Subject: Timor-Leste: Reflections on the 10th anniversary of independence

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Timor-Leste: Reflections on the 10th anniversary of independence

Submitted by <> Gabriela Leite ... on Thu, 09/10/2009 - 15:20.

After hundreds of years of being a colony, in 1999 the United Nations administered a popular consultation, which allowed the people of <>Timor-Leste to decide in a referendum whether they wanted to become an independent state. I was 15 years old when the referendum took place. Just a few weeks before the consultation day, my family dropped me off on the <>island of Flores to attend high school. I remember clearly that as I waited on the dock of the ferry that took me away from the capital city of <>Dili, I prayed for peace to my country. I swore only to return after my country found its final freedom from colonization.

On the morning of August 30, 1999, I sat in my literature class listening to my teacher and other classmates discussing Timor-Leste and its future. My classmates asked my teacher why the Timorese wanted independence. My teacher looked at me and asked, “What do your parents think of this referendum? Do they also want Timor-Leste to become independent?” Fearing for the safety of my family and myself, I looked away and said that I had no idea where my parents stood on this issue. My heart ached to scream “Viva Timor Leste!” ­ but I knew full well that it would be asking for trouble to do that. That evening, sitting in front of TV, along with my other flat mates, we watched how the Timorese were dressed up early in the morning to go to the polling place. Many were dancing “dahur”, a Timorese traditional dance, as the long awaited day had finally arrived.

I was overwhelmed with pride. I knew that it was indeed our independence day! So, it wasn’t a big surprise for me when five days later, the <>United Nations Mission in East Timor (UNAMET) announced that the majority of Timorese had rejected the special autonomy option that was offered by the Indonesian government. My Timorese friends and I called home to see how our families were doing. We were surprised by the sounds of gunfire in the background. Our families informed us that the militias were shooting at anyone who supported the liberation of Timor-Leste. The happiness I just felt was soon replaced by fear.

For the next thirty days, I watched on TV how many places in Timor-Leste were completely burned down and destroyed. Every night I followed the news, trying to see familiar faces on TV, but I saw none of my family or friends. Finally at the beginning of October, my family contacted me to let me know that they were safe and were in Kupang, Indonesia, as refugees. A week later I joined them in Kupang. With many other refugees, we returned home by ship. I was shocked to see how Dili looked when the ship got closer to the harbor. Everything was gone. But the fear I saw a few weeks before was replaced with pride. I agreed that despite the loss, it was great to know that we were finally free.

Last month, on August 30, the young nation of Timor-Leste celebrated the 10th anniversary of the referendum. Ten years later, Dili’s main streets are full of colorful flags, banners and people coming to celebrate. People walked the streets waving Timor Leste flags proudly. Dili became much more crowded than usual with guests visiting from all over the world to participate in this remarkable event.

Ten years ago, it was heart breaking to see the city totally destroyed. It was difficult to find basic needs such as soap or sandals in the city. But a lot of has changed during the last ten years. I am glad to see all these positive changes that are taking place right now.

The changes now are clearly visible. Every week, two new schools are built and more students are going to school than ever before. Government revenue from oil is starting to trickle down through the economy and more jobs are being created. In spite of the challenges Timor-Leste faces as a young nation, I am optimistic that this country will prosper and will be known as a safe home for its people.

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