DILI (AFP) — Fifteen-year-old Dominggos Obe hawks colourful shaved ices from a three-wheeled cart in East Timor’s capital, one of a stream of youths arriving here from his poor hometown seeking a better life.
Obe, who sports dyed yellow hair and gaudy earrings, left his home in Oecussi, about 12 hours by ferry or bus from Dili, in July 2006 after his labourer father said he could no longer support him.
"’Later, when you have money, you can continue your schooling,’ my father told me," Obe tells AFP.
Obe’s boss is an Indonesian in West Timor who pays him 40 dollars a month, but charges him eight dollars a day to rent the cart.
"If I am lucky and can get more than that, the rest is for me," says the teenager, who sleeps in a tent at a church, one of the camps for displaced people set up after East Timor’s 2006 unrest.
The exodus from Oecussi began in earnest after the unrest in April and May 2006, which saw East Timor, already one of the world’s poorest nations, suffer further as rival security factions clashed and spilled blood on the streets.
The violence killed 37 and forced more than 150,000 people to flee their homes, with most still living in camps despite the presence of international peacekeepers and UN police deployed to restore and maintain calm.
Oecussi is an impoverished area of some 2,700 square kilometres (1,080 square miles) surrounded by Indonesia’s West Timor province.
The quirk of its existence is historical: Oecussi was the arrival point of Portuguese Dominican missionaries to Timor in the middle of the 16th century, from where they spread their Roman Catholic religion.
Though the colony was integrated into Indonesia without protest in 1976, politically it remained closely connected to East Timor and became part of it upon independence in 2002.
Rice is more expensive in the enclave — 25 dollars a sack compared to 10 dollars in Dili, the children say — because of transportation costs. Importing is difficult as nearby countries also seek to buy rice, UN officials have said.
– ‘I hope one day we can return to school’
In the sleepy seaside city of Dili, the scores of Oecussi teens are easy to find. Many pass in front of the seafront palace of Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao by day, and groups sleep by the national police headquarters by night.
Octo Tout, 15, left high school in Oecussi last September and says he wants to "make it" in Dili, though he clings to the hope that one day he can return to school, and then become a soldier.
"I hope that one day someone from the government will come, give us attention and help us to return to school," he says.
Tout arrived here with two brothers and together they ply the streets daily selling snacks, soft drinks, cigarettes and sweets. Tout’s 17-year-old brother completed primary school but his younger brother, 14, had no schooling at all.
The three came to Dili with 60 dollars from their widowed mother and a three-wheeled cart, and rent a room for 15 dollars a month.
"My mother wasn’t able to pay for our school anymore," Tout says.
"I’m sad, because I can’t continue my education like other children and so I’ve lost the chance for a better future, but I have no other choice," he says.
With a profit of 10 to 15 dollars each day, the three can send around 150 dollars home to their mother each month.
Typically the money children send home supports not just their immediate but also extended families, which tend to be large in the mainly Catholic nation.
The pressure they feel to send all available cash is great and though the amount they earn can be high by national levels, it does not go far in Dili, where expenses quickly add up.
Justinho Babo Soares, from the Oratori Dom Bosco Catholic foundation, the only organisation focused on helping street children here, says the government should pay more attention to their plight and help them get back to school.
The children from Oecussi, however, pose a special challenge, he says.
"With children from Oecussi… we have tried to put them in school or give them training but it doesn’t work because they are already too used to having money and so they go back to selling on the street," Soares says.
"This is because of the condition of their families, which are so poor that (the teenagers) feel they have to help support them," he says.
East Timor’s President Jose Ramos-Horta says parents should play a role in bringing their children in from the streets, but he was working on the issue.
"Tomorrow and in the future, I will continue to look out for them and tell these children that the president will do his best so that they will no longer be on the streets," he tells AFP.