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The Bishop's Telephone

A Thousand Soldiers and an Engineer - you don't need more to fix East Timor's Telephone System

By Marc Obrowski

“We are here to repair the telephone line”. So here I was, after a degree in engineering and almost 7 years of professional experience I was standing there with some basic tools and a linesman on my side, ready to do a simple repair job. I should have considered myself a huge failure in business had this been any other location in the world. But this was Bishop Belo's burnt-down residence in Dili, East Timor in December 1999, about one month after the first international troops had arrived to drive the deadly pro-integration militia out.

With a Landcruiser we had made our way from the Telkom building through the almost completely destroyed town of Dili, past rattling Interfet armoured personnel carriers and UN 4WDs to the Nobel Peace Price winner's compound on the pretty beach road.

The residence was sheltered by vegetation around the perimeter. We could not see anybody, but we heard beautiful voices from a girl-choir somewhere. I entered the burnt-down main building and went from room to room, which were all empty, until I came to the main room facing the sea. In the middle there was a smoke-blacked but largely intact stone statue of Virgin Maria. The charred Maria was the only thing left in the once grand Portuguese mansion. Standing in front of the statue with the voices from the choir being carried through the window holes was a rare moment of peace after the hectic days before.

I had arrived on Friday evening on the only service available into East Timor, a chartered 2-engine turboprop from Darwin. Dili Airport greeted the aeroplane in the same way it had greeted my Merpati flight 4 years ago. The old Pertamina tank truck pulled up for re-fuelling and it still said “Bandar Udara Dili” and “selamat datang” on the signs. But sand bag barriers, machine gun nests, Hercules Transport planes and foreign soldiers were the first signs of the big change that had happened since my last stay.

Flying to East Timor from an immigration point of view means flying to nowhere. The Australian emigration stamped a departed stamp into my passport, but no arrival stamp would document where I ended up, making me administratively speaking a disappeared person for the next week.

The passengers simply leave the aircraft at Dili airport and walk off over the tarmac. Everybody is happy that no time is wasted on stamping visas and checking passports. It won't be long of course until some bureaucrat will feel the urge to create something expensive and useless and then Dili will have immigration queues.

I got a lift by some locals at the back of a lorry, where I learned the essentials from the other passengers. Indonesian is still the best language to speak to younger people, while with everybody my age (33) or older I am better off speaking Portuguese. Some children on the street have already replaced their “halo mister” with “bom dia”.

I found the Telkom building in quite a different state than the last time. The then busiest building in town was now empty and ransacked. Major John Wilson from Interfet found me in the EWSD room and told me what had happened. The Indonesian army had camped here at the height of the riots, which was why the militia had not burned the complex.

When in the end some soldiers started a fire Interfet moved finally in, put the fire out and the Indonesian soldiers had to leave. In the soot-blacked MDF room I found that they had burned the most unimportant of all equipment, one of two access network racks. Not many subscribers were on it. The room was partly flooded by ground water since the pumps had stopped working. Bullet shells were lying in front of the entry.

I started preparing the exchange for a start up. The user IDs and passwords were not known and we had no hope of finding them out from the Indonesian Telkom. I replaced the SJ.SECDATA file and then Sunday morning on the 12/12/99 the EWSD started up again. Dili had its telephone system back. UNTAET, the interim UN government, was, as I learned at lunch at the UN canteen, quite pleased. The Australian Telstra, Siemens' customer, will be the operator for the next 6 months.

Before I continued with all the maintenance and repairs that were necessary I had a good look around town.

East Timor is still considered a war zone, a fact that brings some odd contrasts with it:

Armoured personnel carriers patrol the streets with ready-to-fire machine guns mounted while everybody else is strolling lazily along the beach front.

Young Australian men and women go jogging in trendy neon colour sports clothes with an ungainly olive green assault rifle loaded with 18 bullets slung around their shoulders. We had a barbecue with some of them; they came in shorts and T-shirts, dog tags and assault rifles.

I was lucky that Telstra was able to book one of the very few remaining hotel rooms for me. I shared it with the air-conditioning technician, and an army of cockroaches and mosquitoes. The militia had ransacked the hotel but they forgot to burn it.

The cockroaches, as I learned, were militia cockroaches, and after a room referendum resulted in a vote for their expulsion by Baygon they ran amok and started ransacking the room after I had sprayed them. They came out of their holes and crawled all over the place. I was glad there were no matches lying around. I had just been ready to take a shower when it happened and I had to put my shoes back on only to be able to reach the dilapidated en-suite. There I stood naked except for the shoes and a spray can with 18 ounces Baygon in the drum and I felt only marginally less cool than my colleagues at Interfet.

East Timor has its positive sides too. Since the bureaucrats naturally don't move into an area until the useful people have restored the basic services, East Timor has become an oasis of efficiency. Immigration formalities are only one of the things that aren't established yet, there is also no car licensing, parking restrictions, building codes, safety rules and quality plans.

The whole infrastructure had been re-built by only a handful of bold engineers from all over the world who think ISO 9000 is a sports drink. Two engineers had restarted the electricity supply in a few days; a couple of technicians had brought running water back to the town in less than a week; about 5 Telstra Engineers had constructed a completely new mobile telephone network in only one week and Siemens brought most of the terrestrial telephone network back to live in 3 days.

I discussed with one of the Telstra guys how it is possible that in East Timor engineers and technicians could do all this in a week if normally it takes that time alone to do a mission and vision statement. The only true answer, we concluded, is that all the occupational-health-and-safety, quality-safety-and-environment and Y2K people and all the other company bureaucrats, managers and visionaries and missionaries had been left at home, where they are too far away to cause much damage.

As the end of my week neared most essential things were back in place and fixing Bishop Belo's telephone a week before Christmas was a nice finish and one of my better moments with Siemens. I left the main building and went to the large patio, which was surrounded by service buildings that had not been burned. In a chapel facing the main building a nun conducted the choir and a young man showed us to the telephone.

One problem was that in the prelude of the country's destruction somebody had entered at the EWSD a block (BLK=ADMIN) for his line. I had it taken out already at the exchange and after a minor problem his phone was fixed and Bishop Belo had his dial tone back. To my chagrin he was not home at the moment; I really would have liked to talk to him.

At the end things were going wrong one more time in Dili. I was at the airport hoping to board the plane back. The earthquake alone would have still been tolerable. We left the departure hall and expected the building to collapse behind us, which it didn't.

But then when we should have boarded the pilot took off without any of his passengers on board. The dispatcher from Harvey World Travel on the runway was frantically waving at the departing aeroplane, while trying to remember what the international airtraffic sign for “you forgot your passengers, you idiot” was.

I went back to the departure hall, which was still a bit empty from the earthquake, and here I am sitting now at my laptop with an academic approach to foresee what will happen next. I have been confronted in East Timor with the effects of fire, flooding, an earthquake, an insect plague and human incompetence beyond repair. I lean back and smile. I am safe now. Murphy's law stipulates that everything that can go wrong will go wrong. But it does not say that it will do so twice.

Written December 1999 in Dili, when it was still a part of Indonesia. Marc is working in the former Indonesian province of East Timor as a telecommunications expert for the transitional government.

Other humorous insights into expat life in Indonesia can be found on Marc's web site Flirting in Indonesian.

© Mark Obrowski