I am fearful of beginning to write anything about this place. Where to start? But more importantly, where to end? East Timor’s — Timor Leste’s — future is a quandary.
Just sitting in this internet cafe is enough reminder: “To Our Valued Customer, in case of electricity cut offs, kindly wait for the power to come back on and don’t press anything.”
All of the nation’s electricity is powered by oil from old Indonesian generators. But no one pays for it.
Demand is exploding, the lines system cannot cope and generating capacity is near collapse. Hence I must be careful not to touch anything if it does.
This August will mark 10 years since Timor Leste was able to vote on its independence.
Amid violence, torture and death, as Indonesian-backed insurgents fought a brutal campaign against the move, the price was paid.
But it was not until 2002 that this independence was recognised. In that time, the nation has not managed to ensure water, power or sanitation for its small capital.
As Wing Commander Rory Paddock, commanding officer for the New Zealand division of the International Stabilisation Force tells me, “This is not a fledgling nation. That is too generous. This is an embryonic nation. It is yet to have a vision to really grow.”
Its lack of effective infrastructure is reflective of much larger problems faced by Timor’s inexperienced officials and systems. But for them, help is at hand. A lot of it.
Timor Leste has the feel of a backward holiday resort. Thousands of ex-pats litter the streets. Although actually, it is the Timorese that litter.
So ex-colonels of international armies, analysts working for one of the hundreds of NGOs and diplomats from dozens of embassies negotiate a mess of plastic bottles, cardboard packaging and miscellaneous waste.
Amid the confusion, things seem to be slowly improving.
Bombardier Steve Hoskins has been here since November. He leads me through the streets. “That wasn’t there when we got here,” he says, looking at concrete market stalls lining Dili’s esplanade. They are green, new and sterile.
“Look at that, the cleaners have uniforms,” he says, turning to me. “Sorry, this must seem all very boring to you.”
I try to tell him that walking on patrol with the New Zealand Defence Force in Dili is never going to be boring.
Small, tangible and visible steps are being taken to at least make the city look more appealing.
Paddock is somewhat sceptical of such moves.
“They repave the roads. You know the government has said 2009 is the `year of infrastructure’ but what they do is pour tarmac directly over potholes.
“They don’t know how to do things. That won’t last one month.”
What do you see high on the hills overlooking Dili, I ask Jil, the 21-year-old interpreter for Section 2 of this platoon.
“I live over there,” he says. “You can’t see my house but it is over there.”
Do you remember 1999?
“Yes, I was young but I remember. We fled up here,” he says, looking over his shoulder to the dense green surrounding us.
I ask how long he was there for.
“Two months. But when we went back, our house, it was burned down. So we had to rebuild.”
In 2006, conflicts between the police and the military broke out, triggering other violent episodes.
“Before then, we thought everything had died down,” Commander Paddock says. “We literally had … four New Zealanders here. And they were here for training the Timorese army.”
Now there are 148 New Zealand troops and 25 New Zealand police officers working for the UN.
When those Timorese who fled into the hills returned to the city, they found their houses had been destroyed.
So began the problem of IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camps. There are still nine across the city. The one I visit is not as bad as others.
“Here at least they have been donated running water and toilets,” Hoskins tells me.
Armenio has been here two years. He tries to make a living out of buying wood off the locals and chopping it up to sell to other IDP residents.
I ask him if it is any different here to two years ago. “It is pretty much the same. Not much changes here. But it’s fine.”
On our circle back round the camp, we see a crowd gathered.
The government recently announced a plan to get people out of here, offering US$4500 to go back to their villages and rebuild their lives.
“That is a lot of money,” says Lucio, another interpreter.
“But right now, many people are waiting for the approval of the official budget in government so it can be paid.”
Lucio has been learning English for 10 years and is now a teacher.
“Before then, I wasn’t allowed to learn. The Indonesians wouldn’t let me. They would think I was a spy. Most likely I would be imprisoned or killed for learning. So I had to wait until independence.”
The Timorese waited a long time for that to happen. They had 400 years of Portuguese occupation, then 25 years of Indonesian brutality.
And the road is long.
About 80 per cent of the population of Timor Leste lives on less that US$1 a day. Most of these are children.
Paddock believes there will be a New Zealand presence here for another 50 years.
“Security builds confidence, neither of which many of these people think they have. Not yet.”