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MARCH 20, 2000 VOL. 155 NO. 11

S T A R T I N G   O V E R
Love and Food Bring the Crowds to the Burned House

The walls are blackened by fire and graffiti. The windows and doors are gone; a lone crucifix hangs undamaged on the wall. Welcome to Dili's best restaurant, "Uma Mutuk"--the Burned House. At night, oil lamps and candles flicker off the walls as dinner is prepared over open fires in the rear. The food is simple, but the atmosphere is what draws customers. Guests feel ever-so-slightly uneasy, as if they were eating in a church--a feeling the owners do not attempt to dispel.

The Burned House was opened two months ago by Libania Borges, 38, and her sister Manuela. Born in Dili, they had been living in the Australian city of Darwin since 1975. They returned last October to check on their relatives after militias laid waste to the town. One uncle had gone missing, and they found their aunt Maria cringing in the ruins of her house. "She was really down. All she did was hide and cry," says Libania, sitting on the terrace under some pro-Xanana Gusmão graffiti. "She didn't even want to talk to us."

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Starting Over: Love and food bring the crowds to the Burned House
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The two sisters decided to use their savings to turn the house into a restaurant as a way of helping their aunt recover from the trauma of the attack. It took four weeks to clear the debris and to get a local carpenter to put a new roof on the building. The aunt wanted to clean the walls and paint them, says Libania, "but we said no--we wanted to leave it the way it is, to remind people of what the militias did. What happened here makes me very angry."

The fare is basic--a $15 set menu with just two choices--and the wine list equally limited: red or white. But the restaurant is an unqualified success. When United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan came to Dili, he ate at the Burned House, and most nights the nine tables are all booked. The aunt is smiling again. She helps Libania and Manuela serve guests when they are busy. Much of Dili is still derelict, but at least the Burned House has risen from its ashes to start a new life.

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