Subject: FC: East Timor slowly rises from the ashes

Florida Catholic Sept. 21, 2000

The struggle for freedom Predominantly Catholic East Timor slowly rises from the ashes after 24 years of occupation.

Stephen Steele 
DILI, East Timor

When anti-independence militias went on a rampage in East Timor last September, destroying most of the country's infrastructure and killing more than 1,000 people, it marked a bloody end to the final chapter of nearly 500 years of colonial rule and occupation.

East Timor had gained its independence, but at a heavy price. More than 300,000 people were killed or died of starvation during Indonesia's 24-year occupation of East Timor, estimates the justice and peace commission of the Dili and Baucau dioceses.

An East Timorese woman weeps in the churchyard in Suai, East Timor, where several hundred refugees were killed on Sept. 6, 1999. 
Photo by Stephen Steele.

"The violence could have been prevented. The same thing has happened in other parts of the world. It was predictable that the same thing would happen in East Timor," said Constancio Pinto, East Timor's representative to the United States and United Nations.

"If there had been pressure before the referendum then that could have prevented Indonesia from destroying the entire country, killing so many people, and forcing the migration of over 250,000 people," Pinto told The Florida Catholic.

Pinto fled East Timor in 1991 shortly after an incident at a cemetery in Dili in which 271 people were killed by the Indonesian military during a protest he helped organize. He also organized the Oct. 12, 1989, protest during a Mass celebrated by Pope John Paul II in which members of a Catholic scout group held up banners demanding a referendum on independence.

Following the protest at the papal Mass, once scout was killed, while dozens of others were arrested and tortured, Pinto said.

"The whole world knew how cruel the Indonesian military could be. Some say it was a miracle to have a referendum in East Timor. I say it wasn't. It was the outcome of 24 years of struggle."

At the heart of the struggle was the Catholic Church. The church, the only Timorese institution allowed to operate under Indonesian rule was often an outspoken critic of Indonesia.

Less than 30 percent of East Timor's population was Catholic prior to the Dec. 7, 1975, invasion by Indonesia. Today, more than 90 percent of the country is Catholic, making it one of the most densely Catholic countries in the world.

The East Timorese turned to the church, Pinto said, because the church protected the people. During the first few years of the resistance, priests joined guerilla fighters in the jungle.

"They worked for the church and prayed in the jungle. Because of that, the number of Catholics increased. And as their numbers increased, the resistance as a whole was strengthened," he said.

Perhaps the watershed event of the resistance occurred on Feb. 6, 1989, when Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo wrote to the U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar calling for a democratic referendum on whether the East Timorese wanted to remain a part of Indonesia.

"The people of Timor ought to be heard through a plebiscite on their future," Bishop Belo wrote. "In the meantime, we are dying as a people and as a nation."

In 1996, Bishop Belo and Jose Ramos Horta, the international spokesman of East Timor's resistance movement, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. While visiting the Vatican later that year, Pope John Paul II told Bishop Belo that he hoped that the Nobel Prize "will be a shield" and enable the bishop "to work more for peace" in East Timor.

In 1998, the Asian economic crisis intensified in Indonesia. In May of that year, longtime President Suharto resigned under pressure. Military rule in Indonesia continues, but demands for a democratic referendum in East Timor grew.

A woman grieves at her husband's grave in Atabe, East Timor, about 3 miles from the West Timor border.
Photo by Stephen Steele.

In January 1999, Indonesian President B.J. Habibie announced that a referendum would be held in East Timor on autonomy under Indonesian rule that if rejected would pave the way for East Timor's independence. The referendum would be sponsored by the United Nations, but Indonesia would provide security.

As the Aug. 30 vote nears, violence at the hands of paramilitary groups, supported, trained and financed by the Indonesian military, intensified. In April 1999, the Catholic church in Liquica, where several hundred refugees are residing, was attacked. Eyewitnesses said up to 200 people were killed. Indonesia lists the death toll at 16.

Both Bishop Belo and Bishop Basilio do Nascimento of Baucau requested the presence of international peacekeeping troops, fearing that more people will be killed.

In the week before the referendum, Bishop Belo's life is threatened. A flier was circulated in Dili. "To the bishop: for now your robe is white. But it will soon be covered in the color of your own blood," it read.

The results of the vote were announced Sept. 4. Nearly 80 percent vote in favor of independence. East Timor descended into anarchy and violence. Bishop Belo's home was attacked Sept. 5, forcing the bishop to flee the country.

The next day, several hundred people were slaughtered at a church in Suai in southwest East Timor. Among those killed are three priests. On Sept. 11, Father Karl Albrecht, director of Jesuit Refugee Services is murdered in Dili.

More than 250,000 East Timorese were forced into squalid refugee camps in West Timor or other Indonesian islands. U.N. troops were finally dispatched to East Timor Sept. 20, but their presence still doesn't stop the killing. Six days later, retreating Indonesian troops murder two Canossian sisters along with several others while delivering aid to refugees.

The United Nations is providing a transitional administration, with a gradual transfer of leadership to an East Timorese government to be complete in two years.

"The East Timorese over these years knew there would be an end to the war, to the violence. We knew we would win the struggle," Pinto said.

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