Maria survived, but she was not spared tragedy. Of her six children, only Susi her youngest daughter, is still with her.
During the occupation, Maria had five lively children. But when polio swept through the village, everyone in her family contracted the disease. Her eldest son was eight years old when he died and then each of her remaining children — another son and three young daughters — all passed away, one by one.
As we talked about her children, tears welled in our eyes. The grief of losing children just can’t be contained. The pain of living without her children is immense; I felt it in the room.
“I cannot talk for long about my children who died,” Maria told me. “If I keep talking I become very sad. Polio is a terrible sickness. It’s difficult to cure and it kills children. It made them disabled, they couldn’t sit up and they died, all of them, one after the other.”
Many children in the village died during this outbreak in 1994, devastating infected families. The Indonesian army had blockaded the village during Timor-Leste’s fight for independence.
The horrors of occupation are still being felt in this village. During this time healthcare facilities were targeted. Today many clinics in rural areas lack water, sanitation and electricity. Clinics in rural areas are mostly closed over the weekends. Many only provide services one or two days a week. There is a serious shortage of skilled health staff with maternal and child health training, contributing to a lack of information in the community to stop babies dying of preventable causes.
Maria still carries her personal tragedy with her each day. But she has her daughter Susi, and now Denilcia, her first grandchild. I will do everything I can to make sure this baby survives. I will make sure nothing happens to her,” she told me.
She helps Susi care for Denilcia; they tend to her cries, settle her to sleep under a mosquito net and spend hours cuddling her.
Speaking with this beautiful strong woman, talking of grief and love, reminded me of the importance of family. Denilcia is so well cared for, so adored. Susi is confident feeding and caring for Denilcia, because she has such solid, practical and loving support from her own mother.
Maria knows how hard it is caring for a baby in those first early months, and she gives advice on how to breastfeed, the importance of immunisation, and healthy food and sanitation.
“I will do anything for my grandchild, and for her mother as well,” Maria explained. “If her mother needs to eat, I help her so that my grandchild can have good health and grow physically.”
The new mothers and babies in Timor-Leste that I met who were struggling the most didn’t have family support, intergenerational knowledge and care being passed down.
These young mothers and their newborns need extra support from village health volunteers or healthcare clinic staff. They need advice on how to breastfeed, how to swaddle a baby, how to care for them and when they need to get help if their baby is struggling.
They need someone to show them that they are not alone. Village health volunteers and health clinics in rural and remote areas are incredibly important in providing life-saving advice and support.
I think of all the new mothers in Timor-Leste, who have so little resources, so little access to healthcare and information, and who are exhausted and frightened. What they need is support.