Nada: Easter tragedy washes away lives and livelihoods of Timor-Leste’s most vulnerable –

Words by Alex Ray and Maria Lopes for UNDP Timor Leste – Photos by Alex Ray – (c)UNDP Timor-Leste 2021

Nada is the Tetum and Portuguese word for ‘nothing’ and a good summary of what Flavia Ribiero Soares and her family – of seven children and one grand-child – have left after the Easter Sunday cyclone and flooding.

The cyclone devastated communities across Timor-Leste – particularly in the capital Dili – displacing over 10,000 people and killing 45.

Pictured with her two-week old grand-daughter – Feliz do Santos – Soares has sheltered at the Tasi Tolu displacement centre in western Dili since the day of the floods – Sunday April 4.

The shelter has no electricity, no water for washing or toilets, and only thin blankets to sleep on in a large hall shared with dozens of other women and their young families. Outside there are hundreds of other men, women and children sheltering in tents.

Residents of Tasi Tolu wade through floodwaters that have cut their only access road to Dili.

“My children and I brought out nothing but the clothes we were wearing at the time,” Soares told UNDP four days after the harrowing experience – shared by thousands of Timorese – of fleeing floodwaters in the middle of the night with no prior warning.

Already living in poverty before the floods, Soares has been left with almost no support. Her simple housing, belongings and food were submerged in flood waters caused by the cyclone.

Prior to the April 4 cyclone, Tasi Tolu – Tetum for ‘three lagoons’ – was also a Covid-19 hotspot within Dili and adequate sanitation and hygiene are severely lacking in the facility Soares shares with over 1000 others.

Located on a hill hosting a statue commemorating the 1989 visit of Pope John Paul the Second, the Tasi Tolu shelter is one of eight in Dili currently providing meals, water and food to over 10,000 people.

Tasi Tolu is a coastal lake and waterway system. In recent years, rural-urban migration has seen many Timorese from other municipalities travel to Dili to seek work. They often live in informal settlements on the outside of the city.

No area of Dili was left untouched by the cyclone and extreme rainfall. Situated on a coastal plain at the feet of steep mountains, areas of Dili that were above the flood waters were impacted by dozens of landslides that cut roads and claimed lives. 

At Tasi Tolu, emergency tarpaulins have been fashioned into makeshift tents tied to trees and poles scattered up and down the hillside.

By day, large families with young children shelter from the hot sun under the tarpaulins, waiting patiently for twice-daily food and water supplies coordinated by volunteers from the Red Cross and staff from the Secretary of State for Civil Protection and UNDP.

Even the Presidential Palace in Dili was heavily flooded.

“I couldn’t sleep from night to morning. Early in the morning I immediately rushed to get help from the neighbors … I knew that staying there and waiting for their help was impossible. With patience I told my children ‘wherever I go, you must come with me’,” said Soares.

A family gathers by candle light under a tarpaulin at Tasi Tolu.

“My children were scared and some of them fell in puddles. I ran back and forth carrying my children one by one. The youngest are 2 and 4, and my grandson is only 2 weeks old. I told my neighbor ‘please take care of my children, I will come back after I bring my other children out of the water’,” Soared continued.

Since April 4, the UNDP has been providing 2000 cooked nutritious meals and water supplies per day to affected families at displacement shelters in Dili. One week after the disaster, the government is preparing to relocate people in displacement shelters to more suitable facilities.

“I haven’t been able to go downstairs to see the condition of the apartment house where we live. I feel scared. I also have to look after my young children,” said Soares.

Large families are common in Timor-Leste and many young children have been exposed to dangerous conditions such as hidden debris and increased risk of water-borne illnesses.

“My oldest daughter went back there but the floodwaters were still very high and could not be crossed. She told me ‘Mama, the floodwaters are still very strong and high, all of our things are melting in the water’.”

The cyclone and flooding – a symptom of worsening climate change in Timor-Leste – are the latest disaster to have a disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable in the tiny half-island nation.

Soares is from Liquica municipality and has lived in Dili for 3 years. Like her, many residents of Tasi Tolu are from other municipalities. Due to movement restrictions – part of Covid-19 prevention measures in place since early March – they have not been able get support from their families in other districts.

Prior to the floods Soares sold basic goods like instant noodles and cigarettes from a pushcart. “We call them tiga-roda [three wheels] – two wheels plus my body,” she said.

“During the lock-down, my daughter was also selling things for 25 cents from the cart. Another daughter has a job that earns $40 per month for our daily meals and snacks.”

A woman feeds her grandson under the light of a street lamp in Tasi Tolu.

As a widow, Flavia Soares suffers from societal and family structures that disadvantage women in families and work opportunities. “I don’t have any connections with my family in Liquica. My father is dead. And they pay more attention to family members who are well-established,” she said.

This is not the first time Soares has faced displacement. As a woman with unreliable income, she and her family have been often evicted from rental accommodation.

Less than a month into her life, Feliz Do Santos – the infant gazing calmly under the dim light of Soares’ mobile phone – has already endured multiple tragedies. The man who fathered her abandoned Soares’ family before she was born.

A Red Cross volunteer prepares to distribute emergency food supplies.
Celina Soares, a Dili fire fighter rests late into the night after supporting emergency water delivery in Tasi Tolu.

“On the first night my children were scared and upset in their sleep. I reassure them ‘it can’t be helped, this is our life. We have to stay calm and ask God for help.’ Until now, they have tried to accept the situation and sleep well,” said Soares.

“In this place, the most difficult thing is not being able to shower because there is no water and the toilet also has no water. For us, patience is the key to staying strong.”

Police and civil protection officers help transport UNDP water tanks across the swollen lakes in Tasi Tolu.

As of April 13, many communities in Tasi Tolu remained isolated from the rest of Dili by floodwaters. The UNDP, along with Unicef and government agencies have been coordinating emergency logistics to supply them with 10,000L of potable water in the week following the floods.

According to the official figures at the time of writing, 25,709 households have reportedly been affected by the floods across all 13 municipalities of Timor-Leste. Nearly 9000 temporary displaced persons are being sheltered in evacuation facilities across Dili, the worst-affected municipality. 

UNDP support reached at least 8,652 people in 15 different communities, organisations, and shelters in Dili throughout the first week of the response, with 11,630 hot nutritious meals, 11,640 water bottles, 40 cartons of milk; 11 1100L water tanks; one 3200L water tank benefiting at least 500 – as well as 10kg of rice each for 100 households in Baucau.

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