A realization among the destruction of East Timor
October 11, 2007
“There are those who give little of the much which they have, and they give it for recognition, and their hidden desire makes their gifts unwholesome. And there are those who have little and give it all. These are the believers in life, and the bounty of life, and their coffer is never empty. There are those who give with joy, and that joy is their reward. And there are those who give with pain, and that pain is their baptism. And there are those who give and know not pain in giving, nor do they seek joy, nor give with mindfulness of virtue. They give as in yonder valley the myrtle breathes it’s fragrance into space. Through the hands of such as these, God speaks.”
– Kahlil Gibran, from “The Prophet”
Historians called it the youngest nation on the planet.
Economists referred it the poorest country in Asia. Critics called it a failed state.
But as I stepped from a bus onto the war-torn streets of East Timor, I called it my last stop in the developing world.
At first glance, the capital city of Dili seemed a free-for-all.
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Droves of roving gangs roamed the streets, their silhouettes haloed in dust. Heavily-armed U.N. Vehicles prowled past them like a stream of angry army ants.
Collecting my things, I shouldered my disassembled bike past a handful of military outposts, crumbling buildings, and the ever-present hull of burnt-out cars. Helicopters swooped the skies, soldiers swept the streets, as they patrolled the city in standard “V” formation.
All of this was the legacy of the country’s short-bloody history.
Colonized by the Portuguese for 400 years, then brutalized by Indonesia during its 24-year occupation, East Timor established its independence through a U.N. Referendum in 1999.
Upon announcement of that referendum, Indonesian troops and anti-independence militias took to the streets. Almost overnight they destroyed 70 percent of East Timor’s infrastructure and slaughtered more than 1,400 of its citizens.
During that time, 260,000 people fled westward.
When the violence came to an end, many claimed genocide – arguing that during Indonesia’s reign, nearly half of East Timor’s 600,000 population was exterminated.
A detailed statistical report prepared for the Commission for Truth and Reconciliation in East Timor cited a lower range of 102,800 conflict-related deaths from 1974-99, approximately 18,600 killings and 84,200 “excess” deaths from hunger and illness. Since each data source under-reported actual deaths, this is considered a minimum.
Amnesty International puts deaths at 200,000. As the remnants of all this destruction faded within Dili’s downtown darkness, I sought out a guesthouse, then slipped inside.
Here the modern-world returned to me in a tumble.
After a year of squat toilets, generator power and bucket-baths, I was stunned to come across microwaves, sit-down toilets, shower-heads, washers, dryers, chocolate, cheese, and Tabasco. There was Budweiser, “Newsweek”, Time and celebrity trash magazines splashed with the latest photos of Britney Spears.
In the corner, a large-screen television ran a 24-hour news channel. I watched for a moment as it flashed a continuous stream of fearful images over-representing the thinnest strands of radical Islam: Muslim extremist dawning arms, clerics burning books, Jihadis threatening violence.
Scenes I hadn’t happened upon once through the hundreds of Muslim enclaves I’d cycled through along the way.
All these trappings of the western world had come to East Timor with the flood of more than 5,000 U.N. personnel, and countless nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that currently occupied the city.
Caught off-guard, I took a seat in the guesthouse restaurant near two NGO workers.
For nearly an hour I listened as one of these men waxed poetic about the various layers of taste a $30 bottle of wine had left on his palette. Color me odd, but this seemed uniquely ironic in a country where only 50 percent of the population had access to safe drinking water, 20,000 were in need of food aid, and one in 10 children died before reaching the age of 10.
It was all too much for me that first night. Too much, too fast. All of it rendered a kind of reverse culture shock. One that felt oddly-spectacular, and spectacularly-upsurd at the same time.
I finished my dinner, then tucked into bed.
Is it safe to shoot photographs out there?” I asked the next morning before heading into town.
“No worries mate,” An Australian replied, having lived there for 10 years.
Reassured by his confidence, I grabbed my camera gear and a handful of lenses, then walked into town.
Suddenly I came upon scenes of jaw-dropping contrasts.
Every other building was blackened or burnt-out. On either side of these torched-buildings, there were fine wine shops, supermarkets, and upscale cafes. All of them catering to diplomats, NGOs, and U.N. personnel. Most of them doing a bang-up business from behind reinforced concrete or coiled razor-wire.
Meanwhile, just across the street, locals eeked-out a living selling the meager vegetables they’d coaxed from the drought-prone soil. There hard work netting them less than $2 a day.
These contrasts may not have been so apparent had the U.N. pulled out of East Timor as they were slated to in 2004.
But in 2006, after a long struggle to build fledgling institutions, East Timor slipped backwards towards anarchy and insurrection. Only this time it was Timorese fighting Timorese. During that wave of violence, 100,000 people were forced from their homes, 30,000 into refugee camps around Dili.
Five minutes later, just past the center of town, I stumbled upon just one of these camps.
It was massive.
Occupying the space of a large public park, it was a city within a city – entirely constructed of rope, tents and tarps. Gazing for a moment at its inhabitants living in filth, there was garbage and feces and pigs running loose. Children bathed from broken water pipes, while women washed their clothes in free-standing puddles.
Directly across the street stood a five-star hotel. At any given moment through large picture windows you could see a handful of guests sipping cocktails as they stared over the mayhem.
I’d decidedly ignored a recent state department travel warning I’d come across online.
The most recent for East Timor read:
• Indiscriminate communal violence continues throughout the country. Gang-related violence occurs often in Dili, and Americans risk intentional or inadvertent injury. Stone-throwing attacks on vehicles are frequent and have affected American citizens on several occasions.
• Several areas of Dili have become sites of chronic security incidents, particularly the areas around the camps for internally displaced people. Americans are advised to avoid these areas and check with the U.S. Embassy regarding other areas of concern.
• More public demonstrations are possible because of Timor-Leste’s 2007 presidential and parliamentary elections.
Just after this warning was issued in June 2007, violence erupted again in Dili. This after the installation of a new coalition government. During this renewed violence, gangs and rioters took to the streets, smashing cars and torching houses, including that of a woman and her three sons – the relatives of a government minister.
She was burned-alive cradling her youngest son in her arms.
Moving to the center of the camp, I raised my lens and made an image of a statue figure holding a flag. Suddenly, a resident of the camp, a young man of perhaps twenty, walked up and shot me a red-hot glare.
Behind him were three other men, all throwing equally aggressive stares.
“My friends say you took picture of him,” he barked with a heavy accent. “Now he want to fight you.”
I didn’t reply.
“Are you with the military?” he asked intently.
“No.” I replied.
“Are you a journalist?” he continued.
“Sort of,” I said. “Mostly I ride a bicycle.”
“Where are you from?” the man continued with an intensified demeanor.
“California,” I replied.
His eyes widened. “America?!” he replied. “We don’t like America, or Australia here.”
As he spoke a plume of anger arose from within.
I was sick of it.
I’d heard it from a thousand different people, in a thousand different ways, in over 30 countries around the globe. All of them using me as a sounding board to express their deep disappointments with President Bush, his choice to create war, and the violent example he was setting for the world.
I stepped up to the man’s face.
“And so what am I suppose to do about that?” I said matching his intensity.
“We don’t like George Bush here,” he said clenching his fists. “Do you?”
I moved even closer, then looked him in the eye.
“I did not VOTE for the man,” I replied slowly through gritted teeth.
Suddenly he stepped back and a smile rose to his face.
He extended his hand and said, “My name is Miguel.”
It was a scary moment. But not nearly as scary as what came next. For just seconds before I’d met Miguel – after I’d first thrown my leg over my bike – I’d unknowingly split a sizable hole in the crotch of my shorts.
What became increasingly apparent at that moment was the fact that our entire conversation had taken place with my junk more or less exposed to the light of day – a disturbing discovery to say the least.
Making a beeline to find needle and thread, I was stopped in my tracks by a spectacle of destruction.
It was the burnt-out hull of a huge government customs building. I turned from the sidewalk, then stepped inside. Creeping my way over the charcoal, glass, and feces in the midst of the wreckage, I came upon a sobering sight.
It was two small boys from the refugee camp. They were kneeling in bare feet, digging through the rubble – searching for any small scraps of metal that might bring them a bit of money.
It was a scene that brought a breaking-point within my mind. A scene that had me questioning the randomness of it all. Why was it I was born into a world of privilege and affluence, while these equally precious human beings were born into that of chaos and poverty?
Just as I readied to blame the world for not finding an answer, an answer came from the world inside.
Taking the form of a wiser voice, it whispered simply, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”
Returning to my guesthouse with a new sense of purpose, I picked up my pace to just short of a run.
“Do you know of some way I can help here,” I asked the Australian when I returned, “some place I could volunteer?”
He shook his head.
“I just feel like I need to do something,” I said.
“Klibur-Domin,” a man offered after overhearing our conversation.
“Who?” I said.
“Klibur-Domin,” he repeated. “It’s a charitable organization down in Tibar, about 10 miles from here. They do some good things down there … you should go check it out,” he said.
So the next morning, I cycled into Tibar, found the Klibur-Domin Center, then parked my bike outside.
Moments later I was sitting with the director Joaquim Soares as he rattled-off the seemingly endless list of services the center provided.
There was the center itself, a 50-bed facility that cared for children and adults suffering from a wide range of conditions. Conditions that included malnutrition, mental and physical disabilities, Tuberculosis, strokes, as well as pre- and post-surgery care.
In addition, the center provides a host of services outside the facility. These include distribution of provisions and medicines, medical equipment, as well as rehabilitation therapy and TB education throughout the province.
“There are certainly a lot of ways you can help,” said Joaquim after I’d offered to volunteer. “But to be honest, as a charitable organization we are dependent on donations, so any chance you might have to get our story out might be the best help you could provide.”
A day later, with camera in hand, I set out with two of Klibur-Domin’s field staff.
Our first stop was to distribute TB medicines. The center estimates that there are 443 people suffering from TB in the region, 139 cases in the Tibar province alone.
Ten minutes later, after I’d crawled in the back of a beat-up Toyota pickup, we turned down a dirt road, then stopped near a small bamboo hut.
An extremely thin woman appeared at the door, and I watched as the two volunteers hopped-out, then handed her the TB medication. She popped them in her mouth, then threw them back with water.
Because TB is usually spread with the poor sanitation conditions associated with poverty, Klibur-Domin not only delivers these life-saving medications, but also educates these patients and their families about how to prevent the disease. This in hopes of eradicating the disease from the province altogether.
Our next stop was the home of Acacio Ribeiro, a 7-year-old quadriplegic with Cerebral Palsy. Through Klibur-Domin’s Community Based Rehabilitation Program for children with disabilities, Acacio receives clothes, provisions, his wheelchair, and physiotherapy, none of which are provided by the East Timorese Government. I watched as one of the men lifted Acacio’s withered legs, stretching the joints gently in their full range of motion.
When he was done, he put a hand on the boy’s shoulder. Though the boy did not speak, the smile on his face spoke louder than words.
Moving along quickly we drove up a steep mountainous road, then climbed up an even steeper footpath to a hilltop hut. As we did, a woman recognized the caretakers and excitedly began shouting, “Agostinho … Agostinho!”
Suddenly a young toddler bolted from the hut. He was stark naked and blazed around the yard like a child on fire. This energetic 3-year-old, Agostinho Pereira Araujo, was born with Downs Syndrome. He was brought to the Klibur-Domin center when he was two.
While there, they improved his nutritional status and helped him with his gait. As I watched the boy jump, laugh, and giggle, it occurred to me that this child’s smile was not only a testament to Klibur Domin’s success, but a smile that could melt the hardest of hearts.
When we returned to the center, I traded my camera for a pick and a shovel, then spent the afternoon preparing a small plot of dirt in the center’s vegetable garden. It wasn’t much, but I took some comfort knowing that this small effort might eventually help nourish a few of those in need.
Two days later, after I’d again boxed my bike, I said my good-byes to East Timor, then climbed aboard a plane bound for Darwin, Australia.
In the moments just after the plane left the runway, I took a minute to look out over the tiny town of Tibar.
Suddenly within my mind, I remembered 7-year-old Acacio Rebeira. The hands of his caretaker gently stretching his legs.
For as I remembered that small gesture, I recognized that something larger than myself: The sacred act of one human being caring for another.
The truth of life being, that this is really all there is.
I think Joaquim tried to convey this to me that first morning we met.
He asked “Do you know what the words Klibur-Domin means?”
I shook my head.
“It’s an East Timorese term … it means sharing with love.”
Where in the world is Rick Gunn?
WHERE: Dili, East Timor
WHEN: Aug. 24-Sept. 3
MILEAGE LOG: 18,840
ELEVATION: Sea level
• Editors note: This is the latest in a series of journal entries written by former Nevada Appeal photographer Rick Gunn about his two-year bicycle journey around the world. Along the way, he is raising awareness for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. To donate, go to wish.org.
To read more of his entries and see more photos go to rickgunnphotography.com, or nevadaappeal.com and click on the Wish Tour icon.