A sequence of testing circumstances in Timor-Leste in 2021 showed how quickly the veneer of success dissolves when the right solvent is applied.
“Alex, you need to take Bob. He’s panicking! He needs you!” my neighbour Marisa shouted over the deafening rain. Her house in our walled compound was being cut off by a torrent of water as it carved a deepening channel into the soft clay soil. “No… not now,” I thought, watching from higher ground as Bob’s golden nose emerged from Marisa’s doorway.
It was early morning on April 4, 2021, and a once in 50-year cyclone was battering Dili, the capital of Timor-Leste (East Timor). Normally, Bob, a shaggy one-eyed mutt with a usually unflappable manner, would have accompanied me on my daily swim, run, and meditation routine.
Instead, a seven-day downpour had collapsed a mountainside onto our small valley community, burying half a dozen houses and trapping the rest in a river of mud and rubble. Looking after an anxious dog was the last thing I needed.
I winced as Bob stepped gingerly alongside the surge of water to a point just narrow enough to jump. His yellow-brown coat was sodden and dirty, and I feared he would step on something sharp in the rubble being pushed around by the flood. He rushed to me tail wagging, more intent than I had ever seen him before.
I kneeled and looked directly into Bob’s remaining eye. “Come here mate, it’s going to be ok. You just have to trust me,” I whispered, with the same tone I’d used when teaching him to swim in Timor’s tropical seas.
My beaten-up purple micro jeep was parked below a dry-stone retaining wall that had taken on the appearance of a waterfall, sending streams of water around and underneath the car. I scooped up Bob’s 25kg frame, placed him inside the jeep, kissed him on the forehead and closed the door.
The flood had brought down the three-metre-high compound wall behind my simple concrete-block cottage, and water was gushing through the house, across the floor and out through the front steps. The palm-frond roof was leaking, but still intact, and the resident ‘Toke’ gecko hadn’t budged from his place on the wall above my dining table.
Tiago, the enthusiastic young manager of our compound and Bob’s previous owner, stood in the raised doorway of the house as tree branches, rocks the size of footballs, broken tiles, timber planks, shards of glass and corrugated iron tumbled down the hill.
“Tiago, we need to move my things to somewhere dry and safe.” I yelled over the noise of the water. “Let’s put them in Ferdi’s place” he said. It took less than 10 minutes to zip up my life into two suitcases. My books and camera gear were caked in fine mud that had come splashing in the windows when the wall collapsed in the night. The torrent had grown so strong it threatened to sweep us off our feet. ‘F*** I need some shoes’ I thought, realizing mine at the front door had been washed away in the night.
Meanwhile, the retaining wall above my jeep looked weak against the water engulfing it and threatened to come down at any minute. Jumping in the driver seat I tried the ignition as Bob whimpered behind me. “Come on, please start,” I said to myself. It started, but the revs were weak; rain had inundated the engine bay.
The steep driveway leading to the road was bisected by metre-wide, metre-deep stream which was carving the beginning of a new riverbed through the compound. Even with the wipers beating as hard as they could, I couldn’t see a thing, and as I turned the car down the driveway, the engine cut out. “F*** YOU!” I raged at the car, whose unreliable morning temperament had previously only resulted in being late to work. Tiago could see the danger too. The car was now sitting directly in the torrent of water on unstable sloping ground. I kicked and screamed at the pedals and wheel. Bob stumbled nervously in the back.
Nothing for it! I thought, kicking the car into neutral. I had about two metres to get it rolling and jump-start it. If I could straddle the channel I could make it to the road and park in front of another house, sheltered from the rain. Still unable to see much in front of me, I watched Tiago in the rear vision mirror, trying to guide me over the channel. He was shouting and waving frantically like a maniacal aircraft marshaller.
I rolled. One metre, two, …Vrooom …. the engine started. Momentary relief and then…no! The car lurched forward and to the left. Bob landed on top of me, slamming the horn. A front wheel had fallen into the channel and the chassis was stuck on a rock exposed by the water. I swore and kicked and cursed from a place so visceral and guttural I felt I would kill something – survival mode. I had no idea what to do and just kept revving the engine to keep it alive. I pushed Bob back onto the passenger seat and felt the car slip further as the water tore around us.
“F***, F***, F*** you!” I yelled, throwing the car into reverse and pumping the accelerator. I still had contact with three wheels, but the disintegrating ground and weight of the water made the car feel like a plastic toy in a fire hose. I turned the steering wheel to try to wedge the front wheels onto some traction, and whoom – the nose of the car jumped and it rose out of the water, jolting backwards into a tree.
Slamming it into first gear, I spun the wheel to the left, getting us back up straddling the channel. Desperate, I pushed my foot to the floor, launching the car across the channel and all sorts of debris below. I winced at the damage done to the undercarriage but we made it. The engine failed as I rolled into a relatively dry spot, just metres from the edge of the still-widening channel.
I jumped out of the car and ran to the back door to comfort Bob with a hug and a kiss. “Stay here mate, it’s ok, it’s ok.” I closed the door and left him in the secure, warm shell of the vehicle. When I got back to the house Tiago was gone. My things were in a dry building and I thought we might be seeing the end of the water-borne terror. But it kept raining. Hard thick bruising rain, like the fake storms created from firehoses and giant fans that lashed the decks of ships in 1950s films. The cyclone, we later learned, dropped four metres of water over the city in less than 12 hours.
Still barefoot and bare chested, I noticed the compound was empty. Everyone was either hiding, hoping for the rain to stop, or rescuing cars and other belongings from rising floodwaters. I tiptoed over the collapsed compound wall and saw Tiago and his co-workers Tito and Olivio milling pensively around the gate to the adjacent compound on the lower side of the road.
That compound had taken the brunt of the landslide and its courtyard was neck-deep in thick mud. Some buildings were submerged to their rooflines. The surface of the mud looked deceptively smooth and stable, but one step and you sank to your waist, risking any manner of sharp and infectious objects below.
“What’s wrong guys?” I asked. The normally cheerful Tito looked at me, hands on his head, gasping in Tetum. All I could understand was that there was a man inside the compound, and he was in trouble.
“There is a man up there, he is hurt, he is dying,” Tiago said. I asked him to take me there. “I can’t Maun (Tetum for brother), I’m not good with these things,” he replied. Tiago had never said no to anything before. Even in his most uncomfortable moments he would manage an “OK, maybe Maun, we will see”. Aged only 21, Tiago’s generation was Timor’s first in over 400 years to be born free from the threat of violent occupation and repression. He had never had to confront such gruesome scenes before.
“Please Tiago, I need someone to translate and help me.”
“I can’t Maun. I’m sorry.”
I turned to Olivio. “I need your shoes, please. Go and call for help. We need to get him to hospital.”
Olivio explained the roads were blocked by landslides and fallen trees. Of course. The only road to our compound was inundated by every downpour. Most of the time it was passable with some cautious driving, but there had never been rain like this. The previous year a deluge had blocked the road for two days, but this was many times worse.
“Go anyway, he cannot stay here,” I urged Olivio. “Go to the store at the bottom of the hill, get bottled water and alcohol sanitiser. Try to call for help, we need a car.”
Tito offered to come with me as I pulled on Olivio’s steel cap boots and waded into the mud. Just getting a foothold required finding a piece of broken door, tree branch, brick, furniture – anything solid – to step on.
“Where is he!?”
“There!” said Tito pointing to a concrete roof that was now only a metre or so above the mud. We clambered up out of the mud to reach a young man sitting on the roof and wrapped in a muddy sodden blanket. Another man held an umbrella over him in a futile attempt to keep him dry.
The injured man’s normally dark-brown skin was grey and splattered with grit. Shivering and crying, he stared at the ground, repeating in a weak voice barely audible over the rain, “I’m going to die, I’m going to die!” I could see a six-inch gash across one side of his head, with a thick slice of scalp dangling heavy to the side exposing a wound full of dirt.
“You’re going to be ok mate,” I told him. “Tito, ask him his name, tell him he’s going to be ok. We are going to get him out of here. I need to see his injuries.”
“His name is Augustianos,” Tito said.
I peeled back the blanket slowly, then stopped. Augustianos’ neck was deeply lacerated from back to front. Thick slabs of flesh hung loose revealing every detail of his inner musculature. Instead of a deep rich red, the wound was grey and brown from the mud. I looked again, amazed he was still alive. Somehow the cut had not reached his carotid arteries. Peeling the blanket back further, I saw more of the same deep lacerations down his shoulders and arms.
“How long has he been like this?” I asked.
“He said it happened around 4am, Maun,” Tito said. It was now 10am, and he had been bleeding the whole time.
‘I am not prepared for this’ I thought, standing back in repressed shock. For a moment I understood Tiago. What the F*** do we do? I’d been a volunteer lifesaver on Australian beaches for nearly a decade and had good rescue and first aid training. But I couldn’t deal with injuries like these.
My mind raced through the options, cursing as each of them was denied by an accumulation of actions not taken at some point in the past. The phone networks were down, of course; they would regularly go down in wet-season downpours. The electricity was down, of course – it mostly came from one enormous, often unreliable diesel generator that powered the city of a quarter-million. The roads were cut; common for the wet season, but no one ever did anything about it. And finally, despite Timor-Leste receiving hundreds of millions of dollars of aid money, the national hospital was barely able to treat infant diarrhea or manage blood transfusions. Also, it was built alongside a canal and was probably several feet underwater by now. How would they ever treat Augustianos’s wounds and infections?
That was the only time I felt truly cold on that tropical island. Standing on that rooftop, wet, overwhelmed, and near powerless, I looked up at the mountain, a churning waterfall still ripping down the side, moving rocks with a slow bone-chilling rumble. This was not water as I knew it – challenging, playful, refreshing, wild but within limits. This was nature denying man’s potency, indiscriminate energy forcing itself, over, through and around any form that got in its way. My whole body wanted to shut down. On the outside I shivered; inside I wanted to collapse.
Timor-Leste has been lauded by the United Nations as a development success story. But that narrative fails on the basics of nutrition, health, education, and infrastructure after 20 years of independence. Sure, Timor has a vibrant parliamentary democracy, but the now-more than $2 billion spent on the act of governing each year hasn’t stopped 1 in 2 children from suffering from malnutrition, nor helped the 50% of people who still can’t read or write. Timor-Leste still lacks any sewage systems or piped water, elements that have been fundamental since the Roman empire. The literal failure of local leaders and the United Nations to build the post-occupation nation on solid foundations, now saw Timorese losing both the ground below them and the roofs over their heads.
The cyclone was heavily symbolic. Hitting the devout Catholic country on Easter Sunday it disrupted one of the country’s most important holidays with a tough love even the Pope would struggle to justify. Through some twisted turn of events the Indonesian weather bureau had named it “Seroja” meaning lotus – the very name Indonesia gave to its 1975 invasion of Timor-Leste which initiated 25 years of genocidal repression of the local population. Tens of thousands lost their homes in the 2021 flooding, while over 40 lost their lives. And no one took responsibility for it – it was a “natural” disaster, of course.
Everything that could have gone wrong for Augustianos did go wrong that day. And it was mostly avoidable. A string of responsibilities avoided, decisions taken poorly or not at all, had accumulated to a deadly finale. I thought about all of those seemingly innocuous moments of abrogated responsibility we encounter every day: a politician shifts the blame for his failures elsewhere and a problem is forgotten within days, the latest buzzword trend obfuscates doing the basics, and “good enough” is the best a population traumatised through poverty and violence can hope for.
Coming back to my senses on that Dili rooftop, I looked around. Tito and the other guys were silent, holding the umbrella over Augustianos, looking at each other, and me, in anguish. I took a breath.
“Tito listen”, I said in my child-like Tetum. “We need to move him, but we can’t take him through the mud, it’s too deep. We need to find something to put him on. A door, a strong chair, something so we can lift him over our heads.”
On the high side of the courtyard the perimeter wall had caved in to form a ramp of large boulders and broken concrete. It was our best way out– the mud to the main gate was too deep to struggle through with Augustianos. Somehow, a cast-iron garden chair with timber slats sat untouched on top of a concrete water tank. It was probably someone’s sunset viewing spot and the chair sat sturdy and serene. “Let’s get that, Tito!” Wading through the mud cautiously I took hold of the chair and instantly regretted it – it weighed at least 20 kilos on its own. Augustianos wasn’t big, but together the three of us would have to lift at least 70 kilos over our heads to get him out of there.
By the time we got back with the chair Olivio had returned from the store with water and tiny bottles of alcohol hand sanitiser. “Get some shoes too, Olivio, the mud is dangerous,” I said. We lifted Augustianos onto the chair and carried him towards the stairs, all the time sinking into mud that forced us to stop to rest several times. Grunting and moaning we covered the 20 metres to the rubble ramp, with Augustianos still crying and muttering, “I’m going to die, I’m going to die.”
By the time we exited the compound we were exhausted. There was at least another 100 metres of scrambling over the landslide to reach the main road, then who knew what next.
I considered the options. If there was no way to get Augustianos to hospital I would have to do my best to clean his wounds and apply pressure to stop further bleeding, while trying to keep him warm and hydrated. All I had was a bunch of bed sheets, and a backpack first aid kit. “Carry him down to the shop at the bottom of hill and get him dry” I told Tito, and turned to race back to my house. I reached it through the collapsed perimeter wall, tiptoeing gently over barbed wire and shards of concrete, and walked into my living room, now ankle deep in slippery orange mud.
Suddenly I stopped. It wasn’t raining in here. It was warm again. I’d forgotten how cold and sore I was. My body wanted to collapse on the bed and rest. My hands shook as I forced myself to keep moving and stuff the sheets into a trendy hessian shopping bag my ex-girlfriend had given me.
I sat down on the floor to assess the contents of the first aid kit, exhaled, and began to sob. I hadn’t stopped for a moment since waking at dawn to see water coming under my front door. It was around 11 am, still raining, and no one was coming to help.
Hoping the rain would hide my tears, I raced back out of the house with the bag and down the length of the landslide. The tops of the tall concrete-block walls that bordered each compound were now at knee height and walls had been flattened in several places.
Swearing the whole way, I reached the main road and almost slipped arse over head. The fine clay mud became like oil on a flat surface, reminding me of the Timorese motorbike riders I’d seen upended by a seemingly innocent bit of wet dirt.
A crowd of locals had gathered and begun to carry Augustianos down the road, lifting him over a huge fallen tree. Fifty metres further I saw a large 4×4 pickup on raised suspension powering toward us over a two-metre-high embankment of mud and rubble. I raced to Augustianos with the bandages.
“What should we do Maun?”, asked Olivio. “Put him in the truck! Take him to the hospital, go!” I gasped.
The men lifted Augustianos onto the truck and piled in after him, barely settling before it roared off over the mud and out of sight. I turned slowly, taking a breath, taking stock of who was there, and the damage visible for hundreds of metres along the road. It was still raining though, and Bob was waiting for me in the car.
The aftermath of the cyclone was intense and poignant. The water soon evaporated in the tropical sun, leaving behind a thick carpet of mud and dust that clouded the city, taunting the population with a dissonance about exactly what force that had been responsible for the carnage. Many, including me, shuddered at the sight of clouds building on the horizon in the days after. Still running on adrenaline and buried emotions, I worked long days documenting efforts to get food and water to people made homeless.
I had to leave the compound and move a friend’s house – with no space for Bob. In any case, I was soon to leave Timor-Leste to take up a new job. The cyclone had upended everything, but Bob stayed the same. He still wanted to play, he still wanted to chase goats, and he still waited at the gate of our old compound for me to come home every evening. Heartbroken by my impending departure I ended each remaining day by visiting Bob, Tiago, Olivio and Tito at the compound. On the first day I brought them safety boots, gloves, a case of beer – and a bag of beef bones for Bob. We had to tie Bob up to stop him following me each night, and he yelped behind me as I turned my back to walk down the ruined road*.
The evening visits to the compound were also an opportunity to check on the fate of Augustianos, as COVID-19 regulations blocked me from seeing him in hospital. Heavily bandaged and somber, he survived for three days before succumbing to his wounds. His family never got to see him either. They lived in Timor-Leste’s isolated Oe-Cusse-Ambeno province, usually accessed by a 12-hour ferry ride. As subsistence farmers, their son’s meagre income as a groundsman had been a crucial support. The government paid to fly his body home in a light plane – finally giving some utility to the town’s brand new but rarely used international airport.
Months later I flicked through the notebook I took out of the house in my emergency pack on the day of the landslide and found this…
The electricity returns,
but there are no more answers to be found tonight,
my tired, cut hands drop the phone
onto my face, revealing a rickety ceiling fan above.
I wanted to collapse into sleep eight hours ago, when the rain stopped.
But the fan clicks occasionally,
sounding like the first drops of rain on the roof,
if I just stay awake this time,
stay on guard,
maybe it won’t come again
six more hours to sunrise
until the next rotation of the fan
wobbling wobbling wobbling, but ok for now
like Agustianos felt the night before Easter
raining raining raining, but ok for now
like Augustianos felt bleeding out on the roof before sunrise
bleeding bleeding bleeding, but ok for now.
On many days we create complex answers
for how we got to this point
when often we behave as simply as
a neglected ceiling fan
waiting for the power to be cut.
*Bob waited for me at the gate of the compound every night for more than six months after I left Timor-Leste. He now lives with me in Portugal.
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