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Last Updated: Tuesday, 8 May 2007, 14:44 GMT 15:44 UK
East Timor: Voices from a troubled nation
The fledgling nation of East Timor has been blighted by political tension and instability since it gained independence in 2002 after a bloody separation from Indonesia in 1999.

The factional violence that erupted in the capital Dili in April 2006, killing 30 people and forcing thousands to flee their homes, highlighted the many challenges for the tiny country.

As East Timor votes in a run-off in the first presidential elections since independence, the BBC speaks to people across the country about some of the issues they face.


A girl washing clothes in a refugee camp in Dili
Violence in 2006 sent many thousands fleeing their homes

More than 150,000 people are living in refugee camps across East Timor. Many of them were displaced during the years of fighting for independence from Indonesia.

Others were displaced more recently by the fighting between rebel soldiers and government loyalists in Dili last year. Here, Carlos Alves, an administrative worker describes months living in a refugee camp in Dili.

Life in Timor is very complicated.

Ever since the troubles of last year people have been scared to return to their homes. Last April saw a major rebellion and there are still a lot of illegal arms in East Timor.

My family got through it safely but security is still not well organised. The situation is very serious - and so they all live in a refugee camp for internally displaced peoples in front of the airport.

I live in an empty house under UN control within the main camp. But most refugees live in temporary shelters put together using large sheets, tarpaulin and boxes.

What we all have in common is fear
Carlos Alves
I've been living like this for many months. We have had to live through the hot season in these conditions. I cannot return to my house because it has been so badly damaged. It was destroyed by groups of men from the west of Timor. The government is not operating properly and securely in that area.

The life of the people in these shelters is very sad. They are fed up and there is a very bad atmosphere. Some of them are helped by NGOs but others are not and they have to find ways to get by. We cook together and sometimes we share food. The people in these camps come from all walks of life.

What we all have in common is fear. We are too scared to just go anywhere we please. People sometimes attack and kill each other.

Politics in Timor is in a bad state and so I do not know when I can leave. Illegal weapons are not being collected by the government, the UN or the police.

I don't know how things can return to normal.


East Timor is a country of the young - 67% of the population is less than 20-years-old and 18% is between the ages of 15 and 20. Many young people have little idea about life in a democracy.

Here, Francisco Sarmento, who works on a Timor Aid civic education project in Suai, talks about the difficulties of engaging the young people in nation-building.

Civic education project in Suai
Civic education projects are seen as vitally important for East Timor
Our project's aim is to overcome the gap between traditional decision-making processes and ways in which the young people of this country can contribute towards governance.

For this, the education of young people is vital. There are not many educated people in East Timor, and that's why the country is struggling on so many levels.

The project seeks to educate the East Timorese youth about the different institutions and to actively engage them with those in power.

Right now, the nation-building process is an important part of East Timor's development as an independent country. It will create a long term impact on East Timor and its people.

Timor Aid is implementing the youth civic education project in seven districts of the country.

Our programme is increasing the understanding of youth organisations on issues of governance and it is strengthening the relationship between youth organisations and decision-makers at village, district and national level.

A map of East Timor
For example, during the presidential elections, participants in the project were involved in running voter and civic education campaigns in each district.

But our work here is far from finished. During the last four years we have encountered many challenges.

Young people are lacking the capacity to make an impact with decision-makers. During the occupation by foreign powers, East Timor was dependent on others for everything.

That's why, now that the people of East Timor can have their say in their own affairs, it is important to nurture the ability in young people to understand and engage in governance processes.

On the other hand, our politicians are not professional. They can't manage the administration effectively and they have failed to involve the youth in development areas. Another major obstacle to the success of our work is the national civil unrest.

But we have to persist in the face of those difficulties and we are now beginning to draft a second stage of this programme.


Oecusse is a tiny enclave that sits within the Indonesian province of West Timor but is officially part of East Timor's territory. Its only link with the rest of East Timor is a twice-weekly 12-hour ferry journey.

While the enclave escaped much of the bloodshed of the struggle for independence, it has not escaped poverty and the drawbacks that such isolation ensures.

Edmundo Corbafo is from Oecusse. Here, he discusses what life is like in the remote enclave.

I am from East Timor's special enclave in the west - Oecusse. In 2002, after the restoration of independence, the district was given special autonomy.

My father is a farmer and my mother is a teacher.

The people of my district do not quite feel forgotten even though we are remote - but we need serious attention from government
Edmundo Corbafo
The big challenges here are poor transportation networks and the lack of money. Basically, there is a lot of poverty here.

Life remains very traditional in Oecusse.

People mostly engage in agriculture. Technology and modern equipment haven't made it to the enclave yet. People mainly plant rice and corn and this is also what they eat. They still wear the traditional dress which is hand-woven.

And even though people are Catholic there are strong local beliefs in supernatural entities.

The only way to and from Dili is by way of an infrequent ferry. It is very expensive and if people transport goods, the price goes up.

But people have small businesses here and cannot afford these costs as the only way people can sell their goods is to take them to Dili markets.

A map of East Timor

Here in Oecusse, there is no higher education after high schools - so youngsters go to Dili to pursue university education.

A lot of the fighting in the struggle for independence bypassed us - but the poverty and poor economy has not. I don't know what the future will bring.

The people of my district do not quite feel forgotten even though we are remote - but we need serious attention from government. Otherwise, prices will rise and people will not have economic mobility.

The enclave could stagnate.


East Timor has natural resources, but only began to take advantage of them with the start of production at an offshore gas field in the Timor Sea in 2004. It promises billions of dollars of revenue from oil and gas.

Amandio Gusmao Soares, from the Ministry of Natural Resources, believes such revenue could pay for development and take the country out of poverty.

Amandio Gusmao
Things have to change now. It's a new beginning
Amandio Gusmao

East Timor is the newest country in the world. We have many problems, but we also have potential solutions. We have a wealth of renewable and non-renewable natural resources.

Ninety per cent of the income of the country comes from oil and gas revenues, and 10% from domestic income tax.

But the total annual state budget is mainly covered by domestic income tax. It is only if that money is insufficient that the government can take money from oil and gas revenues.

The oil and gas sector is extremely important for reconstruction. It can, over the long term, solve the problems of poverty, literacy, malnutrition and unemployment.

But the money from oil and gas needs to be invested in health care, education, the public and private sectors as well as infrastructure development.

We face two major challenges - overcoming the centralised approach to spending the budget, and improving the quality of our workforce.

Most of our civil servants have only junior high school education. The literacy level among those, on whose decisions the future of the country depends, is astonishingly low.

Their experience of administration comes mainly from the time under Indonesian occupation and there is a mentality of corruption.

Things have to change now. It's a new beginning.

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