On Freedom's Road

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The village of fatumakerek crouches in the mountains southeast of Dili, its huts rusty blemishes among wild roses and giant eucalypts. Children spill from a few dark doorways, but most of the huts are newly empty, a child's chalk drawing still clear on one misshapen wall. More than 20 years after they were forced here from their old village by the occupying Indonesian military, around 400 Fatumakerek residents in recent months have made the hard 12-hour walk back home. Now only about 100 are left, among them Martinho Soares, his wife and four children. "We are from there, so we will go back," he says of the place now known as Old Fatumakerek. But first they will wait to see what changes historic national elections on Aug. 30 bring to this seldom visited place. The aged and young families know what they want first: a better road so they can get home. After all, says Soares, "We were made to move to this new place, so the government should help us to go back."

The changes sweeping Fatumakerek, and the high hopes of its people, can be seen throughout the world's newest nation. Under a huge banyan tree on the waterfront in Dili, the capital, crowds gathered last week to listen to political speeches and promises. Old men with long feathers in their hats danced to drums while children who have never known democracy looked on. Under Indonesian rule, people were unable to speak openly to either foreigners or neighbors; today 16 political parties and a handful of independent candidates are roaming the country with loudspeakers, handing out T shirts and posters.

Such freedom came at a terrible price: after the majority vote for independence on Aug. 30, 1999, pro-Indonesian militias razed the country. Hundreds of citizens were killed and as many as 300,000 fled their homes. Around 80% of buildings, including 67,000 houses, were destroyed -almost everything useful, from the country's administrative structure to its buffalo and wells, was lost. "We were [working] blindfolded, all of us," says Bernard Kerblat, chief of operations for the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, of the enormous job that faced international agencies after the violence. "Never before in the history of the U.N. had [we] been given such a task."

The multimillion-dollar reconstruction program is in its second year. In Dili, 23 major public buildings have been rebuilt, many of them to house new ministries. There's a postal service, banks and a central pharmacy; a stack of new statutes and taxes. Though lacking in resources, law courts are operating. The security situation is stable; the first batch of Army recruits has been trained. Almost 6,500 school and university teachers have been hired and 370 schools repaired. "I finished high school in 1994 but I was too frightened to study-the situation wasn't good," says Delphina da Silva. Now she carries a backpack to classes at Dili's university. Village markets are busy, even if many operate in roofless ruins, and in Dili a fledgling retail economy has taken root: those with jobs can buy fridges, computers and Australian mushrooms.

But for those without jobs, "everything is still the same," says Carmelite Sister Fabiola Gusmão, in Dili. People have flooded in from outlying districts in search of scarce work; now they sit, frustrated and idle, beside roads chaotic with taxis and U.N. and ngo four-wheel-drive vehicles. Foreigners complain of growing harassment. One new café, which serves cappucinos to a mainly foreign clientele, looks out on a burned-out ruin near which children sell eggs and money-changers walk the broken pavement.

Outside Dili, where the pavements give way to rural tracks, a new country is taking shape amid the debris. A year ago, emergency tarpaulins sheltered thousands; since then, bright tin roofs have spread across the landscape. The village of Fatulaun lost its school and health clinic and many homes to militia violence. Now, one by one, the scars are vanishing. On a hillside, 12 men labor in the heat erecting concrete poles. The work has taken months, but their homes should be ready by year's end, says Francisco da Costa: "Today we work on this one. Tomorrow everyone will help another family."

In Laklubar, what was once the village's health clinic is still a desolate pile of debris. A mobile clinic has begun visiting twice a week with basic supplies, but otherwise it's local police who ferry the sick over treacherous roads or organize emergency helicopter flights. Their new station is in the old post office-polisia written in black marker pen over the door. Here two Australian police, Norm Ferguson and Rik Christiansen, help officers fresh from East Timor's new police academy. Among its first graduates last year was Afonso Soares, now a sub-inspector in Laklubar. He learned as a child what police shouldn't be. "I saw Indonesian police arrest people, but it was no good," he says. "They arrested people in the night and killed people. Our job is very different." The two Australians give them shooting and driving practice-trying, says Ferguson, "to do our little bit."

So much here still relies on goodwill and generosity: in the sparsely furnished Dili office of the Commission for Reception, Truth & Reconciliation, Vicky Tchong points out the donated equipment-almost everything. "People work overtime during the week," she says, "and then come into the office on the weekends to clean the toilets." But even with such energy, there's still great need at every turn. The unhcr has met its original target of supplying materials for 35,000 homes, and ngos have helped 15,000 other families to rebuild. But around 17,000 families will somehow have to find the money for their own repairs. "There is an unmet need there," says unhcr's Kerblat. "My question is, Who is looking into it?" In Laklubar, Norm Ferguson escorted home a group of refugees "and it was like the Queen's procession," he says. "People turned out about 15 km along the track to wave and cheer." But though 183,400 people have come back from West Timor, up to 80,000 remain there, many intimidated by militiamen into staying put.

In a country where positions of power and responsibility have been filled by outsiders ever since Portuguese colonization began almost 500 years ago, building skills is as critical as building walls and roads. More than 9,200 civil servants have been recruited-but many require training in the basics. The learning curve has been "intensive, against the wall, sink or swim," says Emilia Pires, head of the National Planning & Development Agency. A prominent activist in Australia for 25 years, Pires came home in 1999. The agency she now heads has monumental tasks-among them, collecting population data and creating a national development strategy. Progress is often hampered by language and cultural barriers between foreign staff and locals. Even those with good intentions have not always been the best teachers. But, Pires says, "we really could not have gone faster-when we went faster, we had to sacrifice quality."

There's acknowledgment now that some of the help given in the first frantic months after the violence was not always well planned, says U.N. Development Program representative Finn Reske-Nielsen. At one ngo, local staff went on strike because they felt their international colleagues weren't passing on useful skills. "You come here for us, but what knowledge do you leave us with when you go-how to photocopy papers?" says Cesar Cardosa. Now a $43 million, decade-long push is planned to change that seat-of-the-pants approach: 75 projects will equip public servants in skills from official letter writing to budget policy.

There's an air of urgency to such preparations. The 88-member constituent assembly that voters choose this week will take the country closer to formal independence-it has 90 days to write and adopt a constitution and decide on a political system. And as independence approaches, the foreign presence will wind down. Though some will provide technical support after independence, most ngos, and agencies like the U.N. Transitional Administration in East Timor, are planning their exit. No one can be sure what effect that will have on development and the local economy-though there's no doubt that long-term donor support will be crucial. Critics of foreigners' efforts aren't hard to find in Timor, but many share Caritas Australia staffer Jane Woolford's concern: "I fear what will happen if we go too soon."

Not everyone will leave happily. International health-care ngos providing district health services have been asked to make way for hired foreign doctors. "It's great to leave when you're satisfied that the job has been done and that you've left something behind, but I don't have that feeling," says John Hicks, country director of the International Medical Corps. The American-based ngo-which runs the hospital in Oecusse, an East Timorese enclave in West Timor, and is rebuilding six rural health posts and establishing a national medical training center-will leave at the end of this month, yet local staff in Oecusse aren't skilled enough to go it alone. "For us to pull out at this stage," says Hicks, "is immoral."

In the same enclave, Tarcisio da Costa and his family of eight had their possessions looted by militiamen; now he's teaching remote villages about people power. Trained by the undp, Da Costa climbs mountains and crosses dry river beds, often covering 20 km on foot between villages. Crowds gather to hear him speak, and everywhere there are questions: Will the vote bring violence? What is a constitution? And everywhere, he says, "people are very happy to hear of democracy. Our people have great hopes for improving our country." Change has come to East Timor, and even greater change promises to follow the elections. As he walks in his rubber sandals from village to village, Tarcisio da Costa knows that there's no time yet for rest.