Peter Hosking SJ
‘Our suffering in 1999 allowed us to secure our freedom. This just divides our nation.’
‘My home was burnt by the Indonesian militias in 1999. I worked hard to rebuild it, but it has been destroyed again. It is hard being a victim.’
Since February 2006, issues that previously bubbled beneath the surface in East Timor have begun to boil over. A dispute within the defence forces attracted other disgruntled groups. Public grievances led to violence on 28 and 29 April and the disintegration of the police force in Dili.
The situation deteriorated during May with a collapse in security on 23 to 25 May. The arrival of foreign troops helped bring under control the use of weaponry by those associated with the defence and police forces or their collaborators. However, much routine police work is required to adequately protect the people.
While the Timorese military factions cantoned themselves; rampant intimidation, looting, and burning of houses by gangs based on dubious ethnic allegiances continued. The number of dead is unknown. It has been estimated that over 30 people were killed and about 70 injured. Hooligans have burnt some 400 homes and ransacked others. Mobs pillage neighbourhoods and engage in threats and stone throwing against rivals.
Amid the violence, people fled their homes in Dili so that less than a third of the population slept in their own homes in early June. Over 50,000 went to the districts until the security situation in the city stabilised. The districts remained relatively settled although there is extra pressure because of the influx of people from Dili. There were a further 60,000 living in temporary shelters around Dili. Many of these returned to their homes during the day but most still slept in parishes, church properties and other makeshift camps at night. Conditions in these camps vary. Some had difficulty with proper shelter, food, sanitation, and medicines but most were tolerably serviced as provisional situations. Even so, for those who sleep on the ground, it is cold at night, surrounded by mosquitoes, and hot in the midday sun, surrounded by flies.
Many agencies have responded to the emergency. The Ministry of Labour and Community Reinsertion has assisted those who fled the upsurge in violence around their homes. Religious orders provide refuge, pastoral care and material assistance. Aid agencies supply rice, hygiene kits, tarps, sleeping mats, mosquito nets, cooking sets etc. Oxfam looks to water and sanitation. The Red Cross led by former truth commissioner, Isabel Guterres, is concerned for the victims of violence including care of the dead. Caritas provides emergency relief and is implementing a peace building and reconciliation programme.
Although the situation in Dili is calmer, it remains uncertain. If it remains relatively peaceful then people will return to their homes. Children have begun to return to normal school life. But those who have lost homes are hurt and resentful, and acts of revenge are possible. If they occur, then conditions will get worse. People fear the guns that remain both in unauthorised hands and in those of the mandated forces that have used them for murder and harm.
Many are disappointed that political leaders seem more concerned to protect their careers than their people. Many are sad and confused about the ‘forces’ behind the factions that attacked people and property. Faith in their leaders will not be easily recovered. Many had great hopes for Timor during the struggle for independence. Now they are disheartened by the unnecessary and unexpected violence, and fear for their country’s future. The psychological impact is immense. Recovery will involve establishing safety and trust, as well as enhancing community networks, especially the spiritual and pastoral ones so important in the culture of East Timor. Political management and economic development will challenge both the people of East Timor and the international community.
After the military, police, political leaders and others have acknowledged their faults, it will take time to rebuild again. The leaders of communities must work through the steps to truth and reconciliation. This involves confessing mistakes, showing remorse, seeking forgiveness, and trying to repair the harm committed. Apart from the destruction and looting, moral leadership has been weakened. The work ahead is enormous, but the capacity for heroic leadership resides in all people – politicians, public officials, church servants, village chiefs, international figures, teachers, catechists, advocates of human rights, family members, and so many companions of goodwill.
Addressing the needs of the youth is a priority in the next stage of the development of East Timor. Thousands have been idle and unemployed for too long. Many need vocational training. Reconstruction work itself will be a source of employment for some time. Youth represent the prospects of the nation. Responding to their needs and offering a new spirit of hope is a key priority in contemporary nation building.
For more information: