Timor-Leste Correspondence

It turns out that Red Cross in East Timor (CVTL) have a “water team”.  They have emailed me to explain that they may well be able to assist with the request for water access for the small village who lost their water in the recent disaster.  They need the request for assistance to come directly from someone local to Baucau District, so I emailed my friend to tell her.

I met this friend when I was volunteering at a clinic in Dili last year.  Her husband had an unknown illness which killed him, and they had spent many months travelling East Timor, leaving a family of six children behind in their remote village, looking for someone to diagnose and treat him.

Prior to going to East Timor, I had worked in Tuberculosis Control for more than ten years, but in Australia where we have a low burden of disease and high tech resources which are unavailable in most regions with high burdens of disease.  My friend’s husband was the first patient I encountered, for whom a well known phrase was used, which until I met him, I had never heard.

“No man should die without a trial of Tuberculosis treatment”.

Because TB is so common in places like Timor-Leste, and because it can be difficult to diagnose unless the person has enough of a bacterial load for it to be detected under the microscope (which requires the TB to be in their sputum – but 30% of all TB disease occurs outside of the lungs), the meaning of this phrase is to always be aware that your sick/dying patient could have an unusual form of TB disease, and so don’t let someone die without at least trying to treat for the possibility of TB.

By the time the trial of TB treatment was offered to my friend’s husband, he was already so sick, with a liver that was so distended you could almost see it peering through the shiny, pale skin of his basketball shaped abdomen, which had “rivers” of veins and arteries visible on the surface.  If he did  have some sort of TB disease in his liver, it was too late to treat it, and days after the TB treatment commenced, he died.  It could even have been the four strong TB medications which killed him, as the metabolism of these drugs puts a lot of demand on the liver.

I only knew this couple for about five days.  I went to their room (pictured) on the Friday afternoon to say goodbye, and that I’d see them again on Monday as I was having a few days off.


On Monday, I returned to this empty room.  The man had died and his family had already taken his body home for burial.  It’s worth noting about this picture, that due to a lack of bed linen most patients were nursed directly on the plastic mattress, without pillows or other basic comforts.

Many months later I received a text message from Leo in East Timor, touching base with me to say thank  you, and informing me of what I already knew, that her husband had passed away.

In the time since then, we have had many conversations by text and email, mostly very brief because electricity and money are scarce and problematic at her end of the line.  Per my previous blog entry, there have been a series of unreported natural disasters across Timor due to unseasonable and very heavy rainfall, combined with precariously built houses and other buildings.  Some landslides have seen houses disappear, roofs have flown away, etc.  Leo’s region in Baucau has been affected, and she has been a link to the outside world (through others in Australia who she also knows) for her community, and is making things happen with regards to rebuilding at least some of the damage.

One of her main concerns expressed to me, has been water access to a small and remote village in Baucau, who had  pipes providing water from a reservoir some kilometres away, to the village, which have somehow been destroyed in the bad weather.

Thankfully, after initially being so shocked to find that these natural disasters remained largely unreported, because most people didn’t even know they had occurred – even people based in East Timor who I wrote to had to investigate to find out, it seems that there are organisations willing and able to offer help to repair some of the damage.  It’s not as hopeless as it initially seemed.

Below is a continuation of emails (the originals are in my previous post), related to this village and their need for water supply.

[Me to someone at Red Cross in Dili <known locally as CVTL>]


Thank you so much for your reply, which I did receive the first time around (been very busy around here).

Do you know of any organisations who are involved in rebuilding projects?

Buibela School on the edge of Baguia SubDistrict apparently have no water, but there is a spring 3km away (their nearest supply), so it sounds like something that could be a project for the right organisation?

I really miss Timor, and hope to visit again sometime soon.


[Their reply]

Dear Helen

Sorry I just saw this but have been away in the Districts

I just discussed with our water team and they said the best way for this to happen is if the community contact CVTL with a proposal for a water project and then the team will do an assessment.

Your friend can do this by either email to (two possible contacts) – she should know him or the Chief of the Village should and to discuss.

I have a good friend from besik (one of the numerous NGO’s that deal with water in TL) and I will see him on the weekend and I will ask him about it too – though I am not sure that are working in bagia at present.

Water and Sanitation is the Number Two Priority of the Govt at the moment – so there are many many people working on it – so in theory it can happen.

But the proposal needs to come directly from the community.

Hope this helps.

[Me to Leo, with a forward of CVTL’s message]

Dear Leo

How are you?

Everything here is going well.  The weather is getting hot – summer must be here!

I think of you a lot, and hope we will meet again sometime, sooner or later.  I would love to visit Baguia.

Today I got this email below, from CVTL (Red Cross) in Dili.  You should send an email to <contacts> – about the need for water at Buibela.  They need someone from Baguia to contact them.

I know you are very busy with helping your community, and am always happy to try and help in any way that I can, which is difficult from Australia.

I hope that your family are also well.  It’s hard to believe it is a year since you were trying to get help for <your husband’s> sickness, and almost a year since you lost him.  I will never forget meeting him.

Love from

[Leo’s reply to me]

Dear Helen,

Thank you very much for your email. I am here have a big missing to John my husband for 10 months on 28th this week,also busy with preparation of national exam for my students in grade 9 and 12.I know you are busy too but you are not missing someone as I do,are you? I will try to send email to <contacts> then I will let you know also help me to follow up.Is that ok with you?

I am looking forward to see you when you visit.


The wheels are turning very slowly.  But they ARE turning, and I didn’t imagine when she first contacted me, that these seemingly insurmountable problems would ever garner any attention, let alone actually be dealt with.  But between Red Cross and Friends of Baguia, there is action!

2 thoughts on “Timor-Leste Correspondence

  1. You actually make it seem so easy with your presentation but I find this
    matter to be really something that I think I would never understand.
    It seems too complicated and extremely broad for me.
    I’m looking forward for your next post, I will try to get the hang
    of it!


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