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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