Inside an old courthouse in the dusty tropical town of Dili, an exhibition documents the history of East Timor’s resistance to Indonesian occupation. Next to a grainy black-and-white photo of a youthful man in a beard, a large inscription reads, “Our victory is merely a question of time.”
They were the words of Nicolau Lobato, East Timor’s leader in the first terrible years of war against the Indonesian invasion of December 7, 1975. Ill equipped and abandoned by all, including their Portuguese colonial masters, the Timorese nevertheless held their ground, creating large losses on both sides. That is, until May 1978, when Jakarta made a successful plea to the Carter Administration for a squadron of attack bombers and more parts and ammunition for its counterinsurgency aircraft. Britain, under a Labour government, similarly authorized a request for sixteen Hawk ground-attack aircraft. Used to bomb and napalm the Timorese into submission, the escalation left 200,000 dead from war and famine, including Lobato and most of his fellow leaders.
But in the end, Lobato was right. This May, East Timor became the world’s newest nation, the first country born in the twenty-first century. Lobato could not have foreseen the twenty-four years of despair, massacre, torture and disappearances that would follow the Indonesian invasion. Or the betrayal of friends, the connivance of wealthy nations and the paralysis of well-meaning institutions like the United Nations. His faith in a righteous outcome is common among Timorese: They believe that in the end, justice prevails. You just have to give it time.
And time is something the Timorese now have: time to build a society in their image, time to argue the minutiae of democracy, something they do with delight–sixteen parties contested elections last year, and 91 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot. It’s hard to walk the streets of Dili and not be affected by this euphoria for openness, for democracy, for freedom. It’s everywhere: in the light of a newly graduating teacher’s eyes, the laughter of an expectant mother. And while people are clearly poor (according to the World Bank, East Timor is Asia’s poorest country and the world’s twentieth poorest), the capital of this half-island territory, on the southeastern fringe of the Indonesian archipelago, seems today alive with possibilities.
The danger is that this enthusiasm will be dashed against the rocks of reality once the Timorese see how slowly grind the wheels of development. This nation of 760,000 has a mortality rate for children under 5 of 200 per 1,000, while malaria, tuberculosis and dengue are endemic. More than half of the 2,400 villages have no wells or piped water, and only one in four schools can fully accommodate students or even functions at all. “We must have patience,” says Paulo da Costa Amaral, a onetime guerrilla fighter now running a Timorese charity in the country’s impoverished highlands. “Independence is the beginning…. there are many steps for us to climb.”