Gathering rocks from a stream, dozens of young men and children are animated as they talk about the grand Roman Catholic church they are helping to build in town. They discuss the likelihood of a bumper coffee harvest coming off this steep mountain slope next month. But something else on their minds also concerns their future, and they are wary of speaking out about it.
The villagers are well aware that Indonesia, which invaded East Timor in 1975, has bent to international pressure and agreed to ask them to vote on an offer of autonomy. If they reject it, as many expect they will, Indonesia has said it will simply annul the 1976 annexation of East Timor and thereby grant it independence.
"People don't want to take sides openly," says Amilcar, the head of the Aituto village, near Maubuisse. After 24 years of military occupation and guerrilla warfare, "they are still traumatized. They know from bitter experience that if they take sides there could be conflict." The coffee plants around him are only 10 years old, replanted after the Indonesian Army set the old plants on fire to chase out rebels hiding on the slopes. Villages suspected of harboring rebels were leveled.
"But we will choose independence," Amilcar adds. "We lost more than we gained [from Indonesian occupation]. Our plantations have been burned, our forests torched. Now our land is not so fertile anymore."
The choice itself may be an easy one for most of the 800,000 East Timorese. But the reality of moving toward independence is far less easy.
It's been 10 months since President B.J. Habibie took over the sprawling archipelago nation when his predecessor Suharto stepped down after 32 years of rule. At first, Mr. Habibie offered East Timor an "autonomy with special status," with no promise of a referendum on independence. But in late January, still struggling with the country's economic crisis, Habibie surprised many with an offer of independence if Indonesia's parliament agreed.
Struggles past and present
Human rights organizations estimate that some 200,000 people died in warfare and induced famine after the 1975 invasion, a price far higher than could be compensated by whatever roads, schools, and hospitals Indonesia has built since then to win their hearts and minds.
A recent exodus of thousands of non-Timorese doctors, teachers, and traders, frightened by the prospect of isolation from the motherland and by sporadic conflicts between Timorese groups, has underscored East Timor's heavy dependence on outside resources.
The hospital in the province's capital, Dili, has not a single surgeon left, only half of the doctors and specialists it used to have, and a fraction of the medicine it needs. Some 2,950 of the 3,660 state high school teachers have asked for a transfer.
Half of the shops have closed down and supplies are falling as fewer ships bring goods from Indonesia. Taxi drivers fear they will have to quit if their cars break down, because the repair-shop owners have left as well.
East Timorese accuse Indonesia's military of scaring migrants into leaving, and raising fears of civil war by arming paramilitary groups who favor integration into Indonesia.
This reporter saw five truckloads of Timorese paramilitaries, darkly tanned and very distinct from most Indonesians, under the command of three men. The commanders resembled Javanese, with their trademark stocky military posture and Army crew cuts. Even pro-Indonesian Timorese say the gangs were armed by ABRI, the Indonesian military.
"ABRI is behind all the terror here," says Rui Lourenco da Cost, a human rights activist. "There is an economic embargo against East Timor by the Indonesian government, just to show that East Timor will be in big trouble if it breaks away."
Diplomats, too, believe at least some of the current hardship in East Timor was orchestrated by the hard-liners in the Indonesian government, part of an effort to persuade foreign countries, liberals in Jakarta, and the East Timorese themselves that autonomy would be better than independence.
Many non-Timorese migrants say, however, that they would leave even if East Timor managed to make a peaceful transition to independence. They risk losing citizenship, civil-servant pay, and, for traders, privileged access to credit and licenses that help keep Timorese marginalized in their own economy.
They may be hard to replace. Julio, who like many in this country uses only one name, says he is the only Timorese to compete with textile hawkers from South Sulawesi in the market of Dili. Although some 40 percent of his competitors have left town in recent weeks, his sales are down 50 percent from last year, and supplies from Java have dried up. "Other Timorese could come in and fill the void, but I'm not sure they would want to," he says.
The hardship brought on by the exodus of non-Timorese has sobered some Timorese. "The people want freedom as soon as possible," said Sister Santina, a Carmelite nun in Maubuisse. "But that may not be prudent. To do it all at once is not so easy."
Many proponents of independence, however, are confident that an off-shore oil and gas field, large coffee plantations, marble mines, and foreign aid will easily fill that void. But the Timor Gap oil and gas field, shared with Australia, remains a dream until significant reserves are found. Even then it is separated from the Timor island by a deep trough, making East Timor less than attractive as a support base or processing site.
The coffee plantations have been run into the ground by a monopoly company tied to Indonesian generals, who also dominated the coffee trade and discouraged farming by offering low prices. Small farmers rely on coffee forests on the infertile mountain slopes, limiting scope for expansion beyond this year's expected harvest of 8,000 to 10,000 tons.
The military has plundered and destroyed many coffee plantations, marble deposits, and forests of teak and sandalwood. The coffee monopoly, Batara Indra, also controlled hotels, construction, shops, and shipping. The company has collapsed, and few Timorese, save for a former guerrilla who started a marble workshop, have taken its place.
Politically, East Timor is far from secure as well. It is divided by tribes, languages, and old rivalries that were fueled by the occupation. Although armed by the Indonesian military, paramilitary groups do command support from a minority, mostly those who collaborated with Indonesia's government.
The United Nations is considering sending observers, possibly even peacekeeping troops, to ensure a democratic referendum on autonomy. Australia has boosted its troop presence in northern Australia, Timor's closest international neighbor, in case violence escalates.
But pro-integration groups last week met with the leader of the pro-independence movement, Jose Alexandre "Xanana" Gusmao, and vowed to lay down their arms and negotiate a peace agreement that could lead to a transitional government encompassing most Timorese factions.
"There are differences but they can be overcome," says Fernando Cavaterra, member of a Timorese party that once favored integration with Indonesia but last year opted for independence instead and teamed up with Fretilin, the rebel movement led by Mr. Gusmao. "As long as no one else stokes the fire, if ABRI leaves there will be no more war here."