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Rui Assis - Swift manoeuvring: A front seat role for kids

Imagen del UNICEF
© UNICEF Timor-Leste/2004/Gomes
Rui Assis and his UNICEF 'charge'.

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By Madhavi Ashok

DILI, Timor-Leste/GENEVA, 27 September 2004 - Travelling in Timor-Leste with UNICEF driver Rui Assis is an eye opener. It makes you understand the vital role he and the agency’s seven other drivers play in helping UNICEF reach vulnerable children and women living far from the bustle of the capital, Dili.  There are no railways, planes or convenient rental cars in Timor-Leste. So Assis and his colleagues are indispensable in getting project staff and supplies where they need to be – usually in remote villages.

The challenges of driving within Timor-Leste become apparent once you leave the relatively good streets of Dili. Timor-Leste is small – roughly half the size of Belgium, with fewer than 1 million people. It occupies one half of Timor island – the other half, West Timor, belongs to Indonesia.  Most of the terrain is mountainous and the roads narrow and winding. During the rainy season, floods can wreak havoc with the roads, making driving particularly hazardous. When you’re in the car with Assis, you quickly come to appreciate his steady nerves and swift manoeuvring.

Assis’ story begins when the island was still known as East Timor and occupied by Indonesia. UNICEF Indonesia had a field office in Dili operating from Hotel Tourismo, which also housed the headquarters of the Indonesian Military command.

In 1998, Assis, who is now 42, was hired as the driver for the only vehicle then at UNICEF’s disposal. The main thrust of UNICEF’s work at that time lay in improving the quality of water and sanitation standards and vaccinating children.  Staff from other Indonesian offices used to visit and Assis would drive them around to check on projects and meet senior officials.

Times were calm – on the surface – but it was the calm before the storm that struck during the UN-supervised referendum in August 1999. The historic vote was held to decide the future of the island (annexed by Indonesia from Portugal in 1975). The options were autonomy under Indonesian rule or independence.

Imagen del UNICEF
© UNICEF Timor-Leste/2004/Gomes
Rui Assis (left) with UNICEF driver, João Faria (right) at the St Mary's Shrine in Soibada, Manatuto district, Timor-Leste.

The overwhelming vote of the Timorese for independence unleashed a terrifying wave of violence and destruction. The UNICEF field office was a non-emergency duty station, that is, until the day the building was burnt down by militias. Because it was the nerve centre for the Indonesian army, Hotel Tourismo was a crucial symbol for Indonesians, though also a prime target for those who wanted to destroy all vestiges of Indonesian rule.  Afraid for his life, Assis hid in the International Red Cross compound. But he and others seeking refuge there feared that Indonesian militias would still hunt them down, hurt or kill them.

By early September 1999, things were out of control. Danger lurked everywhere. The UNICEF office was destroyed and the two national staff were scattered and worried about the safety of their families. Assis, with his wife and two children, fled to the mountains in Dare, joining other families evacuated from Dili, 12 kilometres away. They were only able to bring what they could pack and carry – in a hurry.

UNICEF was one of the earliest UN aid agencies to resume operations on the island, after a multinational force arrived and began to restore law and order. Only now, the UNICEF set up was no longer a field office of Indonesia but the country office of the youngest nation in the world!   There was a hurried bid to locate local staff who had worked with UNICEF previously, including Assis.

The emergency officer for UNICEF at that time went to search for him in the mountains of Dare. Once found, Assis was soon persuaded to return and step into the driver’s seat. Because he knew all the locations and contacts, he was crucial to UNICEF getting back on track without any delay. The ‘new’ office opened in a school compound in Dili, along with other aid agencies and under heavy security (UNICEF has since moved to permanent premises).

For Assis, getting his job back was indeed fortunate. His house was burnt down, leaving him, his wife and children with nothing to fall back on except what they had escaped to Dare with. “I consoled my wife, standing in front of our burnt house, as she sobbed,” said Assis. “I was confident we would see better days and recover our losses. After all, we were not alone. The whole nation was suffering.” Most of Dili had been destroyed in fierce battles in which many lives were lost.

With a monthly UNICEF salary of almost US$250 – way above the average earnings in Timor-Leste – Assis was able to pick up the pieces. “We have rebuilt our lives and my wife and children are more stable and happier. In a country where jobs are hard to come by, I am really grateful for that.”

Assis also felt pleased to be with UNICEF from a humanitarian angle. “I was there in the forefront, reaching people who had been internally displaced with supplies, and I knew we were making a difference.”

With the expansion of the UNICEF office, Assis is busier than ever. Normally, he is on the road at least seven days a month, but the tally can vary greatly, depending too on who is flying into town. 

More than a skilled, versatile driver, he’s a problem solver and quick thinker. Still fresh in his mind is an incident that happened last October when a UNICEF delegation from Japan came to visit. Seven cars were deployed by UNICEF for a field trip and Assis was the lead driver. In Atabae (a region 75 kilometres from Dili), he was driving his guests from a school to a nearby health centre when a buffalo calf jumped out of its enclosure and leapt in front of the car. The animal died on impact.

Through diplomacy and tact, Assis and the other drivers calmed the irate villagers and reached a mutually satisfying agreement on the payment they were obliged to make in recompense for the dead calf. The visitors, who thought the animal had been injured, never knew a thing about the negotiations.



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