APSN Banner

A free Timor, but the price is high

Sydney Morning Herald - August 22, 2009

East Timor voted for independence 10 years ago, but its people await a better life, writes Lindsay Murdoch in Dili.

The first time I saw Pedro Unamet Remejio he had just poked his head into the world as gunfire was echoing around the United Nations compound in Dili.

It was at 3.15 am, probably the darkest hour of six long nights we spent huddled together as pro-Indonesia militias looted, raped and killed on Dili's streets. I was dozing two metres away on a concrete floor.

Pedro did not cry much and his mother, Joanna Remejio, muffled the pain of the birth of her third child, so I never woke.

Instead of opening my eyes to see killers from over the razor wire fence, as I had feared, I saw a beaming Mrs Remejio nursing her newborn son on a piece of cardboard. "I am very happy my baby is alive," she told me.

That was September 7, 1999, eight days after East Timorese defied intimidation and voted to break away from Indonesia, precipitating a wave of bloodshed that left 1500 Timorese dead and most of the former Portuguese territory destroyed.

As East Timor prepares to mark the 10th anniversary of that August 30 vote, I find Pedro in a poor suburb of Dili, where his mother, like most Timorese mothers, battles to feed and educate him and four other children aged between five and 15.

Pedro is short, skinny and blind in one eye, having been hit in the head with a rock two years ago. His smile is shy. "I want to be the health minister," he said, when I asked what he wanted to do later in life.

Mrs Remejio, 36, asks if the Melbourne Jesuit priest Peter Hosking is also returning to Timor as it was him who baptised Pedro. At Mrs Remejio's insistence, Father Hosking gave him the middle name Unamet, the acronym for the United Nations mission that made it possible for 900,000 East Timorese to win their freedom.

"A white doctor who was in the compound suggested the name and I thought it a great idea in recognition of the UN saving our lives," she said.

Mrs Remejio was heavily pregnant when she ran with her husband and two children to the UN compound as militia were rampaging through the streets.

The family was refused entry, but when militia appeared to open fire on people who were screaming to be allowed into the compound, she and scores of others climbed the fence, pulled themselves over razor wire and jumped to the ground inside. Many were cut and bruised.

"We were petrified. We believed they were going to shoot us all. I believed climbing the fence was the only way to save my baby," Mrs Remejio said.

Television footage of women and children scrambling and being pushed over the wire shocked the world and forced the UN to open the gates to 2000 refugees.

Pedro was born two days later in an area of the compound that had been set up as a makeshift clinic where a couple of doctors worked around the clock in primitive conditions.

Just as East Timor has struggled to develop during the past 10 years, Mrs Remejio has struggled to bring up Pedro and her other children.

Five years ago, her husband abandoned her and the children. Since then she has run a small carpentry business on her own. But it is hard to make a living. "Many Indonesians have come back here to start up similar businesses," Mrs Remejio said.

In 2006 she fled Dili amid violent upheaval and spent six months in a refugee camp. When she returned, the business and the small, corrugated-iron home where she and her children live in one tiny room had been looted. "We had to start all over again," she said.

Mrs Remejio has written twice to the UN pleading for help with caring and educating Pedro but has received no reply. She said Ian Martin, the former UN head in East Timor, had promised her in 1999 that Pedro would receive a special card that would help his upbringing. "I never got one amid the chaos of the time," Mrs Remejio said.

She said Pedro's damaged eye needed assessing in case the sight could be returned but she could not afford a doctor. She struggles to find the money to send him to school. "I hope my country can grow better. I want a better life for my children."