Sunday, March 2, 2008

Just a bunch of normal people...

I'm the kind of person who cannot help but look at those people with fascinating jobs as semi-gods: the UN guy (or girl) that dedicates his life to bring Human Rights and Democracy to oppressed people, the NGO girl (or guy) who spends months in the armpit of the world treating people so that their kids will not die of the first diarrhea that crosses their paths... Well, in the world we're living in now you have to realize this is quite a naive attitude ;-)

And it's not only because of the UN rape scandals or the plain stupidity of blindly dumb people (remember the Noah's Ark scandal? Those Frenchies who wanted to kidnap poor little African children on the generous - but false - premise that war left them orphans?). Some trips to East Timor made me realize that the semi-gods are just normal people. What a scoop.

First of all, let me apologize to the fans of East Timor - they are not that many, but they might be quite shocked that there could be an entry about this nation on a blog dedicated to Indonesia, the country that occupied it for two decades and was responsible for quite a few massacres there, not least during their forced departure from it (1999).

A friend once told me that the chance for Timor is that it has "East" in its name; that's the only way for the majority of the world to be able to place it roughly on a map, i.e. in Asia. (By the way, the spell check of Blogger does not even know the word "Timor"). So, for those who are not quite as familiar with East Timor, here you go: it's a tiny half island sandwiched between Indonesia and Australia with just under a million inhabitants, former Portuguese colony, poorest country in the region (apparently, right after Yemen, but it just depends on where you place Asia's limits, right?).

After Indonesia left in a bloodbath, destroying most of the buildings of Dili, the capital, East Timor was poised to become the success story of the United Nations, that undertook the huge task of building a new nation from scratch. Imagine: there was not a single trained judge or lawyer, most of the elementary school teachers had left, and even today in Dili it is very hard to find anyone who would be a proficient plumber, not even to mention a clerk or nurse - some Members of Parliament never graduated high school, I've been told... So the UN still have a very big - and visible - presence in the country.

Well, the armed forces is just a part of it, albeit the most visible one - and pretty necessary. But the UN is also doing a fantastic job, helping build the much-needed capacities of the Timorese, and this type of solidarity is definitely something that the international community should be proud of. It's way beyond the purpose of this blog to discuss the UN's results in the country; tons of experts are already working on that. Just a small thing though: it is very strange to realize how normal the UN employees are. They have their big white SUVs, hang out in caf├ęs and sometimes get drunk. Nothing out of the ordinary... except that there is a whole segment of the national economy that is now solely working for the pleasure of those westerners, and far beyond the grasp of the Timorese.

Once last year I went to a party organized for the UN staff. It was a little outside of Dili, on the beach, with free flowing sangria, international music and some pretty serious dance-floor action (I remember this girl who was wearing a very flimsy white dress with a very small and visible g-string, for the big pleasure of the soldiers, who you can recognize because of their very short hair). What was strange, though, was when I realized that there was a couple of Timorese guys standing at a respectful distance from the dancing crowd of these "semi-gods". The guests were not at all willing to mix socially with the Timorese people, even though their sacred mission is to build a nation for them.

I don't want to blame the UN people: they're stuck in the country for months at a time, and a good old-fashioned, sangria-sponsored shindig is something I won't condemn. But it was eye-opening to witness the clash between groups that everything separates: culture, and especially money. Some of them were paid to do good; the others were waiting for the good to come out of the dancing crowd.

Other than that, East Timor is a fascinating country, very beautiful.

You can listen here to a song I recorded in an orphanage in Gleno, a small town perched on coffee-growing hills. Those kids were very moving.

I've stolen the pictures below from the website of a photographer, N. Rico. He has more, really nice!

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