- The Washington Times - Friday, May 31, 2002

MAUBARA, East Timor A man lies sick and dying in a house just down the hill, but there is nothing Vasco de Cavalho can do about it.

There is no doctor here. There are no medicines. There is not even enough food in this poor mountain village of 30 families headed by Mr. de Cavalho.

There is only the quiet dignity of a people whose long struggle for freedom ended when East Timor's independence was proclaimed on May 20.

After centuries of Portuguese colonial rule and 24 years of resistance to a brutal Indonesian occupation, a new and perhaps even harder struggle began when independence was achieved last week the fight to alleviate the poverty of Mr. de Cavalho and the vast majority of East Timor's population of about 800,000 people, most of whom live in the countryside.

"Before, we only had one goal: unite and get the Indonesian army out. Now that they've gone, we must think about how we manage our independence. That's harder than getting rid of the colonizers," said Mario Umberto, 27, who has been accepted as a member of East Timor's police force.

The world's newest nation began life as one of the world's poorest. Mr. de Cavalho's village of Pukelete is a two-hour walk from the closest town, Maubara. With no cars and no public buses in these lush hills perched above the sea, there is no way to get help for a severely ill man.

"If we can't go to town, we will just have to wait for him to die," Mr. de Cavalho said.

East Timor's poverty line is the equivalent of 55 cents a day, but farmers like Mr. de Cavalho, 33, can only dream about that kind of money. He belongs to the 41 percent of East Timor's people who live below the poverty line.

Every Friday, he walks two hours from his mountain home to Maubara, where he tries to sell the bananas, beans and sweet potato he grows with his uncle.

"If people don't buy them, we bring them back and eat them," Mr. de Cavalho said.

In a good week, he might earn 50 cents or even a dollar money that must last him, his wife and their eight children until the next week when he walks to town again along a narrow, paved road lined with orange flowers.

Mr. de Cavalho said he eats corn three times a day. Asked when he last had meat, he can reply only, "A long time."

There is no electricity here and no telephone. Water comes from a well up the hill.

But Mr. de Cavalho understands that his new country cannot provide much.

"It's all right that there's not much money. It will come later," he said, while a small boy, his face covered with dirt, tugged at his hand and coughed.

There was more money in Indonesian times, he agrees, "But it's better now because we live by ourselves."

Indonesia invaded East Timor on Dec. 7, 1975. Its last troops left in October 1999, after orchestrating a civil war to thwart East Timor's overwhelming vote in August that year to separate from Indonesia.

About 1,000 people died and most of East Timor's infrastructure was destroyed before an Australian-led military force intervened to usher in a U.N. administration that began the task of rebuilding and preparing the country for self-government.

"Many of the institutions of government are still fragile and will need your continued support," the departing U.N. administrator, Sergio Vieira de Mello of Brazil, told international donors in Dili in mid-May. The donors helped East Timor's new government cover a 35 percent shortfall in its projected expenditures of $256 million during the next three years.

But Klaus Rohland of the World Bank said that unlike many countries, East Timor has a good chance of becoming economically independent, once revenue begins flowing from oil wells in the Timor Sea off the country's south coast.

Pumping from an initial offshore field is to begin in 2004, with revenues expected to rise from about $75 million annually to a peak of more than $300 million by 2013.

"It's much more fortunate than many other countries when they were born," said a Western diplomat who has long followed East Timor.

"They have good leadership," said the diplomat, praising the country's elected president, the former guerrilla commander Xanana Gusmao universally loved by his people and the chief minister, Mari Alkatiri, who lived in Mozambique during the Indonesian occupation.

"Alleviation of poverty is the first priority. It means that we will allocate most of our budget to education and health," said Mr. Alkatiri, who oversaw the formation of a detailed plan for East Timor's development.

Because East Timorese had few opportunities for advancement in the past, the country lacks professionals, such as judges and doctors. Unemployment is widespread.

"It's so hard to find work," said Rosario Gomes, 24, who has not had a job since September 1999, when militiamen fired bullets into the lobby of the Mahkota Hotel, which was a favorite of Indonesian officials and where Mr. Gomes had been a room servant for more than four years.

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