22 August 2009

Tough 10 years for East Timor

The Age Tough 10 years for East Timor Lindsay Murdoch, Dili August 22, 2009 - THE first time I saw Pedro, he had just poked his head into the world as gunfire was echoing around the United Nations compound in Dili.

It was at 3.15am, 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 didn't cry very much and his mother, Joanna Remejio, muffled the pain of her third child's birth, so I never woke.

Instead of opening my eyes to see killers 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 the East Timorese defied violence and intimidation to vote for a 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 next weekend, I find Pedro in a poor suburb of Dili, where his mother, like most Timorese mothers, struggles to feed and educate him and four other children aged between five and 15.

Pedro is short, skinny and blind in one eye, having suffered a shocking head injury when somebody threw a rock at him two years ago.

He has a shy smile.

''I want to be the health minister,'' he says, when I ask what he wants to do later in life.

Mrs Remejio, 36, is happy we have come to see her and Pedro, as she has heard that Ian Martin, the former UN head in East Timor, is returning to Dili for the anniversary and she wants help to give him a present.

She also asks if Jesuit priest Peter Hosking, of Melbourne, is returning, as he baptised Pedro three hours after his birth.

''Father Hosking is a very kind man. I would like him to bless Pedro again,'' she says.

At Mrs Remejio's insistence, Father Hosking gave Pedro the middle name Unamet, the acronym for the UN 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 says.

Mrs Remejio was heavily pregnant when she ran with her husband and two children to the besieged UN compound while militia were rampaging

through the streets on September 4, 1999.

They were refused entry.

When militia appeared to open fire on people who were screaming at UN personnel 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,'' Ms Remejio says.

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 days later in a makeshift clinic where a couple of doctors worked around the clock in primitive conditions.

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

She says there have been good and bad times since the euphoria of the independence vote. Five years ago, Mrs Remejio's husband abandoned his family, leaving them with nothing. Since then she has run a small carpentry business on her own, as well as caring for the children.

''It's very hard to make a living now … a lot harder than a few years ago, because many Indonesians have come back here to start up similar businesses,'' she says.

In 2006, she was forced to flee Dili amid violent upheaval and spent six months in a refugee camp in Baucau, East Timor's second largest city.

When she returned to Dili, the business and her small, corrugated iron home - where she and her five children live in one tiny room - had been looted. ''We had to start all over again,'' she says.

Mrs Remejio has twice sent letters to the UN, pleading for help to care for and educate Pedro. She has not received a reply.

Mrs Remejio says Mr Martin promised her in 1999 that Pedro would receive a special card that would help with his upbringing.

''I never got one amid the chaos of the time.''

Mrs Remejio says that Pedro's damaged eye needs to be assessed, in case sight can be restored, but she has no money for a doctor.

She struggles to find the money to send him to school.

''Life is very hard,'' she says. ''I hope my country can grow better. I want a better life for my children.''

Readers wishing to help families in East Timor can contact the Bairo Pite Clinic at bairopiteclinic.org

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