Subject: Father Francisco Fernandes Humanitarian 1936-2005 

The Sydney Morning Herald Saturday, September 24, 2005

He fought East Timor's good fight

Jill Jolliffe

Father Francisco Fernandes Humanitarian 1936-2005

Father "Chico" Fernandes, who has died at 69 from cancer, provided leadership and comfort to thousands of distressed refugees forced over the border into camps in Indonesia during its 1975 invasion of what was then Portuguese Timor.

He was elected to represent the 18,000 people in Atambua camp, and interceded regularly on their behalf with Indonesian authorities, refusing army demands that the East Timorese adopt Indonesian nationality.

Twenty-three years later Fernandes played a role in creating a united, democratic resistance body at a convention in Peniche, Portugal, which paved the way for United Nations-led independence talks for Timor. He convinced the senate of Liurais, the country's traditional chiefs, to take part in the convention.

Speaking from Dili on Thursday, Timor's President, Xanana Gusmao, said this had been "crucial" in enhancing national unity. A few years previously Gusmao had criticised Fernandes for his involvement with a dissident resistance faction advocating talks with the Indonesian military. He said on Thursday Fernandes "had the singular courage to shift from a position which he acknowledged as wrong to openly [supporting] the resistance".

The youngest of eight siblings, Francisco Maria Fernandes was born into a noble family. He was marked by the 1942 execution of his father at Japanese hands, after he assisted Australian troops disembarking from the warship Voyager, which had run aground at Betano.

Postwar criticism of Portugal's colonial policies led to a widening of educational opportunities in Timor, mainly for children of traditional chiefs. Thus it was that Fernandes entered the Jesuit seminary at Dare, near Dili, then went to the Sao Jose seminary in Macau, where he studied physics.

He was a reluctant recruit to the priesthood. On graduation he wrote to Bishop Dom Jaime Goulart requesting permission to continue higher studies in physics. Back came the reply: "Timor doesn't need physicists, it needs missionaries." And so his lot was cast.

Science's loss was East Timor's gain. Many today owe their survival to the independent-minded priest's campaign against the unjust invasion.

He began work as a parish priest in Timor in 1955, in the border town of Maliana, and in the mountain districts of Ainaro, Soibada and Ermera. He had hoped to be posted to Dili, but later said this experience had been the richer one: "Life far from urban centres allowed me to see the suffering and real needs of the common people," he told the Macau newspaper Rai Timor in 1996.

He clashed with established power in the 1960s when he decided to restore a mountain chapel at Aitara, a popular Catholic pilgrimage site, at his own expense. Church authorities told him to cease the work because, according to his account, they feared the Portuguese secret police might interpret it as a nationalist gesture. He defied his superiors and the restoration was completed without incident.

He was working in Ainaro in April 1974 when the Portuguese dictatorship was overthrown in Lisbon by radical military officers who announced the decolonisation of African and Asian territories. In a little over a year civil war erupted in East Timor and a horde of refugees, principally from the defeated UDT party, fled over the border to West Timor.

The Indonesian army awaited them, insisting they could have sanctuary only if they agreed to return and fight against the victorious Fretilin nationalist party. Some returned accompanying Indonesian troops, but the majority were concentrated around Atambua, little better than hostages of Jakarta.

The priest succeeded in smuggling a letter describing their plight to the Portuguese foreign minister, Ernesto Melo Antunes. It was carried out of Atambua camp in the shoe of a Dutch bishop.

The eventual result was an airlift of thousands of people to Portugal in July 1976, in a one-off deal negotiated between Lisbon and Jakarta. On arrival in Lisbon, Fernandes became one of the first Timorese to publicly denounce Indonesia's actions, at a time when fear had silenced even the most radical exiles.

As the refugees settled into bleak camps in Portugal, the story slid from the headlines. But Fernandes's reputation remained solid as an independent figure who united the community in adversity and kept the flame of cultural resistance alive. In 1979 he spoke at the UN in favour of East Timorese self-determination.

That same year Fernandes moved to Western Australia, where he acted as chaplain to the refugee community, and studied political science and history at Murdoch University. He later completed an MA at Macau University with a thesis on the early years of the Catholic Church in Timor.

He resumed regular priestly duties in 1989, in Macau, where he led demonstrations against the Indonesian occupation and organised sanctuary for 400 youths fleeing persecution.

He continued in Macau until his death, returning only briefly to his homeland for independence ceremonies in 2002. At his request his body will be returned to his village of Laclo.


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