Letter One

First Impressions

DILI, November 2000.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS. From the air coming in: total hill country, trees but no real undergrowth, patches of settlements connected by red dirt roads zig zagging across the tops of the ridges. Circling Dili, it is obviously where it is because there is a bit of flat, maybe ten kilometres long by two kilometres deep, backed against steep hills. These hills have little vegetation and I'm told later that the Indonesians regularly set fire to them to erase cover for the Falintil guerrillas coming into town to resupply.

As the plane circles over the harbour we get a view of the sprawl of Dili, the massive luxury barge Hotel Olympia and the huge statue of Jesus that Suharto had built on an isthmus at the edge of bight. Suharto's gift to the people of East Timor.

01burn.jpg - 14912 Bytes Getting closer for the landing what stands out are burnt out buildings, some construction, sections of rubble, some whole neighbourhoods are burnt. The roads are running with white UN vehicles and there is a large UN helicopter base right in the midst of Dili. It looks like a war zone.

The airport is a quarter the size of New Plymouth, hot and teeming with uniformed people of all races and nationalities. There are also a dozen baggage handlers walking what little luggage there is down the stationary conveyor belt. One of my four bags arrived and no one put their hand out for a tip. An apologetic Qantas guy told us that most of our bags did not accompany us and would arrive on a UN flight, in a couple of hours. As we leave, some people are intercepted by East Timorese customs agents, asking if they have anything to declare. This is obviously a formality as no bags are searched. Man, it's hot !

01airportsecurity.jpg - 19673 Bytes First impression outside the airport is heat. Then humidity, uniforms, sand bag bunkers with armed solders, small dark tropical people contrasting to big white people in polyester and carry-on bags or military wear. There is UN stuff everywhere

I've come to East Timor to work with a community vocational training organisation called Futo. And I was met by about 15 Futo people. Everyone shook my hand. I can see I am going to be Mister David and that there are great (and daunting) expectations of me. They took my pack to the Futo truck, which was donated by the NSW volunteer fire service of Springwood. My bike and tools didn't make the plane. I felt lucky, most people didn't get anything. The gear did arrive later that day on a UN flight.

Driving towards town from the airport we pass a huge fountain at a roundabout. Around it are a dozen angel-like figures made of concrete all blowing horns towards the middle. I imagine that with water this might have been attractive. But there is no water and every statue is broken. It's a disheartening sight and reemphasizes the heat.

It appears there are two Futo people who speak some English. One is Adriana who gives me a can of red Fanta. The other is Liandro. He was a refugee in a camp near Sydney after leaving the day after the referendum. He said it was very cold in Sydney and I tell him it is very hot in Dili.

Over the next week I realised that time here is defined by before and after the referendum, when the UN arranged for the East Timorese to vote. A taxi driver in Darwin told me he had been there with the UN educating people on the process of voting. He said he, and the rest of UN staff, kept telling the East Timorese that it was safe to vote because the UN was staying on after. He said he didn't realise it was a lie. The reality was that the UN evacuated itself and left the Indonesian military and the militia they supported to spend two weeks, killing, burning, looting and otherwise emptying Dili by forcing people out of their houses and onto trucks or ships for West Timor.

There is so much to say, I think I'll leave this one. At least I've melted the ice. One thing I want to say to everyone who helped with money or other support for this, it was a real encouragement to me when I was preparing to go. It gave me heart the other night when I was so hot I thought I was getting malaria (how do you tell if you've got a fever when you're this hot?). And it's given me strength when I'm feeling lonely and out of my depth. I am here for you, too.

This Taranaki newspaper has been publishing Dave's letters fortnightly
during his time in Timor
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1 First Impressions
2 Beginning to See Part of the Picture
3 Don't Mistake Poverty for Quaint
4 What Am I Doing Here?
5 Smoke & Refugees
6 Good Aid/Bad Aid
7 The Healthiest One in the Ward
8 Getting Around in Dili
9 No Work and You Don't Get Paid
10 Four Languages, Four Currencies
11 Just Below the Surface
12 As Hard Leaving as Arriving
13 Don't Get the Wrong Impression