Ironically José** had left only five minutes before the incident. He had conducted a mandatory security assessment on the house we were renting in Dili, East Timor’s capital, where I work for a Timorese non-government organization (NGO). (**José is both his real name and the name I use to protect his identity in a country of many Josés.)

Before José arrived, the writing was on the wall, literally. Gang symbols, like those of the notorious 7-7 (seven seven) ritual arts group peppered the shabbily constructed concrete walls of the courtyard. His decision was swift and unequivocal: “you have to move”. The reason José gave was that the suburb of Bobonuk was a hotspot during the 2006 crisis, and could again be a volatile area during East Timor’s (officially known as Timor-Leste) 2012 elections. The precautionary principle was at play. In the event of any troubles we would be unable to protect ourselves and evacuate the area, at least as easily as many UN staff living in our neighbourhood who we are told have security arrangements in place.

After José departed, I got back to digging the garden in Dili’s stubborn, dry soil, slightly in denial about our impending move. As I dug away, sometimes one and a half feet deep, I threw away the broken-up concrete and random pieces of rubbish that were suffocating the earth. As the sun’s light diminished, I felt one slightly different rock; light in weight, black and disfigured. I momentarily inspected its diamond-patterned exterior before realising it was a grenade. Then, of course, just like in the movies, I threw the object, instinctively crouched low and blocked my ears. Careless? Perhaps. Naïve? Definitely. After all, I knew as much about grenades as I did about the nuances of which areas of Dili were safe to inhabit.

When the dust had settled and no explosion ensued, I beckoned my flatmates to see whether I was being paranoid, or whether we had a ticking time bomb in our midst. Without touching it, we couldn’t agree on whether or not it was still “live”. To my view, the grenade’s pin was still in its hole ready to be pulled (isn’t that way they do it?). Yet the device appeared kind of corroded, giving the impression that it had already done its cruel work.

Memories linger

I’m not sure why, but when I set upon my dreamy veggie garden project, I had considered briefly the morbid possibility of finding human remains. After all, East Timor’s Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation (CAVR – the Portuguese acronym) revealed that a minimum of 102, 800 conflict-related deaths had taken place during Indonesia’s brutal occupation (from 1974 – 1999) of this former Portuguese colony. Other sources put the figure upwards of 200,000. Thousands of bodies have still not been recovered, including many of the more than 270 victims of the Santa Cruz Cemetary Massacre who died at the hands of the Indonesian Military 20 years ago in November 1991.

Coincidentally, at the same time as my discovery, two Timorese men died in Baucau, the country’s second largest town, after an unexploded ordinance (UXO) exploded. Just a few days later, the United Nations Mission in Timor-Leste (UNMIT) felt compelled to announce that its Police (UNPOL) were training the Policia Nacional de Timor Leste (PNTL) in the art of removing and disposing of such death-traps.

7-7 gang signs like this one are commonly found across Dili's Bobonuk area. Image credit: Mark Notaras.

What lies beneath the haunted soil of Australia’s newest neighbour is not unique to East Timor. People in Cambodia, Laos, Afghanistan and a host of other nations die and suffer daily in much greater numbers from the effects of land mines and UXOs, even decades after the last weapons in a conflict have been fired.

Before informing the police (later than I should have, I admit) about my own accidental discovery, I asked around town about how best to proceed with disposal. Based on a photograph we took, a former Australian Navy officer said it could still be live. A colleague from Afghanistan (“if anyone might know”, I cheekily thought) said the same.

Unfortunately, when I did call the police as per the UN’s advice, they failed to answer the phone several times. So I proceeded according to local custom and culture. I asked my neighbour, who asked his uncle, who asked his cousin. I was then told someone would be here “soon”. Five hours later and an out-of-uniform policeman arrived, took one glance at the grenade, casually picked it up and threw it into the back of his 4WD. He told me it was “dead” and that it was an Indonesian military make from the 1999 independence struggle. Admittedly not a very interesting end to that episode.

So in just four months in Timor, I’ve survived the grenade, been bitten by a dog, twice, and suffered a small electric shock, while my wife has been in a motorcycle accident and harassed by a stimulated cab driver. We’ve been told we’ve had it pretty good in a nation where unfortunate injuries and preventable deaths occur all too often.

The struggle for peace continues

East Timorese have had a traumatic history after 500-odd years of colonial and post-colonial occupation. Despite the euphoria of gaining an impossible independence back in 1999, today more than 37% of the population subsists on $US1.25 a day. Figures from the recently released Human Development Index (HDI) reflect a post-conflict society where people daily grapple with poverty, unemployment and corruption. Less spoken about are the intangible trauma families continue to suffer years or decades after losing loved ones or seeing a family member killed or raped.

“But isn’t the occupation finished? Isn’t the conflict over?”, people often ask. Well, not exactly. To crudely simplify it, the absence of war does not equal an absence of conflict. Data collected by monitors for East Timor’s Early Warning, Early Response (EWER) system for conflict prevention reveals that while the guns, guerrillas and government goons of old have mostly gone, the seeds of conflict are omnipresent. Cultural, political and social disputes have the potential to be fertile grounds for the sorts of violence that sprung up in 2006 and left an estimated 150,000 displaced. The most recently published EWER Situation Review from October identifies youth violence, land disputes and disagreements over veterans as causes of continuing conflict.

It sounds like a phrase dreamed up in a Washington boardroom, but the absence of the “Rule of Law” is very much at the heart of frustrations felt by people lacking access to justice and corruption-free public services. The country lacks robust enough democratic institutions e.g. parliament, judiciary and media, that typically mediate societal conflicts in a peaceful way. Violence should not be the answer. But it often is the chosen method, not just by aggrieved citizens but by those in uniform and government.

Expats and Timorese working for the UN, NGOs and in government have differing views as to what will happen in 2012 as the election season approaches and UNMIT withdraws. What we do know, however, is that there are more than just grenades beneath the surface in East Timor. The tragedy, trauma and mistrust of yesterday continue to manifest in the disputes and violence of today. The war may be over but the struggle to end violent conflict continues.

Mark Notaras currently supports the work of Belun, an East Timorese peacebuilding NGO. He frequently likes to opine about sustainable development and the international food and agriculture trade. These are his views and not those of Belun.