Up in Ermera this week, on a morning walk, I was truly taken with the spectacular form of the madre cacau (acacia) shade trees. Their leaves add this complexity and softness to them, they are what offer cover to the coffee plants. These leaves are the texture of coffee growing regions.

But what really caught my attention time and time again were the dead trees. The ones standing pale, protruding into the sky. I noticed even fallen dead trees were not scavenged for fire wood. There must be a bandu against using that wood.

Why were these trees so haunting to me? Some times in life, and in Timor, there are images or events that tap into some dreamlike subconscious, some place in my brain that keeps forms, the sublime, hyper-reality.

Later I realized that these trees were reminding me of a sculpture installed near the Saint Louis Art Museum that I walk past every time I go “home.”

By bombpopsaregood on Flickr

It is a metal tree called “Placebo” that was commissioned by the museum from Roxy Paine. I remember being dismissive of it at first. But the more I passed it, the more sense it began to make in the landscape.

A leafless tree, one forged of metal means something so different than a dead madre cacau. Those trees, some of them, must be reaching 100 years old. It’s hard to imagine the western landscape without them, or without coffee for that matter.

Sometimes it is easy for us to forget the rapid changes that have happened within three or four generations in Timor. In Ermera, people told of the pressure of the imposto which forced them to work on Portuguese plantations, of servitude and slavery, of being shut out and cut off from their land.


The victims of Tim Alfa did not know that the four remaining militia members would be released. We found only one person, a well-connected politician and veteran, who knew of their release. (And that was a story in and of itself.)

I felt that every time we spoke to families of victims, we were opening a throbbing wound, peeling back a flimsy bandage. They told us that they had gone through so many interviews by investigators. I could see in the tears, the sunken eyes, the shrunken postures that EVERY time that violent deaths are remembered, they hurt. They hurt in a way that is inexpressible.

I felt an intruder, a trespasser. And one that brought the worst kind of news.

On our way out of Lospalos, we went up to what we were told was Tim Alfa’s former headquarters, a failed Indonesian sugar enterprise known as Mesgula. Gula in Portuguese is one of the seven deadly sins: gluttony. This was the place that Tim Alfa gorged itself with death and destruction.

It immediately reminded me of an abandonned building in Maliana which was used for the same purpose.

The place was surprisingly free of graffiti.

There was a paltry ai-manas plant growing inside.

The mandi, where Tim Alfa members had washed, was now full of creeping vines.

Somebody had planted maize in one room, which sprouted up from the floor rather expectedly.

When will this place stop being “Mesgula”? When it crumbles away? When the generation of Tim Alfa dies out?

More tragi than comic

Questions are swirling in my head as I prepare to depart for Lospalos for the weekend. While there will be an inevitable dip in the water at Kom, the idea is to follow up on the Joni (Jhony) Marques story. It’s kind of personal, as I sat in on two weeks of his trial in 2001. First and foremost, where is he?

(For some reason the Joe Sacco comic “Christmas with Karadzic” sprang to mind as I was buying supplies for this trip. Sacco colorfully portrays his trip into Republica Srebska over the Christmas holidays to catch a glimpse of the hunted Karadzic. Unlike Marques, Karadzic was never caught and convicted of crimes against humanities.)

Another more sinister question is if whether Marques was amnestied somehow in reward for his “cooperation” with the Commission of Truth and Friendship. The CTF, while subject to light criticism by the President and Prime Minister, is also seen as an important part of the “big picture” – a long-term relationship with Indonesia.

His testimony, according to witnesses, was bizarre, offensive and defiant. He refuses to shed any light on command structures, protecting his Indonesian bosses. (Perhaps they would also like to pay him back?) This leads me to wonder, is he even in Timor Leste? Did he hop the first boat to Flores, where ex-Battalion 745 members are headquartered? Will he receive some Indonesian pension, or be given a job as a civil servant there?

If Marques was released last week, was Lautem given any warning? What are victims thinking and feeling right now?

One thing that is important to remember is that many of the militia leaders in the West were in fact from liurai families and have been able to return and reassert some influence in their communities. They were not attacked. Marques, on the other hand, from what I understand, is no blue blood.

If he is in Lautem, I am hakfodak.

Rush hour

In a taxi this morning, on my way to Caicoli, a Timorese VIP passed in a beige “luxury” SUV, with two UNPOL cars flashing lights on either side. In comparison with a similar scene in Africa, or even in Lisbon, quite a moderate convoy. Traffic barely even had to stop, and they were not going insanely fast.

I mentioned to the taxi driver that a big VIP was coming to Timor next week. He hadn’t heard. Everybody is gearing up for Jackie Chan’s visit with UNICEF.

Perhaps this is the biggest VIP visit since Cristiano Ronaldo came here for 6 hours from Bali.

Chan is well-loved here. He seems always in a good mood, makes great films, and never seems to age, which is always impressive.

Apparently the protocol for the visit is being planned down to the second. He’ll be here a total of three days and is going up to Ainaro. Let’s hope he gets a chance to see some spontaneous aspects of Timorese life. STL reports that Chan would like exactly that: “hare moris familia simples iha Timor.”

I’m assuming he’ll spar with some of the martial arts groups he’s going to visit.

Everybody seems to agree that this visit comes at the right time — it will help boost what seems to be a low morale all around.

I later walked past the Office of Social Reinsertion at the Ministry of Social Services, where there were a number of people milling around waiting for payment. I’ve been told that staff there have been really feeling the heat from IDPs awaiting payment, and that security has become an issue. Yet there was no visible police presence outside.

Traffic was temporarily blocked when a truck full of armed FDTL didn’t pull over enough far enough and lingered for a moment. Another two PNTL trucks went by, full of FDTL. I guess this has been a common sight with the Operational Joint Command, but I’m certainly not used to the mestiçagem (mixing) of the police and military.

Ashes to ashes

There are certain images that have caught my attention over the first week in Dili.

Yesterday, an old man in a Australian wide-rimmed hat, walking around Kolmera selling bananas hanging from a bamboo pole. On one side, beautiful red-pink bananas. On the other, bright green. His shirt was a Chinese second hand with exactly matching colors. Bright green with a bright pink-red trim. I saw him twice, both with the same number of bananas, three hours apart.

This morning, with my host, running up the stairs past the grave of Ba’hai missionary Harold Fitzner in China Rate. The early morning light was catching the eastern mountain side of Alor, and I could for the first time make out contours on the slope. The dawn light was reflecting up from Hera, painting the purple clouds pink. All of the magnolia-type trees in the cemetery were in bloom.

Yesterday I took a look around the Palacio das Cinzas in Caicoli. The parts once occupied, with windows seemed totally abandonned. Not more than three cars around. Kids playing in the back. The President’s offices way in the back are still apparently used. The President himself has relocated to a more secure house in Farol.

It is in the row overlooking the sea with a square featuring the statue of Engenheiro Canto Resende, the de-facto Governor of Timor during the worst years of World War II who was abandoned by Salazar and killed by starvation and neglect by the Japanese forces in Alor where he was being held prisoner. The cross street, that runs along the canal and connects Farol up to Comoro Road, has been renamed Sergio Vieira de Mello, another martyr of a conflict much bigger than himself.

(A lot has been said about Ramos Horta’s beatification of himself upon his return to Timor, and to be honest, after a couple of laughs, it is not that interesting a topic.)

After the third and most difficult ascent, we walked into the highest circular grave. We looked at the “headstone” in Chinese. The place where the deceased’s photo remained presumably for years was cracked, and there was no image to help us. There was no sign of any recent offering. The dead are not so easily “displaced” as the living, this one was clearly left behind. In 1999? In 1975?

From up high, from the peace of China Rate, with Alor, Ataúro and the Cristo Rei peninsula closing the wide open space, one has a feeling of security. It is not feeling small in a big landscape, but instead of being something small in a small landscape.

Time playing tricks

A clean-up crew in yellow suits sweeping out Jardim today. Burning piles of trash, throwing large chunks of broken up concrete into the back of dump truck. Perhaps it will return to being the under-used, crumbling garden it was before. A place to let your goats graze.

It’s hard to believe that some children actually spent nearly two formative years of their lives in Jardim as IDPs, or deslokadu. One wonders what they will tell their children about that experience. Time seems to plays tricks here – while it seems strange I was here 18 months ago, it also seems like an eternity has passed.

On far corner on the Farol side, I noticed a building that I actually ate in once – Indian food, I believe, I wonder why, the place was always awful — entirely derelict, with the roofing panels falling in.

One of the mini mandis in the house I’m staying is a sky blue UNAMET voting box. (An acronym, one of many starting with UN, but so loaded with meaning. With history.) Apparently this mandi is no rarity, voting boxes have uses well beyond the week they are loaded on and off helicopters by the UN.

I feel an acceleration of history here. Probably it’s the coming and going, but I sense that even what is happening today is not so much news but history.


Mas os meus passos soam e não param,
Mesmo parados pelo pensamento,
Pelo terror que não acaba e perverte os sentido
A esquina do acaso
— Ruy Cinatti, “Regresso Eterno

Dili. I expected to feel more, to notice more.

All I could seem to fixate on from Bali was the conversation of the Portuguese VIPs in front of me.

The morning’s rain on the tarmac. The airport was well kept, green and pleasant. Military helicopters right next to the terminal.

I noticed the Fretilin flags flying high around the airport, on every lamp post, even on the center of that tacky fountain in the Comoro roundabout.

The helicopters were no longer at the Helipad which is now a gigantic construction site SPONSORED BY THE P R OF CHINA. The future Presidential Palace will be one of the more imposing buildings in Dili.

Passing through stop lights was a novelty for me, as they were installed a month after I left last time.

Seeing Jardim empty was surreal. Apparently on May 21, the camp was still full.

The bright playground – being used by kids – was just about the only thing there to remind it was ever a park. Heaps of cement blocks and torn up cement across the whole park. The tents apparently had foundations, people were given cement to elevate them above the mud and rain. The scene was gray and desolate, a bit like scorched earth.

And above it all, the statue of Dom Boaventura with a Fretilin flag on top. A Fretilin flag red like a cherry on top.