Heading home: The last 50 Australian infantry personnel line up to leave Dili on Friday. The last 50 Australian infantry personnel have left Dili.
WAILING in grief, Lucia Pina stood over the body of her murdered 17-year-old nephew and threw her hands in the air.
”I was in shock and pleading with God to protect innocent Timorese,” she remembers.
Photographer Jason South captured the moment on May 11, 1999 amid a reign of terror in Dili during a United Nations-sponsored referendum that led to East Timor’s breakaway from Indonesia, fuelling optimism about the world’s then newest nation.
But as the last Australian infantry troops withdrew from East Timor on Friday, marking the first time in almost 500 years that the small half-island nation is standing alone in the world, Mrs Pina said life has improved little for her family and she worries about the future.
”The rich people are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer,” she says, sitting near the grave of her nephew Elizier Dos Reis, who was hacked to death by pro-Indonesia militia, apparently because his family was giving away rice to pro-independence supporters.
Despite massive spending of oil and gas revenues by East Timor’s government, the lack of spending on education and health in the country is worse than Bangladesh, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea and other nations considered poor, says Charles Scheiner, a founder of the Dili-based non-government organisation La’o Hamutuk.
”The number of people living below the poverty line has increased over the past five years even though the government has spent billions of dollars,” Mr Scheiner says.
The Dos Reis family is typical of many in East Timor as the country emerges from Portuguese and Indonesian occupation and the shadow of the United Nations, which shut its mission in Dili on December 31, 13 years after arriving there.
Fifteen people are living in a bare house in the Dili suburb of Santa Cruz existing on $US150 ($A142) month the government pays in compensation for Elizier’s death.
”Sometimes we do not have enough money to buy food and someone has to go and see relatives outside Dili to bring some back,” says Maria Dos Reis, 24, who is Elizier’s sister.
Her father Manuel Dos Reis, 62, suffered a stroke four months ago and lies motionless in bed.
Mrs Dos Reis, a mother of two, says she also does not feel safe as ”people in the neighbourhood are always threatening each other”. She says the Australian troops who used to patrol Dili’s streets were friendly and popular and liked to play with the children. ”I felt safer with them here.”
As 50 Australian infantry soldiers boarded a flight to Australia, ending a joint taskforce with New Zealand that was deployed in 2006 to help end violent upheaval, East Timor’s leaders face crucial decisions that will define their country’s future, including how to resolve a dispute with a Woodside Petroleum-led consortium over development of the Greater Sunrise gasfield in the Timor Sea.
They can withdraw East Timor from agreements with Australia and Woodside on Greater Sunrise next month, a move that could reignite a bitter dispute with Canberra over sea boundaries in the Timor Sea.
Mr Scheiner says if East Timor continues to spend oil and gas revenue at the rate it has been for the past several years it will be bankrupt in about 2024.
By then twice as many Timorese will be looking for jobs after a baby boom. Foreign debt repayments will also be due.
Even before the UN and foreign troops withdrew, almost all the country’s decisions were made by Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao, 66, a former jungle fighter during Indonesia’s 24-year occupation. Earlier this month he was seen directing traffic outside his office and the other day when some of his staff were late for work he locked them out.
”Nobody in government makes a decision that is contrary to what Xanana wants,” an analyst living in Dili says.
Lieutenant-Colonel Mick Sasse, commander of the departing Australian troops, says he feels a ”growing sense the Timorese want to get on with being an independent nation. We have provided the security environment … they can stand on their own. It’s time.”
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.