The Madison-Ainaro Sister City Alliance June 2002 Delegation
     In June 2002, the Madison-Ainaro Sister City Alliance (MASA) held its first delegation to East Timor. For nearly a month, Madisonians Diane Farsetta, Tom Foley, and Mike Iltis met with Ainaro community leaders, distributed aid supplies, assisted with reconstruction projects, and asked many people what they would like the future of our sister city relationship to look like.
     Ainaro is the name of a district, a sub-district and a town in East Timor. Districts are analogous to U.S. states; there are 13 districts in East Timor. Ainaro district is in the southwest of the country. It boasts many streams, fertile land and rugged terrain, including East Timor’s highest peak, Mount Ramelau. Historically, Ainaro played an important role during the brutal Indonesian occupation of East Timor, providing shelter for the mountain-based guerrilla resistance army. Former guerrilla leader and current President Xanana Gusmâo spent many years directing the resistance from Ainaro.
    Ainaro sub-district has a population of approximately 12,000 people.  Ainaro town, the district capital, lies within Ainaro sub-district, along with the villages of Soro, Maununo, Cassa, Suro Craic, Manutassi, and Mau-Ulo.
   MASA has been an active project of the East Timor Action Network’s (ETAN’s) Madison chapter since February 2000. Inspired by East Timor’s struggle for independence, as well as Madison’s many vibrant sister city projects, we decided to use this person-to-person approach to further our solidarity work.

   In January 2000, Ainaro community members told a joint ETAN/East Timorese nationwide assessment mission that they wanted to form a sister relationship with friends overseas.  Ainaro had suffered near-total devastation during the Indonesian military’s 1999 scorched earth operation; more than 95 percent of buildings were destroyed. Following the restoration of security, however, little assistance was given to this remote mountain district. For these reasons, we decided to work with Ainaro, and the Madison City Council voted to make Ainaro an official sister city in February 2001.
This report details some of the major issues facing Ainaro sub-district, the organizations and community resources in the area, and thoughts on future solidarity work with the world’s newest country, Timor Lorosa’e.

Issues facing Ainaro

Health: Ainaro's health care system was decimated during 1999’s violence. All clinics in the district were destroyed and the town's only hospital was completely gutted. Many nurses and trained personnel were forced into Indonesian West Timor by the military. Most Indonesian health care workers (as well as teachers and other professionals) had left East Timor in early 1999, as the military and militia violence was increasing.

Delegation members with students at the Sao Luis Gonzaga Pre-Seminary school in Ainaro town

Clinic rehabilitation has been very slow over the past three years. The public clinics in Ainaro town and Cassa have leaky roofs, sporadic or no access to transportation, and a severe lack of medicines and trained workers. The week prior to our arrival, the district government was informed that Ainaro town’s hospital would not be rebuilt, a decision many complained about to us. Ainaro town had been without a doctor for the previous eight months when we arrived. The closest doctor is in Maubisse (also the location of the future district hospital), at least two hours away over rough roads.

Only half of the district’s population has access to clean water. Many people have a restricted diet, due to poverty and limited access to crop seeds. As a result, there are very high rates of infant mortality and child malnutrition. Respiratory infections, malaria, diarrhea, and acute febrile illness are among the most common health problems.

Transportation: The roads are treacherous, punishing to passengers and vehicles alike. Road rehabilitation has been promised for a long time, leaving many skeptical it will ever happen. The planned Japanese road project will only resurface the main route from Dili, the national capital, through Ainaro town to Suai, the capital of neighboring Cova Lima district, leaving village residents isolated. In district development meetings, road conditions were consistently identified as a major concern, because of their effect on access to health care, education and employment, as well as communication.

   Access to vehicles is very limited; most people travel by Timor pony or in dilapidated public buses. The lack of area mechanics complicates transport for the few people with motorbikes or cars, and all vehicle parts must come from Dili or Suai.

 Communication: There are only four phone lines in Ainaro town, all of which are reserved for government use. There has been no local media since the Ainaro radio tower was destroyed in 1999. People rely on word of mouth, a few kiosks with old papers, and a scratchy radio signal from Dili to keep informed.

Careta Fatin elementary school in Ainaro town, one of many schools with no windows, desks or chairs
Education: All of the schools in Ainaro were destroyed or heavily damaged in 1999. Nearly half of the district’s elementary schools have not been rehabilitated. The World Bank school rehabilitation program runs until 2015, and even then not all schools will be fixed. Many children attend schools without doors, windows, desks, chairs, toilets and wash facilities. Most teachers have little or no training; no Ainaro district instructors passed a May 2002 national teaching exam. There is only one public high school in the district. Many children – especially orphans – do not attend school because they cannot afford the few dollars per month charged by public schools.

Many people spoke of the need for applied learning programs in Ainaro, especially in agriculture, mechanics, construction and forestry. There are only two technical education programs in East Timor, in Dili and Baucau; both are on East Timor’s north coast, far from Ainaro.

Employment: Unemployment is estimated at more than 70 percent nationwide. Many young people leave Ainaro for Dili, in search of better opportunities. When most internationals left East Timor in May 2002, following the end of the United Nations transitional government and East Timor’s independence day, Ainaro’s economy – like that of communities nationwide – dipped. Most people practice subsistence agriculture, and earn money by selling extra produce, weavings or other small goods at local markets.

Crime: Domestic violence is a major problem in Ainaro, responsible for nearly half of all police responses. To address the problem, the Ainaro police will be among the first participants in national trainings on how to handle domestic violence incidents and carry out community education on the issue.

While the situation in Ainaro is otherwise calm, gangs of unemployed youth belonging to “karate clubs” engage in sporadic intimidation and vigilantism. There are also property crimes, due to the extreme poverty people suffer.

Militia and refugees: An estimated 5,000 people from Ainaro district remain in squalid militia-controlled refugee camps in Indonesian West Timor, where they have been for more than three years. Tuberculosis, malaria, diarrhea, intimidation, rape and domestic abuse are rampant in the camps. Cassa village – the base for the MAHIDI militia in 1999 – is still missing 1,000 of its 4,000 residents. Two major delegations of Ainaro community and Church leaders went to West Timor during our stay; their aim was to encourage people to come home. They saw obviously malnourished and scared refugees crying and promising to return – while militia leaders asked for immunity and other concessions.

Reconciliation will be a long and difficult process, although a reconciliation meeting in Cassa last year was praised by both victims and former militia members. Before refugees return home, any militia members in the group are reported to police and the community decides whether it will accept them. In most (but not all) cases, the militia are accepted. East Timorese realize the militia groups were creations of the Indonesian military, and focus on demanding the military leaders stand trial before an international tribunal.

Reintegration of militia leadership is more complex; oftentimes they hold long-standing, somewhat hereditary positions of authority within communities. In Cassa, the MAHIDI leadership has been banned from government positions, but still retains much influence.

Justice: Currently, the only operating court in East Timor is in Dili. It is understaffed, under-resourced and overwhelmed with cases. Ainaro sends its major crimes suspects to DiliWhen the Suai courthouse opens (slated for October 2002), Ainaro will send suspects there. For less serious crimes (mostly property crimes), traditional conflict resolution practices, a type of restorative justice, are used. The police do not monitor most traditional cases, leaving open to question the quality of justice served.

Infrastructure: About half of the houses in Ainaro town are still uninhabitable. Most schools are burnt shells lacking basic necessities. The few health clinics are in need of major repairs. Ainaro town has low-power electricity for only a few hours each evening. The water system needs basic maintenance and repairs, and does not serve the entire community. The former youth center has been rebuilt for use as a community center (Centro ComunidadeAinaro), with help from UNICEF. The central market area is only partially rehabilitated. A lack of skilled masons, carpenters, tools and building materials – as well as funding – are hampering rebuilding efforts.

Agriculture: Given the fertile soil and good climate, agriculture has been identified as the key to Ainaro district’s future development. Ainaro was once a center for specialist horticulture, with a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, spices and herbs grown in the area. Ainaro district is also a center for the production of East Timor’s high quality, organic shade-grown arabica and robusta coffee. Increased availability of credit, heirloom seeds, strong agriculture education support, improved access to transportation, and fair trade arrangements could have a great impact. Many farmers use labor-intensive and environmentally unfriendly traditional farming practices, and could substantially improve crop yields with better quality seeds, a few tools and organic fertilizer.

The Ainaro community

The Catholic Church dominates the physical landscape of Ainaro town, and the social landscape of the entire district. Priests and Canossian Sisters run the local private Catholic school system. The Catholic high school is considered one of the best in the country, but its fees – at $10 per month – are beyond what most East Timorese can afford. The Sisters also run a private health clinic, under the direction of one nun who attended nursing high school in Indonesia. Throughout the district, the Church supports a network of catechists and lay religious groups, like Foinsae Catholic (FOSCA). The Church is very well respected and an important part of most people’s lives. Church efforts for reconciliation, free mobile health clinics, and support for orphans help address major community needs. And because of its international ties and institutional respectability, the Church helps funnel support from aid agencies and foreign individuals to the community.
Ainaro town, the district capital, houses the district government. Local government officials were very accessible to us malaes (white foreigners), from the district administrator to local ministers of health, education, agriculture, and development. We were given copies of the district development plan for 2002 to 2003, and encouraged to help in whatever way we could. Many local government officials told us that the national government ignores Ainaro district; they were not hopeful of seeing government-led improvement and had been let down by numerous international aid agencies.
The relationship between East Timorese and their district government seemed somewhat ambiguous. The World Bank Community Empowerment Project (CEP), in which communities elect local representatives to decide funding priorities, appeared not to have effectively communicated the concept of local representative bodies. One woman we met whose aunt was part of the local CEP council told us that the project was finished, although the World Bank considers CEP an ongoing effort whose aim is to eventually transform the CEP councils into democratic, functional bodies of local government. Village leadership is often still vested in the traditional leaders, called liurais or chefe do sucos, whose family members frequently occupy positions of influence.

Perhaps the most exciting community effort we saw was Centro ComunidadeAinaro, a joint effort by the Catholic group FOSCA, a youth group (JuventudiRamelauAinaro), and the women’s group OrganizacãoMulher de Timor (OMT). These organizations were poised to open the renovated community center in August 2002, to offer organized sports activities for local youth, basic computer education, language classes, and carpentry workshops. OMT plans to open a community center restaurant, to provide income for the center and for their own work. (While in some ways farsighted – and encouraged by UNICEF – depending upon the restaurant for income does not take into consideration the decline in international clientele and subsequent economic slump, or the need for women’s groups to diversify their income-generating projects beyond sewing and cooking, as noted in the Ainaro district development plan.)

The local branch of the Association of Veterans of the Resistance (AVR) has applied to the national government for office space in Ainaro town. Their future planned projects include providing orphan children with scholarships and other support, and assisting local farmers.

Women's organizations in Ainaro include OMT and Organizacão Popular Mulher de Timor (OPMT, which spawned the similarly-named OMT after being banned during the Indonesian occupation). These two groups work separately and together to carry out adult literacy, sewing and weaving projects. A women’s cooperative independent of these two organizations was organized in Ainaro by more than 20 women, to produce traditional weavings, or tais, and sell the weavings in local markets.

The former chefe of Ainaro town told us that each village has separate women's and men's organizations focused on agricultural issues. While we did not meet with these groups, others affirmed their existence and explained how they formed a network through which important agricultural information and aid is routinely transmitted. 

Catholic Relief Services (CRS) was actively addressing agricultural needs in Ainaro district, mostly by organizing local farmers’ cooperatives and assisting them in building up collective resources to purchase fuel oil for tractors, cement, farm tools, and other joint needs. CRS also helped rehabilitate area irrigation canals; 13 of 47 of canals had been repaired. The CRS programs were very highly thought of in Ainaro; unfortunately, after returning to Dili, we were told these programs would soon be discontinued.

The Madison-AinaroSisterCity relationship: the next steps

In considering which projects our sister city relationship should undertake, we decided

to abide by the following guidelines: 

1)We will support existing community efforts in Ainaro, rather than try to start new projects. This will maximize our effectiveness, and ensure that our work respects the wishes, priorities and norms of the community. 

2)We will start with a small focus, both geographically and project-wise. We will work in Ainaro sub-district, comprised of Ainaro town and six surrounding villages, on one or two projects. This will allow us to focus limited resources, and allow both Ainaro and Madison to see real results from our work. 

3)We will maximize our outreach efforts in Madison, informing and encouraging other organizations and institutions with relevant expertise to become involved with our sister city project. This will broaden our knowledge and resource base, and make our sister city project a true community-to-community effort.

The following areas for potential sister city projects were consistently identified as the highest priority areas by government, Church and community representatives.In addition, they are areas in which we could support existing community structures and efforts, and benefit from strong local partners.


a.Scholarships – Scholarships for Ainaro students to attend local primary and secondary schools, Dili and Baucau technical schools, the University of East Timor, and U.S. universities. Scholarships to schools in East Timor have the advantage of building up local infrastructure, being practical for more people, and costing less. Scholarships to U.S. universities would provide students with advanced knowledge in areas not easily studied in East Timor, such as medicine. Establishing scholarships for orphans would provide much-needed opportunities for traumatized and marginalized children.

b.Vocational/Technical Training – Local classes in carpentry, motorcycle and auto mechanics, masonry and other skills. We were able to provide tools and funding for Centro Comunidade Ainaro to begin woodworking classes, but other tools, resources and training of instructors are needed for Ainaro’s physical and economic reconstruction.

Madison-led practical woodworking class: students 
build desks and chairs for their school
c. Adult Literacy – Training of literacy trainers, transportation and basic resources such as books, blackboards and paper. In Ainaro, women’s organizations are carrying out some adult education classes, but more resources are needed to expand and strengthen these efforts. 
d.School Building Rehabilitation – In-kind donations of school supplies, desks, chairs and the physical rehabilitation of schools without roofs, doors or windows. During our delegation, we were able to provide students at one elementary school with notebooks, pens and rulers, and worked with the students of one high school to build enough desks and chairs

 to fill a classroom. Larger  school building rehabilitation efforts are needed to provide students with an acceptable learning environment, especially during the rainy season.


e.Seeds and Hand Tools – In-kind donations of appropriate seeds and hand tools. Most Ainaro residents engage in agriculture, and the soil and climate make agricultural production a key to future economic development in the area. However, access to quality seeds and tools is limited in East Timor.

f.Training and Information – Training workshops, pilot projects and informational pamphlets stressing sustainable agriculture practices. Farmers use traditional agricultural methods, which are often very labor intensive and not environmentally friendly. For example, organic waste is routinely burned instead of composted.

3)Small-scale income-generating projects

g.Clothesmaking – Sewing machines, material and thread, and training in good business practices. Ainaro women’s organizations have begun clothesmaking projects in which members of the organization purchase clothes from other members through bartering. We were able to provide some funds for women in Cassa village to purchase a sewing machine. Support to expand these efforts would provide women with a regular source of income – especially important for widows – and encourage community self-sufficiency.

h.Weaving – Export of traditional weavings (tais) and development of U.S. markets for them. Many women have looms in their homes, which they use to weave tais for local traditional use and sale to internationals. A weaving cooperative of more than 20 women has organized in Ainaro. However, with the end of the UN mission post-independence, the market for tais has drastically decreased. We were able to purchase some weavings, which we will sell in Madison to support future sister city projects, but a more regular and expanded effort is needed.


During our delegation to Ainaro, we were fortunate to meet with many individuals who were very generous with their time and information. With the help of these community members, we were able to identify several potential future projects for our sister city relationship. Although we at times felt overwhelmed – there are so many needs and we are a small organization – we were encouraged by the energy and vision of our partners in Ainaro.

Although information gathering was the focus of the delegation, we feel other important goals were also accomplished. These included providing hundreds of dollars in medicines free to local clinics; giving Centro ComunidadeAinaro thousands of dollars’ worth of tools, for woodworking classes; providing small grants to women’s income-generating and adult literacy projects, local scholarships for orphans, and struggling elementary schools; working with area schoolchildren to construct tables and chairs for their school; and, most importantly, making friends.

We certainly have our work cut out for us. But we look forward to joining with others in Madison and Ainaro, and working together for positive change in both our communities.