New Internationalist

The road to recovery

October 2009

A decade after independence, Timor-Leste’s people are still struggling to get justice

Photo: Plan / Benno Neelman
Building for the future: those returning want to make a fresh start. Photo: Plan / Benno Neelman

It has been 10 years since Timor-Leste voted for independence from Indonesia in an historic referendum. Since then, the road to stability has been precarious, and the eruption of gang violence in 2006 weakened previous peace-building efforts. During the civil unrest, 6,000 homes were destroyed in the capital Dili alone, and between 150,000 and 180,000 people fled from their homes.

But things could be about to change. By the end of September, the Metinaro camp – the last of the 60 internally displaced people (IDP) camps set up after the riots – is to close. Is this a sign that this traumatized nation, the first country to gain independence this millennium, is finally on the road to recovery?

Marcello de Carvalho, his wife Maria, and their four children have lived in a self-made two-room hut in the Metinaro camp since 2006. As a meat vendor before the unrest, he was able to provide for his family, but now he relies heavily on non-governmental organizations (NGOs). ‘We worry about our lack of income and our uncertain future,’ Marcello says. ‘We want to rebuild our lives, find jobs and get the children back into school.’

In an unusual step, the Timor-Leste Government agreed to pay every returning family $4,500 to cover the cost of building new homes. But Marcello hasn’t seen a penny. ‘I think we just “disappeared” from the list of beneficiaries. But without that money we can’t build a house so we are stuck here.’

About an hour’s drive from Dili, the Metinaro camp was home to more than 9,000 people. Today roughly 600 people remain. Earlier this year, Martino Soares, 26, and his four brothers received the government compensation and moved back to Camea, a village on the outskirts of Dili. But, Martino says, the money is not enough to meet the high costs of the building supplies and, for the foreseeable future, he and his brothers will again be living in a tent. ‘I want to start a business as a firewood or fruit and vegetable vendor and I want to start a family where my children have a better future than I have, but I am not positive.’

Much of the violence in 2006 was blamed on ‘eastern’ and ‘western’ youth gangs, a divide that surfaced for a variety of social, economic and political reasons in the post-referendum period. Reintegrating communities back into society is an important part of the country’s healing process, but little progress is being made. Returning IDPs who find their property destroyed and possessions stolen are blaming those who stayed at home during the unrest, exacerbating an already fragile situation.

In order to ensure long-term peace, several NGOs have stressed that a commitment to justice and accountability is essential. Many crimes, including arson, property damage and murder, remain unresolved, making it difficult for Timor-Leste to move forward. What’s ultimately needed to ensure sustainable peace is a strong respect for the rule of law and governance. ‘We are calling for justice for the crimes which resulted in the displacement of thousands of families,’ says Plan Timor- Leste’s Country Programme Director, Susan Smandych. ‘This will enable people to learn from the past and create the foundations for new and equitable methods of conflict resolution.’

Gouri Sharma, Plan International

This column was published in the October 2009 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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This article was originally published in issue 426

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