‘State-building is a good war, but this is a new struggle’
Just over a decade after independence, how is Timor-Leste progressing?
Catch of the day: traders sell fish at the evening market on Dili’s promenade. Photograph: Rosie Nic Cionnaith
Water boy: Okto, a 14-year-old street trader in Dili. Photograph: Rosie Nic Cionnaith
Makeshift: Irishwoman Meabh Cryan visits refugees at a camp in Aitarak Laran, Dili. Photograph: Rosie Nic Cionnaith
“Hello, Missus. Where you going?” This is Okto’s daily greeting, delivered with an impish grin from across the street where he mans his kiosk. I cross the road to buy call credit, lured by his charm. Of all the stallholders in Dili, the capital of
Timor-Leste, Okto is surely the biggest character – and the smallest. He would pass for 10 but is in fact 14, which means he was born in 1999, the year Timor-Leste voted for independence. Then most citizens of the newly independent state would have had high expectations for a swift upturn in their fortunes.
Being in one of the world’s newest nations, watching a country begin to rise from the ashes, is a remarkable experience. And in many ways it is hard not to feel a resonance with Timor-Leste’s political trajectory. Years of colonisation and occupation, and independence followed by internal conflict: before long, everyone you meet is complaining about their government.
“I think in many ways Ireland and Timor are the same place, separated by time and a lot of distance, as my parents keep reminding me,” says Meabh Cryan, an Irishwoman working for two local nongovernmental organisations in Timor-Leste. “A small country – there are just over a million people here – a long and complicated struggle for independence, a small island nation trying to develop around bigger nations, a very rich culture, lots of music, very Catholic, you have so many parallels.”
Cryan has seen a huge change in Timor-Leste since she arrived in 2008. “It’s not the same place. In 2008 you flew into a refugee camp at the airport, and there were camps all over the city, the curfew had just been lifted and there was nobody on the streets at night. The place was empty. Now it’s much more prosperous, there’s lots of activity going on in the city and things are slowly starting to change. But there are still tensions, and really high unemployment.”
Every evening Dili’s promenade comes alive as street traders gather for the evening fish market, selling the catch of local fishermen. Fishing is still done on a subsistence scale using traditional methods. Pirate fishing vessels from other nations have become an increasing problem. This is a huge threat both for the traditional Timorese fishermen and for the marine environment: 556sq km of coastal area is within the protected zone of the country’s first national park, but so far there no effective way to policing it.
A visit to Bairo Pite Clinic in Dili, a free facility established in 1999 by an Irish-American doctor, Dan Murphy, is an indicator of the poverty here – and of battles still to be faced. Less than 10 minutes into Sunday rounds someone has thrust a notebook and pen into my hand to record the weights of malnourished babies.
There are wards of patients with tuberculosis, which has almost been eradicated in the West, and numerous cases of malaria, dengue fever and HIV.
A young mountain woman with special needs has just given birth to a baby whose father is unknown. She has been ostracised by her community and is dependent on the team here. Her request, as Murphy shows us into her room, is “Can one of them buy me a bucket to bathe my baby in?”
Healthcare is just one of this new democracy’s pressing concerns. The country’s entire infrastructure is being built almost from scratch, which should have its advantages. “You’re never starting with a clean slate, but you are starting with a lot of the opportunities . . . Where possible, to be able to avoid some of the mistakes that other countries have made would be a great thing,” says Cryan.