A painful process of reconciliation has been completed in the tiny, newly independent nation of Timor Leste in an attempt to heal the effects of 30 years of human rights atrocities.
Last October the East Timorese Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation (CAVR) set up to inquire into human rights violations between April 1974 and October 1999, presented a 2,000-page report to President Xanana Gusmao.
Timor-Leste commissioner, Isabel Guterres, recently told Australians about some of the reasons behind the establishment of CAVR.
Justice cannot be achieved until the truth of what happened comes out – reconciliation cannot be realised by bypassing justice, she said.
‘One cannot begin to inquire into the truth of what happened until the mourning is finished. And mourning does not end until the bodies are properly buried and the spirits of the dead are able to rest at peace.’
The CAVR met a range of survivors – widows, orphans, former political prisoners, rape victims and their families.
‘Those who have experienced such brutal atrocities have found a range of emotional and psychological survival tactics.’
Some chose to forget, others felt they could recover only by remembering.
‘Most wanted to know the reasons and to learn every detail about what happened and who was responsible for the disappearance or death of their husbands, children, parents, siblings, friends and/or colleagues.
‘They wanted to bring those people responsible to justice and so be able to begin to put the past behind them.
‘They said. “we don’t seek revenge but justice, and the perpetrators have to be responsible for their acts.”
‘They wanted reconciliation but reconciliation with justice.’
The seven commissioners worked for three years to accomplish their task.
‘…we have listened to people across our small country who carry heavy burdens, and who have lived long with deep sorrow. We want them to know they have been heard.
‘We want our children to know the history that their parents have lived. By telling their stories, we pay tribute to them.’
East Timor was a colony of Portugal for over four centuries.
In World War II Japan invaded Timor and up to 60,000 East Timorese were killed when suspected of collaborating with Australian soldiers who had landed there a few months before.
Thirty years later in 1975 a civil war broke out and shortly after, the Indonesia military force made a three-pronged invasion of the colony.
Indonesia occupied the territory for over 24 years during which time gross human rights violations were committed.
On 30 August 1999 nearly 80 percent of the population voted for independence in a ballot which unleashed terrible violence. About 250,000 people, about a third of the remaining population, were driven into West Timor while around 300,000 more fled their homes for the relative safety of the mountains.
Some 80,000 homes were burnt, schools and hospitals destroyed. A thousand people were murdered, others assaulted and raped.
‘Yet it was a vote borne of a belief that a peaceful future could only occur when human rights and justice were its foundations,’ Isabel Guterres told a group of supporters in the Victorian town of Ballarat.
The lessons learned from the commission’s work will not be found first in the pages of the report ‘but in the hearts of the victims and on the peaceful streets of their villages.’
The archive of the commission’s work will become an important national resource for generations to come.
There is a long way to go in re-establishing the infrastructure of the country, in the provision of basic healthcare and education ‘and we cannot do it without you,’ Isabel Guterres said.
Meanwhile Timorese have been protesting an agreement between Timor and Australia which delays for 50 years a decision on a permanent maritime boundary in the Timor Sea and ensures a 50:50 royalty split from the Greater Sunrise energy field.