The Newest Country on Earth: East Timor After 30 Years of Civil War

East Timor19

Originally Published in November 2003

It never occurred to me that there was a real possibility of getting shot here. I was on assignment to write a story on what has happened since East Timor gained its independence from Indonesia just one year ago. Nationhood had proven to be a difficult birth. There had been a brutal 23-year struggle between the Timorese freedom fighters (known as the Falintil) and the Indonesian regular army. Finally, on May 20, 2002, East Timor emerged as the world’s newest country in the family of Pacific island nations.

From the very first day of my arrival at Comoro Airport in the capital city of Dili, I felt a little edgy. I saw heavily armed soldiers from the UN multinational peacekeeping force amble along an otherwise peaceful looking section of beachside near my room. Years of living in my home state of Hawai‘i had taught me to enjoy the serenity of waves lapping tenderly onto the shoreline. In East Timor, a false sense of tranquility could prove to be an illusion that might get you killed.

The East Timorese have not been free for over 500 years. Back in the 16th century, Portugal and the Netherlands divided a tiny, cigar-shaped volcanic islet and made the people to the west a part of the Dutch East Indies (now known as Indonesia). The eastern portion of the island became the Portuguese colony known as Timor Leste and remained a colonial outpost until November 18, 1975. But a mere nine days after decolonization by Portugal, Indonesia invaded East Timor.

Vei Vakasaututaki: Peacekeeping Fijian Style in East Timor

One Salt Water

Originally Published in November 2003 (Pacific Magazine)

“One saltwater,” Captain Ned Taito said softly. I glanced at the “Fiji” insignia on his right shoulder as he turned his boyish face and jet black eyes momentarily toward the ceiling. He sat on the third floor of a burned out building that serves as the United Nations Peacekeeping Force Headquarters (UN PKF HQ) in Dili, East Timor. Captain Taito finished his thought sounding more like an anthropologist than a soldier, “We use that expression to convey to the local people in the villages that we are all from the same source; that we are all from the Pacific.” This is peacekeeping Fijian style.

Major Akariva Ragogo is the commander of the 205 man contingent of the Republic of Fiji Military Force (RFMF) deployed as part of the United Nations Mission in Support of East Timor (UNMISET). At 52, he is one of the eldest and the most respected of the Fijian detachment. He has served abroad in peacekeeping missions at Charlie Swing Gate at the Lebanese-Israeli border, Checkpoint Alpha at the Egyptian-Israeli border, Camp Spartan at the Iraqi-Kuwaiti border, and at the Paguna mines in Bougainville Island and now, East Timor. Other members of the RFMF have served in the troubled African states of Zimbabwe; Somalia; and Uganda, just to name a few. The Fijians, as they say, get around.

Genova, Italy: Maritime Sovereign Once Ruled the Mediterranean

Originally Published on February 3, 2003 (Honolulu Advertiser)

In Genova you walk with seamen. This has always been and always will be a maritime place. It smells of the ocean with its slightly salty air. It is soaked in the colors of sun bleached buildings. It has the sound of the water and the talk of men and women who survive on the catch of the day. It has no other destiny.

Built on a coastline that rises sharply from the Italian Riviera, its streets rise and fall in haste. If its birth had been along a gentler coastline, Venice would have found itself in competition with Genova to capture the imagination of the world. But it was not to be. Fortune instead gave it a craggy shoreline better suited for ships than tourists.

Jama Masjid: A Place of Worship in Delhi, India

India, Delhi5

Originally Published November 19, 2000 (Honolulu Advertiser)

Your guidebook on India might explain that during the Ramadan fast, Muslims cannot partake of food or water from sunrise to sunset. But if you were to ask Mirza Wahid Ali Khan, a docent for visitors to delhi’s Jama Masjid (Friday Mosque), he might put it this way: “Muslims must fast so long as there is enough light to see the difference between a white thread and a black one.”

Such is the poetic language of one of the world’s most important religions.

Milan, Italy, Then and Now

Italy, Milan3 copy


Originally Published on July 9, 2000 (Honolulu Advertiser)

If you like New York City, you will love Milan, Italy. It is a city filled with fast-walking, fats-talking, fats-driving residents. With fashion runways jammed seasonally with the globe’s top models, it is little wonder that the Milanese dress to impress by day and to kill at night. This is SoHo with an accent.

Sacred Varanasi; The Center of the Hindu World in India

India, Varanasi6

Originally Published on September 26, 1999 (Honolulu Advertiser)

Varanasi is a city of 1.2 million people and the holiest of the seven holy Hindu cities in India.  Here, Hindu pilgrims bathe in the Ganges river to wash away their sins.  Famous also for its cremations, the Hindus believe that being cremated here breaks the cycle of death and rebirth and ushers the dead directly to heaven.  It is more than a place at the confluence of the Varuna and Asi rivers.  Varanasi is the center of the Hindu world.

Hinduism is not a proselytizing religion.  You can not be converted to it – you are simply born Hindu or you are not.  That may go a long way in explaining why the Indian people as a whole are extremely polite, kind and affable.  Avoiding bad karma is one way of assuring happiness in your next life.

The air is never still in Varanasi.  In the disorienting shadows of dawn, you negotiate your way to Gangamai through the alleyways of the old city.  But even here, there are traces of sounds winding their way outward from the banks of Mother Ganges.  In one ricochet, you can make out the noise of bathers washing, lathering, dipping and splashing as they cleanse their bodies and spirits in the muddy water.  In dim light, the faithful walk down the steps of any one of dozens of ghats which hug the river bank.  The ghats originally were the homes of the Maharajas and the wealthy in which the families lived and prayed during their stay here.


Vicenza, Italy: Venice’s Little Sister

Originally Published on March 1, 1998 (Honolulu Advertiser)

In 1520, a Portuguese Captain with an uncommon desire to face the unknown rounded South America’s Cape Horn and sailed through the Straits of Magellan giving them his name. While on his way to becoming the first man to begin a successful circumnavigation of the globe, his small ship sailed within 5 degrees of the Hawaiian Islands. Magellan was killed on that voyage while stopped in the Philippines but his second in command with the help of an Italian Pilot, Antonio Pigafetta, charted their course around Africa to complete the journey back to Spain. Pigafetta’s home, built in 1481, is in Vicenza.

More recently, Napoleon Bonaparte rested from his 19th century conquest of the known world to enjoy a reception at the Teatro Olimpico located in Vicenza’s old town. Built in 1580, the theatre is constructed in the Romanesque style with papier-mache statues standing in watch at intervals along the upper most balcony. When Napoleon was told that all of the statutes were not carved stone but paper that had been shaped and painted as stone, his response was to draw his sword and plunge it into the outstreched leg of one of the statues. To his amusement, the sword pierced the leg. That hole can still be seen today on close inspection.

And for all of those who avoided history and geography classes but loved P.E., you might like to note that the Campagnolo company, manufacturers of world class bicycle components, is headquartered in Vicenza.