APSN Banner

Commuters out, squatters in as Timor gift fails road test

Sun-Herald - January 16, 2005

Adam Gartrell – Buses donated to East Timor by the NSW Government in 2002 have never been used and sit in an empty parking lot, makeshift homes to a handful of Timor's poor.

Five of the 20-year-old Mercedes-Benz Mark Two buses, worth about $10,000 each, were shipped to East Timor, at an added cost of $70,000, by the Transport Department in January 2002.

The buses were intended to help establish much-needed transport services across the ravaged country.

The department failed to conduct proper feasibility studies, however, overlooking the fact that the buses are too large for East Timor's roads and cannot be used.

"Even in [the capital] Dili, the roads are old and too narrow," East Timorese Consul-General to Australia Abel Guterres said. "These buses are just too big. They would run everything else off the road."

The transport minister in January 2002, Carl Scully, who oversaw the donation of the surplus buses, said at the time: "These buses will enable people from all over East Timor to travel freely and easily for the first time in 25 years. "People will be able to visit their families and friends for the first time."

Instead, the buses have moved only two kilometres from Dili's port where they were originally unloaded. They sit in a dusty space in the Dili suburb of Colmera, in the shadow of a burnt-out building, and several homeless Timorese have moved in, sleeping on the seats and hanging their belongings from the handrails.

Mr Guterres called the NSW Government "very supportive and sympathetic" to East Timor's plight and said the gesture had been appreciated. "We were eager to get our hands on whatever we could at the time," he said. "There was no time to decide whether it was feasible or not."

He said a lack of spare parts and mechanical know-how were also problems. "If we needed parts we would have to source them [from Australia] and that would be very expensive for us," he said.

Much of East Timor's infrastructure, including transport, was destroyed in the violence that followed the vote for independence in 1999. Today, most Timorese rely on mechanically inadequate minibuses to move around the mountainous countryside.

Mr Guterres said East Timor's Government did have plans to improve the country's roads but work would probably not begin until 2010. "And by then [the buses] will probably be too old," he said.