I started coming to East Timor in 2000. It was still coming upright from the devastation of 1999.
Timor was under UN administration then, with UN personnel EVERYWHERE, Armored Personnel Carriers from the peacekeeping forces on the road, traveling through military checkpoints.
The country had been devastated in 1999, when the UN had sponsored a referendum allowing the Timorese, who had been occupied by Indonesia for 24 years, to vote for their independence. When 86% of the population voted for independence, the Indonesian army unleased militia they had put in place across the country. They wreaked havoc. 85% of the buildings had been burned to the ground my militia put in place by the Indonesian army. The Timorese people were only saved by the arrival of a UN peacekeeping force from Australia.
Virtually every school, every business was burned in the 99 violence. It was a systematic effort to dismantle the country. Fishing nets burned, trucks stolen or dismantled, the buffalo used to work the fields slaughtered. Power lines and phone lines cut or taken. The country was brought to its knees.
By the time I arrived in late 2000, I have to say, it was a fun time. They had paid a high price, but the Timorese were tasting freedom. There were UN teams from Ireland, Bangladesh, Norway, Brazil, Australia, you name it — rebuilding roads, putting up power lines and satellite dishes, carrying tv sets on donkeys up a mountain to a village so they could show the villagers what it means to vote.
I was there again in 2001, and twice in 2002.
But until now, I haven’t been to Timor since 2005. In 2006 the place blew up and became too dangerous to travel to.
In 2008 I came over this way. It was when the President, my good friend and Chairman of my Advisory Board on TheCommunity.com, was shot three times in an assassination attempt. I visited him in Darwin while he was recovering. That is another story altogether.
But today I am driving down the same road from the airport. The country, under the leadership of President Ramos-Horta and the Prime Minister and former guerilla leader, Xanana Gusmao, is seeing double digit growth.
There is a new Toyota dealership on the road in from the airport. And hallelujah — they’ve instituted a helmet law for motorcycles.
It’s good to be back.