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East Timor, The Other Side of the Moon


Traditional straw huts in the highlands of Oecussi

13-year-old Maria, at Topu Honis

Hiking through dense jungle towards Kutet
by Ian Neubauer

From the moment I laid eyes on him, I knew he was unlike the other Westerners aboard our ship, the Berlin Nakroma, a seafaring vessel that ploughs Timor's north coast. Slowly and steadily he advanced through the crowd, pausing as well wishers took his hand and touched it lightly to their foreheads - a traditional sign of veneration for men of the cloth. Yet this elderly gent seemed anything but missionary-like, wearing a polo shirt and an old baseball hat with small, stumpy teeth stained red from chewing betel nut.

Later on in the evening I saw him again, spread out on the upper deck among the hundreds making the overnight journey from Dili to Oecussi, a small coastal enclave of East Timor walled in by Indonesian-controlled West Timor. His name is Father Richard Daschbach, an American priest who runs a small orphanage in Oecussi's remote hinterlands. A lively discussion ensued and by the time we turned in, I'd accepted an invitation to visit Father Richard's mountaintop home.

Welcome to the Jungle
Night had not yet broken when we pulled into Oecussi's dry, desolate coast. After a hot rice breakfast, we set off by foot along an unsealed road that faded into a surreal, moon-like landscape. The path morphed into a trickling stream as we began the ascent and soon we found ourselves scaling uphill into a jungle river. At 73, Father Richard is in incredibly good shape, skirting the slippery path with the dexterity of a mountain goat. "The trick is to stay active," he said. "Active in the body and active in the mind." 

The son of a Pennsylvania steelworker, Father Richard was sent to Timor as a missionary by the Catholic Church two years after his ordination in 1967. "At the time, it was the other side of the moon," he said. "The people were very poor and there was no electricity, no telephones, nothing - just one dirt road crossing the island."

Father Richard spent six weeks in the Indonesian settlement of Kupang until he was able to arrange transport to Oecussi, which was under Portuguese control at the time. He worked exclusively as a priest for the next 15 years, and remained on good terms with the Indonesians when they annexed Oecussi and East Timor in 1975. But all that was to change the day a letter with a wax seal arrived from Rome.

"In the early eighties, the church decided it would remove foreign priests from parish work and hand over responsibility to indigenous ministers. But they wanted us to remain and get into other lines of work. So I asked to come to Kutet, the village we're heading to now," he explained. "For years I'd been using it as a retreat and had many friends there." 

Dusk was approaching by the time we reached Kutet. Just getting here had been a grand adventure. I couldn't wait to see the place in the morning light.

From Humble Beginnings
Early the next morning Father Richard took me on a tour of the village. In one hut, we saw a woman using a loom to make tias - hand-woven shawls that double up as carry bags. Further down the road, we visited a collective lettuce patch where a half dozen women were watering the harvest by hand. Every single villager greeted me with a beaming smile and, on seeing my camera, struck a comical pose.

"They are very honest, open and responsive to strangers," said Janet Mitchell, a Victorian policewoman who adopted a girl from Kutet. "It makes you see that people are decent and there's a lot of good in the world." As the tour continued, I asked the Father how the orphanage began.

"When I first opened my home in Kutet it was meant to be a rectory - a place people could come for contemplation and prayer," he said.

"One day during the hungry season, we had a visitor, a small boy. All the kids here are small for their age but this one was really starving. So I told my cook the boy could come here to eat after school. About a week later, I came home one night and the boy was in the backyard. I asked the cook why he was still here and she told me the boy said he was going to stay. Then a few days later, we had another one, and he said he was staying, too. Soon we had 20 children here and I provided for all of them. 

Then, in about 1993, a representative from the Indonesian Government came to visit me and said `why don't you open up a formal orphanage so we can give you financial support.' So after reams of paperwork, we got our funding and things became easier for a while."

I spent the next few days getting to know the children of Kutet. They slept on wooden beds, had only one set of clothes and no toys other than those they made, things like spinning tops and wooden dolls. But the one thing they really needed were well-balanced meals. Mostly they live on cabbage, beans and rice, which fills their stomachs but falls short of a healthy diet. And it's not because Father Richard doesn't understand nutrition; it's because he's broke.

When East Timor and Oecussi seceded from Indonesia in 1999, the authorities yanked Father Richard's meager budget. He then turned to his brother, Edwin, a pastor in Pennsylvania, whose flock helped provide support for Father Richard and his children for many years. But in 2008, Father Edwin passed away. Coupled with the impact of the global financial crisis, donations petered out.

As it stands, Father Richard has enough funds to run his orphanage at a bare bones level. Stipends for staff are months in arrears. Meat has all but disappeared from the menu. The medicine cabinet is bare and urgently needed repairs to the property remain undone.

"For the first time since we opened, we are turning new children away," Father Richard said. "Thirty-two have already left. They were not sent home. They just left by themselves."

Nevertheless, the priest remains blindly optimistic his work will go on. His smile never wavering, he said, "One way or another, we will carry on."

If You Go:
East Timor is not an easy place to reach. Air travelers arrive at Nicolau Lobato International Airport in Dili (code DIL). There are only two airline routes to the rest of the world: to Darwin in Australia's Northern Territory and Denpasar in Bali. Air North flies between Darwin and Dili, and Merpati flies between Denpasar (Bali) and Dili. Most air travelers fly via Bali, because airfares to Bali from much of the world are more competitive than those to Darwin.
For background and travel information, go to The U.S. Department of State Travel Page, Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste.

For more information on Father Richard's work, email Father Richard Daschbach at enclave.kutet@yahoo.com.

Photographs by Ian Neubauer