Schools reopen in East Timor as life returns to some degree of normalcy

Dili, 10 November 1999 -- A burst of multicoloured T-shirts and the chatter of excited children greet all visitors at Lahana Primary School on the outskirts of Dili, capital city of East Timor. "I want to be a teacher!" yells one little girl. "I'm going to be a doctor," says another. "I want to be a farmer," cries out a girl of about eight, at which all her friends laugh. Grimy and sometimes showing skin lesions due to poor hygiene, these happy children are among 1,900 students at Lahana, up from 600 just five days earlier when the school opened its doors.
Schools are reopening throughout East Timor, only a few weeks after the end of violence and destruction throughout the month of September. A UN-sponsored referendum on independence from or integration with Indonesia was held on 30 August 1999. When the majority of East Timorese voted for independence, militias went on the rampage, burning houses and businesses, killing, and destroying up to 95 per cent of the buildings in many East Timorese towns. The crisis worsened when all infrastructure that had been put in place by the Indonesian Government during its 24-year occupation of East Timor - including public services and law and order - collapsed with the departure of the Indonesian authorities.

While the humanitarian community moved into East Timor on the heels of INTERFET, the multinational force that restored peace in the new country (which has not yet been officially named as such, pending a UN-administered transitional period), many assumed that food, shelter, water, and health services would be more easily restored than would the educational system. But on 3 November 1999, in the town of Baucau, about 140 km from Dili, five primary schools, one junior high school, and one high school opened, organized by the Catholic diocese there. Other schools quickly followed, with at least four in Dili and one each in Liquica, Dare and Los Palos.

"I don't read yet, "nine-year-old Ana Lisa das Dores da Silva Carvalho said, "but I want to learn English and I want to be a doctor." Her father, Julio Alfaro Carvalho, added proudly: "We are grateful that this school is open, so all my children can help build our new country. They will be more important to East Timor than my wife and me."

The Lahana school was never meant to be a school. A truck driver who lives next door to the residence of a Jesuit priest offered the grounds of his home, including a three-sided shed with aluminium roofing, if the priests could provide the teachers. During a Sunday religious service, the priests put out the word for teachers, and 44 adults, some with teaching experience dating back to the Portuguese administration in the early 1970s but who had not taught during the Indonesian occupation, showed up. With yellowed, frayed books entitled, 'Let's learn to read', which one teacher had brought to East Timor from Angola in 1974, the teachers are bringing back a semblance of normalcy to the children's lives.

UNICEF - the United Nations Children's Fund - believes that reopening schools is the clearest sign that stability is returning to a tumultuous situation. "We are working primarily in four areas," said Robert Bennoun, a UNICEF Education Officer." UNICEF will provide 'Edukits' and recreational kits, help with teacher training, support the construction or rehabilitation of schools and provide food for the teachers and for students too."

"The 'school-in-a-box' kit grew out of the Rwanda experience in 1994," added Pilar Aguilar, a UNICEF Education Officer with long experience in emergency situations. "Each kit contains enough materials for 80 students plus the teacher and the class area, whether it is under a tree or in a regular classroom. It will cost roughly US$300 for each." About 600 kits will be provided over the next three to four months, distributed through UNICEF partners such as Concern, World Vision, Jesuit Refugee Services, the Catholic Church and UNTAET (United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor), or sometimes directly to the schools. UNICEF will also provide footballs, volleyballs and nets and other recreational materials.

The school's meal programme is important both for the students and their teachers. Most students arrive at school without having eaten breakfast, which contributes to low levels of energy and concentration. The schools commit to cooking for the students every day. For teachers, who receive little or no cash salary, the meal is a vital incentive to keep them in the profession. This area of support to the education sector reflects a partnership amongst UNICEF, the World Food Programme, NGOs and the schools.

About US$490,000 will be provided by UNICEF during the first six months of school. The academic calendar for East Timor ran from July of one year to June of the next, somewhat long due to the many Muslim, Christian and Hindu holidays.

Today, in post-referendum and post-militia-violent East Timor, at least a dozen schools have reopened throughout the country, mostly under the auspices of the Catholic Church (various orders of nuns and priests, including the Salesians, Canucians and Jesuits, are getting schools reopened), but some also through the Muslim community, the CNRT (National Council of Timorese Resistance) and student associations.

Across town, another even more fortunate school opened its doors on 4 November 1999. Saint Anthony's Primary School is run by an energetic group of Salesian nuns. With much support from the Australian troops of INTERFET, the school's building was renovated, including addition of a fresh coat of paint. St. Anthony's has already accepted over 500 students, well over the 135 children that Sister Marlene, the school's director, thought that the school could adequately accommodate to provide a quality education.

"It's so hard to say no to the parents," Sister Marlene said. "They want so much for their children to be in school. Some of our classes have 70 students."

Not all children are happy about leaving their parents or older siblings for school. One bright day in mid-November, five children clung desperately to the fence, sobbing at the imminent separation from their families for the four hours that school is held each day. "I don't want to go, I don't want to go!" wailed six-year-old Helder Augusto Xavier. "Helder, you must go," his father, Rolando, said gently. Finally, Helder was led away by one of the teachers towards the morning gathering of all students.

After a short talk by Sister Marlene about being nice to each other, the children sang the following:

"I can live, I can love, I can reach the heavens above.

I can right what is wrong, I can sing just any song.

I can dance, I can fly and touch the rainbow in the sky."

By the end of the song, little Helder was smiling. "Maybe I will stay, just for today," he said.

The song ended with these words: "What's taking so long to make it right? I so love the other's life."