I have never been in a conflict zone or a war zone. The closest I have ever come was when I visited Eritrea in 1994, 2 years after their independence. The scars of the war were still clearly visible and it made an impression. But I was too young to be able to understand the true nature and horror that went on there.
Looking at some of the older faces in the Merpati boarding lounge in Bali’s Denpasar airport, waiting to board my first flight to Dili, Timor Leste, the force of what these people had been through really hit me. Now, just 10 years after finally achieving independence, Timor Leste is an incredibly poor country with almost zero real infrastructure. The memories are still fresh in the faces of the older people and the young artists are producing memories of the war, including the first ever Timor Leste-produced feature film – a love story set during the resistance.
In 1999, as the Indonesian’s withdrew from their brutal occupation of East Timor they annihilated the country. They set fire to the hills and destroyed the infrastructure they had built over 30 years of occupation. There are still few lights on side streets and the roads beyond the capital Dili are abysmal. Dili has no sewerage system and schools have aid workers coming to help assemble classroom desks.
But the people seem pretty happy. Everyone smiles and says good day or good afternoon as you pass them in the street. In the districts outside of Dili, people are more reserved but still friendly. Almost everyone speaks Bahasa Indonesia, Portuguese, and some version of a local language. The national language, Tetum, is not universal throughout the country and people from the extreme ends can have difficulty communicating if not using an imported language.
I had a chance to meet an ex-resistance leader. He is now one of the leading voices for environmental issues in Timor Leste advocating for reduced consumerism and a return to some of the traditional collective values that maintained forests and grazing land in the harsh environment that doesn’t get rain for 6 months a year. He is confident that the young country’s leaders shed too much blood to waste this opportunity. I just wonder what happens when the next generation takes over.