Subject: RT: East Timorese eye Olympic arena after battlefield

Reuters August 1, 2000

East Timorese eye Olympic arena after battlefield Mary Binks

Darwin - When the first Olympian of the world's newest country takes his place among other athletes at the opening of the Sydney 2000 Games, he will march in white and carry no national flag.

East Timor may not yet have its own flag, but Olympic boxer Victor Ramos is just grateful to be alive.

Ramos, 30, will shoulder more than a burden of hope. He represents a tiny nation of 800 000 people that has emerged from 25 years of bloodshed and oppression, and more recently, been a punching bag for pro-Jakarta militias and rogue Indonesian troops.

"We pray to God and ask his help in winning a medal for Timor," Ramos told Reuters Television during a break in his training regimen in Australia's northern city of Darwin.

"We'd be so proud because we're a new nation and it's the first time we've been represented at the Olympics."

East Timor's nine Olympic hopefuls have little more than six weeks to make the grade. But they are no strangers to struggle.

Their homeland, a former Portuguese colony, was invaded by Indonesia in 1975 and annexed the following year in a move never recognised by the United Nations.

In August last year, the East Timorese voted overwhelmingly for independence in a UN-held ballot. Many paid with their lives as well-armed pro-Jakarta militias, unwilling to accept the result, let loose an orgy of violence and destruction.

Ramos was Indonesia's champion boxer. He won silver in the 1997 Southeast Asian Games and had competed in Italy, India, Uzbekistan and Japan.

But he was considered a traitor when he began teaching his East Timorese compatriots how to vote in last year's referendum that offered the territory the chance to break free from Jakarta's rule.

Even before the referendum, he was beaten and threatened by pro-Indonesian militias preparing to wreak revenge if the territory opted for independence.

"I was scared to death because the militia were looking for me," said Ramos, fingering a large ceramic medallion of the Virgin Mary round his neck. "My name was on a list of people to be killed."

Barely escaped with his life

Ramos took his wife and two small sons into the mountains behind the East Timor capital Dili, carrying only a sack of rice and a dog-eared photograph album.

"I had never expected the violence would be as terrible as it was. We saw a lot of people die, and we knew the rumours of executions were true," said Ramos, sweat running down his sinewy limbs.

"I had already been threatened. They told me, 'You wait, your day is coming. When they announce the result (of the referendum), you watch. If we lose we will wipe your people out. People like you who claimed Indonesia's name but now want independence, we will track you down and kill you all'."

East Timor's Olympic aspirations centre on a small team of boxers, kick-boxers, weightlifters and track-and-field athletes. Now training in Darwin because they have few facilities back home, fewer than half can expect to compete in the Olympics in September because of performance standards set for competing.

They were lucky to make it this far.

All were late entrants and were allowed to compete only after a decision by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in May.

Training in East Timor would have been near impossible. There, marathon runners had trained in bare feet, and the weightlifters hoisted the branches of trees to stay in form.

For Ramos, a security guard for the UN transitional administration, his salary of $144 a month was sufficient only to feed his family. It did not stretch to the luxury of training.

Spirit to compete runs deep

Ten months ago, 30-year-old Ucthoc Flaminggo was still on the run from the Indonesian military because he had joined the underground independence movement. He had been a wanted man for years, a death warrant on his head since adolescence.

When Australian-led peacekeepers arrived in the territory to restore order following last year's violence, Flaminggo came out of hiding.

With a passion for taekwondo, he took up the call to represent his country. But it would not be that easy. Departing Indonesian troops and militia had destroyed virtually everything.

"We tried to train but we had no equipment at all. We had nothing," said Flaminggo, whose training regimen is such that he sleeps less five hours a night.

"We have invested all our hopes, we have given our hearts to Timor to show the world that in East Timor there is more than just death and destruction, we still have the spirit to compete."

As a boy, Flaminggo was trained in taekwondo by the Indonesians for eight years. He had shown promise. But then he entered a clandestine war against Jakarta - a struggle that cost the lives of family and friends.

Now out of hiding, Flaminggo, who also is training in Darwin, could face his old foes across the Olympic stage.

"We have to face the Indonesians," he said. "We have to be brave, and we have to face it. They are one nation and we are now our own nation. If we have to face it, we will."

The Sydney 2000 Games will be the first time East Timorese have actually taken part in the Olympics.

They brush off any disappointment about the stipulation that their uniforms be a neutral white - in Asia, the colour of mourning - and carry no national symbol.

They say they are happy just to compete, and happy to show the world that they still have the spirit to do so. 

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