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Day Five in Timor-Leste

Day Five in Timor-Leste

I sat with our translator, Anibal, under the coconut tree this afternoon, and asked him about families and fighting in Timor-Leste.

(I call it the coconut tree, but it’s not: it’s just the tree that provides shade in the backyard, so we sit under it to slice and drink coconuts). Anibal and I took the car back from visiting a student for an interview, but Woodrow and Jackson walked, so we arrived back a fair bit earlier than them, and took full advantage of the lack of competition for coconuts.

The student, who I’ll call Angelina, lives with her three younger brothers and her aunt, in a house built by the government for disabled people and orphans. Angelina’s aunt and her soon-to-be-husband care for the children (though sassy teenage Angelina seems to run the house herself): Angelina’s parents have both passed away. We spent about an hour with the family – Jackson and Woodrow shot Angelina and the house while I sat out the back and talked to the almost-uncle about his work in Dili’s parliamentary offices, and added the number 99 to my list of Tetun words: nouventae nove.

When we got home Anibal seemed quite moved by the morning, and mused gently on the importance of living a good life; of living with morality. We spoke about how lucky we both were to be raised by our parents, which lead to a discussion of step-parenting, and divorce, which is rare in Timor. I told Anibal it was reasonably common in Australia, and he was shocked – and then, as he chopped up his coconut to scoop the flesh, he explained to me the concept of lia mate. He said it was like obligation to your partner and their family – how you’d go, no matter the expense or inconvenience – to the funeral of your wife’s family member, because that’s just what you do, for example. But it’s more than that – it’s tied up with your dignity, your character, and how your family perceives you. It seems like divorce breaches lia mate in a significant way – so you’d never think to do it here.

Plus, Anibal hastened to add, he adores his wife (and I’ll admit to nearly tearing up when he showed me photos of her with their two little girls on the beach).

Anibal is a gorgeous, gentle, kind man, who’s been helping us translate evaluation and interviews for nearly a week. He’s 33, from a district in the east of Timor, studied English at university, and has worked in NGOs in Dili. But today I learned about a job he took translating for the New Zealand army earlier this year, which got us talking about history much deeper than a CV.

Last night at dinner, Sophie and Anibal were talking through Timorese history and the conflict since independence. Briefly, Timor was colonised by Portugal, gained independence in 1975, and nine days later was promptly invaded by Indonesia, which held a brutal, violent occupation of the country, resulting in the deaths of approximately a fifth of the population, until 1999. The UN administered the fragile state until 2002, when Timor regained its independence and became the world’s newest nation. But conflict wasn’t over yet.

In 2006, soldiers from the western districts of Timor became frustrated with the lack of recognition for their efforts in the resistance (Timor borders Indonesia on the west, and the aggressive eastern fighters were most renowned for their efforts in the resistance against Indonesia’s occupation). The soldiers protested – putting down their weapons and marching in Dili – and their absence gutted the military’s population by about a third. Fighting between factions commenced. Anibal told me under the tree that it took just people in villages recognising each other as eastern or western for chaos to break out – and in May this year, a number of Timorese police officers were shot dead armed Timorese army. After that, Anibal said, everyone fled to their districts, but he and a friend from a district close to his hid in the city – and when New Zealand peacekeeping forces came in, and a friend in the embassy passed on a job description, Anibal and the friend successfully applied for translating jobs with the force. He laughed as he told me today that he was excited for the job because the soldiers’ weapons meant he was safe – which threw my current concern of how to prise open my coconut into rather harsh reality.

It was sobering to hear Anibal’s story, and it was an honour – I felt touched that he’d shared it with me, and I was glad to learn more about Timor’s context. It’s strange to think that there’s nearly half a million people here who lived through the resistance, and even more born during and after. Geordie said when we arrived that it’s something that lies under everything, and I can’t see how that couldn’t be true, especially when, more than a decade on, tension still simmers so close to the surface.

But here on Atauro Island, I see a step-uncle teaching me Tetun and giving me his email address; I see the warm, friendly landlady at our hostel and her girls baking us homemade bread for breakfast; and I see the kids who volunteered to come to school on a Saturday to help us with our interviews. The people here are so far without exception warm, gentle, friendly and open-hearted, which makes the fact that they doubtlessly carry grief all the more graceful.

We had our first breakfast on Atauro this morning: omelettes with beautiful chewy homemade bread. And lunch was smoked fish, caught this morning by our landlord, Jerry (Sophie and I are in agreement that he’s definitely a Jerry-with-a-J, not a Gerry-with-a-G). We had dinner at the hostel we’ll move to tomorrow: Barry’s Place. It’s right on the beach and we were there today because we had the afternoon off, and went for a swim and a snorkel off an outrigger boat. The snorkelling was incredible. Beautiful clean clear water and schools of tiny, frantic, jet-black fish; huge prehistoric pinky coral fronds, waving gently with the current; flat blue and white and purple fish diving solo through coral holes and nesting in the golden seagrass. I stayed ducking under and gasping back up for air until my fingers were puckered and wrinkly and I needed to sit on the bow of the boat to warm up.

We just got back to our hostel, and I’m about to turn in. The boys leave tomorrow morning and I’m joining the other guys for the evaluation they’re doing at Ba Futuru’s funded school here – escola nouventae nove Atauro. It’ll be a long, hot, tiring day, but I’m really looking forward to it. And only half of that is excitement about more bread rolls for breakky.