus I had already spent the whole day there.

I stayed with the American head of Oxfam and his wife who is Yale Forestry PhD student. They were very gracious hosts, and we able to tell me all about the isolated, bizarre and twisted history and politics of Oecussi. It turns out I had met the king of Oecussi that morning without knowing it. Oecussi is the only district where the “petty kings” or liurai (or in Vaiqueno “najuf”) respond to a higher authority, the King of Oecussi.

I don’t want to bore with the early colonial history of the place, so I’ll cut straight to the modern day polygamy and succession struggle. The man I met, in neat flip-flops and shorts, still a “child” as he is unmarried at age 33, Antonio da Costa, is considered the defacto King of Oecussi. His father, a man who had so many women people lost count, died in 1999. He married no woman under the church, partly because his two “best” wives were sisters, and he could not bear to choose between them. In fact they all lived together. There seems to be no one contesting that Antonio da Costa is the heir to his father.

Yet there is another figure who claims to be the King of Ambeno. A native of Oecussi, untainted by relations with the Portuguese and neighboring islands. He apparently lives in a dark hut near the point where the Portuguese first landed in Timor, called Lifau.

Oecussi society apparently cares about three things: trade across the border with Indonesia, keeping the Sakunar militia out, and the King. So this new debate over whether to restore the King of Ambeno as the leader of all of the petty kings is quite an important one. Moreover, local government will not do anything I MEAN ANYTHING without the consent of the King.

There is much more. I will have to write a part two.


Manatuto street scenes: (1) kids selling fish, tasty when fried… Notice the blonde highlights of the boy on the right. The strong sun can bleach even the darkest hair here. I can’t always tell whether blond-streaks or reddish hair is a sign of malnutrition. But these kids obviously do not have a calorie to spare. A UN study in Manatuto showed that about 40% of the population of the district is regularly malnourished. (2) the neighborhood no-goods, sitting on a bamboo bench by the side of the road. On a good day a car will pass every couple of minutes. These men specialize in the false laugh, that unnatural push from the diaphram and nasal ha-ha-ha. As opposed to the owner of the mint house behind the fish-sellers, a Galoli-speaking grandma who has this lovely deep, he-he-he…

Fear of frying

I have gotten over my upper-middle class American fear of frying.

Having watched my Indonesian housemates fry tempeh and tofu for over three months, and having tasted the delicious results, I finally have gained the courage to fry for myself. Last night I made some delicious fries (or chips, to spare the jokes about America and France).

I did, however, wait until everybody had cleared out of the house, as the last thing I wanted was to be ridiculed for any oil spilling or burning. I stood outside at the stove, which is set up on a platform above the dining table on our patio. The chef then looks kind of like a DJ, standing over the two gas burners, surrounded by spices.

There is something extremely satisfying about frying. Soothing, watching the bubbles. Maybe this explains why Yankees are so uptight.

With frying, you don’t lose the element that does the cooking. In fact, you can use it over and over again. And the oil tastes better with each use, like the liquid version of sourdough. So today, when I go home for lunch, I’m going to fire up the wok again. Maybe this time I’ll make an omelette or something else to eat! Or a grilled cheese, as we have recently acquired a toaster.

:::For Easter:::

Olha lá vai passando a procissão, Se arrastando que nem cobra pelo chão
As pessoas que nela vão passando, Acreditam nas coisas lá do céu
As mulheres cantando tiram versos, Os homens escutando tiram o chapéu
Eles vivem penando aqui na terra, Esperando o que Jesus prometeu
E Jesus prometeu vida melhor, Pra quem vive nesse mundo sem amor
Eu também tô do lado de Jesus, Só que acho que ele se esqueceu
De dizer que na terra a gente tem, De arranjar um jeitinho pra viver

Look there goes the procession passing by, Dragging along like a snake on the ground
The people in it go by, They believe in the things up there of heaven
The women singing pulling out verses, The men listening pulling off their hats
They live paying here on earth, Waiting for what Jesus promised
And Jesus promised a better life, For who lives in this world without love
I too am on the side of Jesus, Just that I think that he forgot
To say than on earth people must find a way to live

“Procissão,” by Gilberto Gil [the new Minister of Culture of Brazil]

Sunday drive in the country

I hopped in a cab Sunday morning in Dili, headed for the “terminal” at Becora market, the eastern-most point of the city. Becora is suburb spread along a fairly narrow long street through a valley. It was a big pro-independence neighborhood, and much of the violence of “Scenes from an Occupation” (one of the better documentaries of 1999) was filmed there. Dutch journalist Sander Thoenes was executed there by Battalion 745, on its bloody trip to West Timor.

On this day, though, as on many Sundays, men, women and children, filed down the sides of the street away from the large baby blue Becora church. Many had palm fronds. In a country which purports to be 94% Catholic and that has no sidewalks, driving around 9am on any given Sunday is tough. We made our way slowly, and I noticed that many young men were in the crowd. The attendance of young men to church has plummeted since the Church has ceased to be the sole meeting point for the resistance. At Christmas time, the nativity scenes became mini-discos, with music blaring, flashing lights and young men drinking tua mutin, white palm wine. This seemed the closest most young men came to religion. That, and in Maliana, where we attended midnight mass, launching fire works just above the heads of the joyless, departing crowd. The number of young men was remarkable. This was probably one of three days a year they attend church, and many were showing of the newest Dili fashions. Loping along, ever disinterested.

Waiting on the bus, packed full of Makassae people headed to Baucau, I was told the bus was leaving “agora” – a literal translation “now” – and yet I sat down and began to realize that I was going to swelter there for an indefinite period of time. Two sisters in luto, or mourning, behind me, were sympathetic after I explained that people need to start being slightly more accurate in their use of words to describe time. “Horsida” – soon – would have been a better choice of words. Agora, I explained, means, I get on the bus, and we take off. “Horsida” while still extremely vague, is more useful.

The bus stopped probably six times during a journey that would normally take 1 hour. Everybody was crowding in from Dili to Manatuto. It seemed that there were few buses on Palm Sunday. People became righteously impatient at the driver’s antics, and began screaming “ba ona!” Let’s go already! By the time I ricocheted past the chickens, old men, youth, sitting women out of the door, falling like a pinball into the chute in front of my friends house in Manatuto I was thoroughly defeated.

Sitting on the bench on the side of street, reclining in the shade, were the sullen neighborhood youth, plus three peacecorps volunteers. They chuckled. One is an American-born, Rio-raised friend of mine, we’ll call her Amerioca (American + Carioca). The other two volunteers were headed back to Dili. We flagged down a UN Landrover, and I don’t think we could have asked for a more graceless couple to ask for a ride, but in the end, even they could not refuse.

Amerioca and I tried lounging around but it was to hot, so we head out by bike across the water-filled paddies towards the desert-hills east of Manatuto. She had a secluded beach, where we wouldn’t have to bathe in t-shirt and shorts. It was hot as hell. We arrived to a sand beach after 20 minutes and crawled into the unfortunately murky water. Sat in there like water buffaloes.

A rare sensation of not being watched in Timor. We lolled around, staring out at Wetar, the large island in front of us. Commandante, my talkative driver at work, told us about the time he spent there. He had gone there to mine gold, with an Australian firm. The gold will run out in only a couple of years. Commandante said it was very lightly populated, by very ‘primitive’ people. The Indonesian government has not even bothered to divide it into districts, or kabupaten. The language they speak there is similar to Gailoli, the language spoken in Manatuto, by Amerioca’s good-humored “grandma.”

We finished up the afternoon where it had started, on the side of the road. Watching the PNTL (Policia Nacional Timor Leste, no longer ETPS, East Timor Police Service) “patrol” at 40 mph through town. Destroying their Tata vehicles. In fact one car’s engine was clearly falling out of its casing.

I thumbed a ride from an American acquaintance, and sat in the twilight waiting for the Palm Sunday procession to cross the one bridge to Dili. We had to wait through two stations of the cross, watching the clouds turn purple, listening to the fertile gush of the river below.

Births and bikes

Sitting on a big volcanic rock on the road winding down to the beach at Baucau. My eyes at the level of the yellowing, diseased palm trees around me. (The rock is big). To my left I can see quite impressive terracing, and people working in the rice paddies. It’s fun to see if the passers-by detect me sitting up above in my bright blue shirt. Most do not. But one group of children walking up from the creek where they were bathing and doing laundry spots me. “Hello! Good afternoon! How are you?” I scream “I am well. How are YOU?” The little kids in their too big shorts, with their dirty feet and snotty noses, are jumping up and down with glee. They are used to seeing foreigners breeze by in noisy, dirty Landrovers.

The clouds were turning pink and mosquitos buzzing. Motorbikes passed down the hill with this empty whizzing sound, their motors off to save fuel.

I was in Baucau for work, ‘networking’ in anticipation of the development of a Child Protection Network in the district of Baucau. One of the more populated districts, home to the sacred mountain Matebian, and the second Diocese in Timor, Baucau has many remote subdistricts. There is extreme isolation and poverty in the mountain areas.

We met with the District Administrator (or as I was reminded by a bunch of men smoking cloves wearing big yellowy-gold rings) the ACTING District Administrator. Only temporary. A very quiet, older woman with long fingers and veiny hands. Her UN ‘advisor’ was this Armenian, who my Timorese colleague rightly pointed out looked like Khruschev. The most important person in the District, and we dropped in without an appointment. Yet she stopped everything to grant an audience. We explained our business. I felt this spontaneous swell of awe and excitement, in spite of her quiet demeanor. This was a woman who is shaping the future of her country, a woman who I could only imagine had sacrificed so much for her country.

She said she hears constant criticisms about the sad state of children in the district. Primarily regarding malnutrition. She explained her optimism about such a Network, but her body language hardly reflected it. I believed it anyways. There are not too many role models for authentically Timorese female authority. I think her way of self-protection was to seem quiet and disinterested.

Her next comment came as a shock, although I knew it shouldn’t. She said that family planning was crucial for the development of the country (not just condoms which antagonize the church). Too many children are born to poor families who cannot afford to raise them. They die, or are chronically malnourished, or if they are lucky are sent to ‘orphanges’. Her vision was to educate women and men as to the advantages of smaller families, and let the various solutions arise from that. This may not sound too progressive. But you would not hear this except from the most progressive women activists in Dili normally. Men repeat the mantra that ‘God put us on earth to procreate.’ Most women don’t dare oppose this – they are too busy having children!

On the way back up the hill from the beach, it was getting dark already. I passed an old man squatting on the outer edge of the market selling these strange, green and yellow seed pods. Perhaps a fruit or a vegetable. But clearly picked from the jungle: this man’s livelihood. Two young men in sunglasses with leather boots and a shiny-chrome motorcycle passed. I thought to myself, there is great inequality in Timor. A few can ride Japanese bikes and the rest are squatting selling wild fruits.

But really, this inequality is only a result of the extremely poor condition of the Timorese economy. So a couple of people can buy a motorcycle. That does not seem as offensive as the kind of equality in other third world nations. For as long as people can remember, market days were like this. Bring the couple of fruits and vegetables you can scrounge and sell them to the few foreigners, mestico or Timorese who had money. Two accounts, one from Osorio de Castro from the turn of the century, and one from an Australian journalist named Osmar White describe the deep poverty of Portuguese Timor as seen in the Central Market in Dili.