The markets were dusty and the air was smelling fecund with ageing fruit and vegetables. It was the end of the day and I had a hankering for papaya. I trundled around on my bicycle chatting with stall holders, their teeth shiny and red with betel nut. Grins and laughter wet with the red juice swishing around their mouths. Suddenly everyone’s heads turned, fixated, on an event across the road. A man was beating a small woman over the head in between throttling her with terrible fingers.
I dropped my things and ran across the road. The man left, cursing and enraged. As I approached the woman I could see the color spread, a purple stain on her coffee colored neck. Five little ink blot orbs showing up more and more by the second. Her neck shivering. I asked if she needed help and she said ‘yes’. Her terror was awful, but her humiliation as the crowd across the street tittered and pointed was just as bad.
In a weary taxi we left for the Policia Nacional Timor Leste (PNTL). The Mana* made frantic teary phone calls during the ride in between deep and hurt silence. When we arrived I watched as this small Mana sat folded in on herself in the three legged chair at the Victims Protection Unit (VPU). She was blank eyed and disassociative.
We waited in the empty room as three police officers told us they were too busy to take a statement. One of the officers put her head on the desk and went to sleep. I worked my hands through my skirt and asked Mana how she was feeling. ‘Ok’ she said. ‘How are you?’ ‘Ok too’ I replied. We danced around the awkward silence that engulfed us. A lazy hesitancy, each of us expecting something of the other. All the while Mana sat with a stony face.
In a dusty sudden a grey Hilux pulled up outside the VPU. Four large officers unloaded themselves. Guns, squat in their plastic cases sat on their hips, their blue t-shirts tucked tight into their pant waistlines. Heavy black boots shuffled in the dust. I noticed one officer’s lace was undone, brown and lazy it moped around his foot as he walked towards us. He spoke to me first, ignoring the Mana beside me. After ten minutes of questioning he joked with me, asking why the organization I worked with was only interested in the rights of women and children. Where were the organizations for men?
Eventually a victim impact statement was taken and I dropped the Mana back to her home in Comoro to the West of Dili near the airport. We said our goodbyes, exchanged numbers and agreed to meet together at the PNTL the next morning to follow up. She lived in a poorly lit street of squat concrete houses with tin roofs. As the taxi made a tight 3 point turn in the narrow street. A child briefly disappeared from view in front of the bumper and I panicked. My adrenal glands were sitting on empty after witnessing the assault that afternoon. He appeared in front of the headlights standing up and tottering away, pantless and bemused. Dogs barked and jumped at my window, strange faces, strange scents sending them mad. The fruit I had bought hours ago lay at my feet in black plastic bags. The skins of the banana that Mana and I had eaten hours ago now darkening and wilting. Mana and I had eaten a banana each in silence in the back of the taxi. The skins were beginning to wilt and darken.
I arrived the next morning at the VPU just as a large utility police truck arrived with the Mana’s boyfriend, the suspect, shivering in the tray. I was bundled along into a dank backroom where I sat on a torn plastic chair between Mana and her boyfriend. We waited. I felt awkward sitting between the pair and was unsure of what my role was or what I was expected to do. Officers milled in and out peering at the three of us. The Mana’s boyfriend to my left, drooped in his chair. He seemed morose and sullen like a small child. A police officer sat and talked over the events of the day before. Stern but fair she asked questions and listened to the pairs responses. Suddenly a large hulking policeman barreled into the room. In the second it took us all to recognize his presence he had lifted his large fist and punched the suspect in the head. I yelled out startled for him to stop. Grimacing and sneering he retreated to a chair.
Over the next ½ an hour I watched dismayed as the police officer berated the young man for causing a disturbance in public.
‘If you have a problem with your sweetheart son, you sort it out in private’.
He refused to charge the boyfriend with either assault or domestic violence. Instead, he classified it as a public disturbance. I was alarmed at the implication that this would leave the Mana open to be charged herself and couldn’t help but wonder whether this bizarre charge was, in fact, a deterrent to drop the case entirely. The choice was given to either lay charges or opt to resolve it traditionally between the families. The young woman oscillated between the two choices as various police officers weighed in literally and figuratively. I was anxious for a legal outcome. Eventually the Mana decided she would lay charges against her boyfriend. She was led from the room and the boyfriend was taken to another room by two officers. As the door shut I felt my throat tighten, confused in my anxiety for this young woman and what had happened to her as well as for this young man who I had just seen bashed by an officer.
Distressed, I asked to speak alone with the officer who had punched the young man. In strangulated Tetum I explained my shock and dismay that violence was used as a tactic with suspects.. Between the pangs of humiliation at this image and a childish urge to cry I pointed out the paradox of lecturing someone about the wrongness of violence after punching them in the head. I felt that I was annoying him and in truth I struggled with the image myself. A self-righteous foreigner giving a lecture in the third world about human rights. He glared at me with a thick eye.
We stared at each. Me swallowing the urge to look away as the fear crept into my jaw. After a 30 second game of eyeballing each other he thanked me abruptly and left.
When I returned to the office I received a brief phone call from Mana saying she had decided to drop the charges and would aim to resolve it between the families. I was disappointed that she had not taken the legal avenue, though not surprised as I watched police officers actively discourage her from doing so. I wished her luck and said goodbye.
Since then I have been feeling slow and foggy. The dust cakes my hair as the rains stay away. My gut rebels every second day and find it difficult to rouse myself in the morning. On the worst days I question whether I really have it in me, bodily, to do this kind of work. I blame my weariness on a rainy season cocktail of ‘tropical viri’ as a friend called it the other. Or perhaps it is a slow-leak adrenal fatigue from last Friday’s events at PNTL. The fall-out from the faux bravado of challenging a large powerful man alone in a moldy backroom. The despair and the conflict in watching a woman with few resources lost in the labyrinth of two systems of redress for violence. Legal or traditional, both offered solutions with caveats.
Despite my own fears and anxieties that day I knew I was safe. I knew I was protected by mechanisms, treaties, contracts, policies, passports, status, diplomacy, citizenship. The kinds of things that whisk you away if you are a foreign national in this country, disappearing you back to the safety of your cocooned life.
But out here in the Open, in the Majority World, protections like the legal system are flimsy and insipid. They are made thin by conflict, colonialism, neoliberal market economics, structural adjustment and the resource piracy of the First World. Out here in the Open you are exposed to the effects of these forces on change and development. On a culture’s ability to evolve and adapt instead of remaining static in the face of uncertainty, conflict and poverty. Intimate partner violence is of course not limited to Timor, or the developing world. It is a global epidemic. This is the third time I have intervened in an instance of domestic violence/assault by a partner-the first two times in Australia. In both of these instances, when I was later contacted by the women involved, they had returned to their partners, citing an unwillingness and a ‘too-hard-basket’ attitude by police officers registering their case.
In the end this is a dilemma of intervention for me. Micro interventions like witnessing an assault to the macro interventions like all development projects are. Development, a universal model of human rights, being a citizen of a regional superpower. The whipping wind of culture, politics, gender and race that breathe into these sorts of situations. And trying to find your feet in and among it all.
*Tetun for sister. Commonly used for all females.
I write this from atop the wooden beamed balcony of the Dili beach hotel. Naked children fresh from a rough tide cluster among the beach weed like Eve. Anchored freight vessels hover around the port and taxis crawl past on the road below. Atauro Island watches me from across the strait. Again, an overwhelming sense of home tugs on my heart as I watch Dili go by. I’m startled as I write this when a floating child in the sea seems not to surface until pop! There he is. A man waves to me with his helmet. Ah Dili. How do I love thee, let me count the ways.
I have been here for just over one month now. If the next eleven pass as quickly I am in real trouble. I can’t help but feel a sadness already about leaving though I am still eleven months out. I am taking that to be a good sign. Having said that I have had some rough days lately, heck I had a rough ten days a few weeks ago. They were sort of a meld of missing my partner, adjusting to things on my own, acclimatizing to the heat and a dense isolation that comes from living in a compound. Cutoff and quietly sheltered, my apartment has all the mod cons like air-conditioning and a bathtub. What it lacks is humanness. I found myself timing my own bedtime to that of the Nepalese family next door’s child so that I wouldn’t have to sleep in the silence. Realizing this lifestyle wasn’t for me I have found a place through a friend that is a lot more real. I move in nine days into the top floor of a Timorese family’s house and I can hardly wait. In a lane full of children, tamarind trees and avocado vines, pigs scrabbling around in the dust and dogs nipping at one another’s tails is where I will be. This is the way that I want to be here in Dili.
Timor has been elusive and inconsistent. Incredible highs and then torturous lows. Sometimes all in one day. You wake up never knowing what to expect and you get better at expecting not too much and going with the moment to moment flow. Something that’s given me some excellent moments has been riding my bicycle. It’s a cheap creaky import from Indonesia but oh how she rides like the wind. I’ve had a deep and abiding love for cycling since I was a kid and Dili provides all sorts of challenges and twists for a rider. It’s also the best way to catch a breeze and shake off a bad mood.
A highlight has been fulfilling one of my adult dreams-to join a choir. I popped into the Dili choir several weeks ago when I was feeling blue after my beloved bossman’s departure, and what singing collectively with a bunch of over 55’s Timorese and malae did for my heart and spirit is best described as expansive. I felt open and buoyant singing at the top of my confused alto/soprano-back-to-alto voice. Tomorrow is once again choir night and you can bet I’ll be doing my throat exercises before bed this evening.
There’s always so much going on in Dili and it is up to you how much or how little you want to be involved. I’ve also joined a hash group here that does runs and walks around different parts of town. Last week the hash route was through Becora up in the hills where much of the trouble in 2006 was concentrated. It’s a very poor area with a lot of vulnerable communities perched precariously on hills made entirely of dust. The kids around there have these amazing sinewy legs that propel them up and down the hillsides. It was so amusing for them to see these large, oafish malae teeter along the dusty ridges. One kid told me we were so slow he couldn’t believe it. I agreed with him.
Work has been an interesting insight into development practice with a local community based organization. Figuring out cultural semiotics and all the densely intricate networks and connections that come with a different workplace culture, gender roles and interactions, how all of these things interact with age and hierarchy has been amazing. Being here I feel as though all my senses are on fire, my ears especially. I can almost feel my ears twisting and yearning outwards trying to pick up conversation. My eyes feel wide and my pupils dilated taking everything in, reading and understanding, connecting and comparing. My brain is full of sparks.
I’ve got the privilege of working with a local host organization working on child and housing rights in Timor Leste. I’ve been engaging in a slow and beautiful process of forming relationships with all of my colleagues. Making clunky jokes with my Tetun, then laughing about my clunky Tetun together has been pretty good. But a recent trip to the district of Baucau was a turning point. Speaking, and listening only to Tetun for three days laid a good foundation in my brain and I found myself thinking about Tetun all the time especially before bed. Sitting with my dictionary figuring out different sentences before the power ran out. I have never before appreciated communication and all its attendant gifts before. Each sentence understood is a delicious reward. Another thin silver chord that seems to reach out tying you a little more to the person you are speaking with. I returned on a high from beautiful and cool Baucau. The temperature cooled my body and mind and the quiet of the district brought us all a little closer together. We shared fish on a stick and Portugese wine from a box and in amongst it all I felt something shift. I look forward to all the tiny shifts.
*A quick note before I sign off to say how sad it has been to watch the fires in Sydney from here. Springwood was my first home and I am thinking of all my friends and family who are in the mountains. All things crossed that it fizzles to whisper of smoke tomorrow.