spacer Observations From East Timor
Life in a Time Of Transition Report 

from the Rev. Max Surjadinata

The Rev. Max Surjadinata, a minister of the United Church of Christ in the United States, is serving a six month-appointment by the United Church Board for World Ministries and the Division of Overseas Ministries of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) as a volunteer with the Protestant Church of East Timor (Lorosa’e). Here are some of his observations after his first two months in East Timor, written in April-May, 2000.

April, 2000

In August of last year, I went to East Timor as part of a twelve-member, UN-accredited ecumenical observer team, along with many other internationals from around the world, to observe the UN-sponsored referendum on East Timor. A week later, just one day after the referendum results were announced, I literally had to flee the city in order to escape the mounting terror and violence that subsequently erupted throughout Dili and surrounding areas throughout East Timor. Along with two other remaining members of our delegation, we hurriedly left for Komoro Airport and later that night flew out of the city in a Portuguese government-chartered airplane.

Disgruntled pro-Jakarta militia, aided and abetted by Indonesian soldiers, were unable to accept the voting results when an overwhelming majority of the people of East Timor voted for independence. With incredibly vengeful speed, they mounted a systematic rampage through the land some called “a scorched earth policy,” burnings, destruction, killings and torture were perpetrated on the local population. All the government buildings were totally destroyed, residential areas were burned, automobiles and motorcycles, kitchen appliances, dining and bedroom furniture, furnishings and other household items were looted. Everyone fled to nearby hills; others left for West Timor and other parts of Indonesia or to Darwin, Australia to escape the burnings, killings, looting, shootings and violence.

By September of last year, it was reported that more than 200,000 refugees had been evacuated to West Timor where they continue to live in constant fear of threats by militias (who were also among them as refugees). To date, about one hundred thousand refugees have returned home. Assisted by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees as well as staff from other non-governmental organizations, each day one can see truck loads of people, along with their meager possessions, returning to towns and village they left behind.

On March 13, 200, about seven months after my very first visit, I returned to Dili, East Timor, as a volunteer pastor and administrative consultant to the Synod of the Protestant Church of Timor Lorosa’e. As we landed and all passengers got off the airplane at Komoro Airport in Dili, I was immediately struck by such a difference in atmosphere. Despite the tropical heat, and although it was a very small airport, this time it felt very tranquil and peaceful. Unlike my previous visit, this time all passengers were politely greeted by friendly, smiling United Nations peace-keeping soldiers from Africa who were patrolling the airfield. There was such a striking absence of tension as we arrived. I remember how nervous I felt as I landed for the very first time during my previous visit, as we were immediately greeted by such an overwhelming number of Indonesian military personnel who were fully armed and on full alert. This time, it was a completely different atmosphere. It gave me a strange feeling to see there were no immigration officials waiting at the gate. Only local East Timorese staff in UN uniforms were checking our passports ­ which was a relatively simple procedure.

Upon arrival in the city, I found that, on a surface level at least, normal life appears to have resumed. The streets were filled with many smiling, happy faces of people proudly walking down on city sidewalks. Crowded busses were filled with passengers on their way to the city or going back to their respective towns and villages at night. The old Mercado in downtown Dili, an outdoor marketplace, is bustling with business, crowded each morning with people buying and selling fish, fruits, vegetables and other of life’s daily needs. There are many stalls along the streets where vendors sell popular Indonesian Kretek (cloves) cigarettes, Austrian Victoria, Foster and Tiger beers or fruits and vegetables. And, of course, for those coming from more developed countries, it is amazing to see people selling gasoline in plastic containers for motorists. What if someone inadvertently lights a match? It could burn down the place at once!

Many restaurants are also opening up almost every day, hoping to cater to the mostly international community from UNTAET (United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor) and staff from numerous NGO’s (non-governmental organizations) and Australian entrepreneurs. There are also many business enterprises opening up, especially Australian building contractors, operators of heavy machinery and construction equipment. And of course, lots of military and civilian trucks and tractors can be seen on city streets with heavy tractors and bulldozer clearing empty lots.

Driving around Dili for the first time, however, was a shock to my system. I was filled with anger, sadness and grief all rolled into one upon seeing so many burned out buildings. Most of the government buildings were totally destroyed. Familiar restaurants and bars that I frequented seven months ago were totally destroyed. The Hotel Makota, where I attended a press briefing when the referendum results were announced is now completely gutted. Likewise, the house which our delegation rented for two weeks last August, along with other houses in the entire neighborhood now lies in ruins.

Everyone I talked to had similar stories to tell about those horrible days following the announcement of the referendum results during the first weeks last September. They told of fleeing from their homes to nearby hills, only to return several months later deprived of all their household goods and belongings or in many cases to discover their homes totally destroyed, burned to the ground. I saw many people still sleeping on the floor without mattresses. There are no furniture stores.

The Rev. Francisco Maria de Vasconcelos, General Secretary of the Synod of the Protestant Church of Timor Lorosa’e told me how he and several members of his family and other churches members went hiding in the hills outside Dili two days after the referendum was announced. During the chaos, rumors even spread throughout the world that he had been killed by the militias. From their safe surroundings high on the hills they sat each night watching as red flames engulfed the city of Dili. A pastor and his wife told me that although his church and the parsonage were located in a district near a police station and a military post, militias came to their house and forced them to leave their homes. They returned about three months later to a totally empty home. I was told that out of forty ordained pastors of the Protestant Church in East Timor, only four of them remained last December. Seven pastors have returned thus far leaving a total of eleven ordained clergy to serve more than 20.000 church members throughout the country.

Being in Dili seven months after the rampage, one is left with a surrealistic feeling about life in this land. For example, there is lots of traffic on the city streets, with people driving automobiles, buses , trucks, or motorcycles; yet there are no traffic lights. The city is patrolled by members of the United Nations Civil Patrol, an amalgam of military personnel from contributing countries. The most visible of them are from African counties like Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana.

There are lots of taxis on the streets. And unlike my previous visit, these taxis are late model passenger cars instead of those old ‘clunkers’, broken down ‘junk cars’. One can ride in a Toyota Corolla taxi; or even rent automobiles, trucks or vans from the Thrifty-Rent-A-Car establishments with several branches in several locations throughout the city. And, of course, one cannot avoid running to the many United Nations military vehicles, armored trucks, the UNTAET, WFP (World Food Program), UNHRC (United Nations Human Rights Commission) personnel and automobiles of various aid organizations and agencies such as USAID, Timor Aid, and many others. There are more than forty NGO’s (non-governmental organizations) serving in this land.

While there is electricity and light, and one can even listen to Radio UNTAET, there are no newspapers, no place to buy an aspirin or writing paper, no post office. While local telephone service has been restored, long distance and international calls are made through cellular phones connected through TELSTAR satellite telecommunications in Australia. In the small towns and villages I visited, most stores and businesses have been closed and burned down.

On the waterfront downtown, there is a huge monstrosity called Hotel Olympia ­ an edifice constructed from container boxes put on top of each other that reminded me of those mechano building block toys I used to play with as a child. This so-called hotel serves as the home of many UNTAET staff members and is located right across for the old and stately governor’s office building. Many of the local residents complain that instead of housing their local staff there, UNTAET should have simply repaired and rebuilt the many burned out buildings and houses that were destroyed by the militia. This, in turn, could have provided employment for many of the local residents who are presently unemployed and in this way also renovated the city as well as providing adequate and appropriate housing for many people.

I was told that the present unemployment rate is at a record high of over eighty percent. The daily minimum wage for an average worker is about $5.00 (Australian). As a result, there are long lines of people looking for jobs at various UNTAET offices every day. At times, demonstrations would break out, and Xanana Gusmao, the charismatic leader and head of the CNRT (the organization that formerly directed the struggle for independence from Indonesia) can be seen making speeches trying to calm down demonstrators. In recent months, there has been an alarming rise in crimes such as assaults, street fights, petty larceny and theft; particularly targeted against foreigners. I was physically assaulted with an iron object one evening by two young men in a motorcycle after I refused to give them the money they demanded. I was rushed to the emergency room of the local hospital where I received eight stitches on the right side of my head. There are no elementary or secondary schools at the moment. Many public schools have been closed for almost two years, when many Indonesian teachers left East Timor during the Asian monetary crisis; and, of course, after the UN sponsored referendum on independence. Children receive three hours of instruction daily, mostly from unpaid, volunteer teachers.

There is also the problem of thousands of Timorese students who were formerly enrolled in Indonesian universities are now unable to return. They now need passports to enter Indonesia, and also many of them are unable to pay their tuition fees. I was told that this problem was one of the topics of discussion when President Abdurachman Wahid visited East Timor last February. It remains to be seen how this urgent problem will be resolved. Many graduate students complain that many jobs now require proficiency in English or Portuguese, to the dismay of many. After twenty four years under Indonesian occupation, Indonesian remains as one of the operative every day languages, while Tetun is the spoken language in conversation.

It is interesting to see on Sunday how many worshipers carry their Bibles to church; the readings are simultaneously translated into Tetun as the reader reads from an Indonesian bible during Sunday worship.

The Protestant Church in East Timor

In this second part, I would like to present some general observations concerning church life in the Protestant Church during this period of transition in Timor Lorosa’e. I am grateful to members of the Synod of the Protestant Church of Lorosa’e, for their generous and warm hospitality during my stay, for introducing me to church leaders and members of congregations in several towns and villages I visited. I also spoke with various members of local NGO’s and other community leaders and individuals around Dili and elsewhere.

From the many conversations I had with both clergy and laity in various congregations, I quickly discovered that the Protestant Church in East Timor has a very short history and its origin probably dates back the early nineteen forties or early fifties when several families in the Bacau region came in contact with foreign visitors and were given copies of the Bible to read. Not long afterwards, informal family groups began to meet on a regular basis for bible readings and prayers. Soon other families began to form similar groups, organized simply for regular bible readings, discussions and prayers.

We should note that this was a period when the Roman Catholic Church was the single, officially-recognized religion in this then-Portuguese colony (although the majority of the population are adherents of native local religions), and only priests were allowed to read and interpret the Bible to the people. There was no official registry noting one’s religious affiliation. This only came during the period of Indonesian occupation, when people were registered and identity cards specifically included religious affiliation. As people told me about the formation of what came to be known as the Protestant church, it reminded me very much of that period (in Europe) prior to the Protestant Reformation. During the present transition period after the August, 1999, UN-sponsored referendum, the Roman Catholic Church continues to be the officially recognized religious voice in East Timor. It is still regarded as the majority religion among the population and accepted as the only religious representative in the National Consultative Council (NCC) within the present United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor.(UNTAET).

In the history of the Protestant church in East Timor, it is safe to say that the church grew in membership during the period of Indonesian occupation, reaching a total membership of about 35,000 members, with a total of 44 ordained clergy and 52 trained evangelists. During the early years of the Indonesian occupation, many of Indonesians, particularly those who were employed as government administrators, civil servants and active members of the Indonesian armed forces, became active members of local Protestant churches. They played a significant role in the life of their local congregations and, to a great extent, contributed to the growth of Protestant churches in Timor. This also brought these local congregations to develop and maintain closer communion with the churches in Indonesia that by July 9, 1988, the Protestant Church of East Timor officially became a part of the Indonesian Communion of Churches (PGI) and came to be known as Synode Gereja Kristen Timor Timur (GKTT).

The church’s growth was largely due to the fact that during the years of Indonesian occupation most Indonesian Christians were Protestants. It is also important to note that, just as most Timorese students began to study in various institutions of learning in Indonesia, many church leaders and pastors also took their undergraduate and theological education in Indonesian theological schools. And this has led to the adoption of a church polity system very similar to Indonesian Protestant churches.

One of the negative consequences of this relationship has been that through the years of associating with the Indonesian Communion of Churches (PGI), the Protestant Church in East Timor came to be perceived by many among the population as a “pro- integration church.”

The late Rev. Vincente Ximenes de Vasconcelos, became the first moderator when the Synod of the Synode Gereja Kristen Timor Timur (“The Christian Church of East Timor” in the Indonesian language). His son, the Rev. Francisco de Vasconcelos, is presently the General Secretary of the Synod, while the current Moderator, the Rev. Arlindo Marcal is serving his second term in office. It was during his first term in office that Rev. Marcal began to speak about the need of the Protestant Church of East Timor to have an independent voice, apart from the Indonesian Communion of Churches. Through his courageous efforts, the Protestant Church of East Timor independently sought membership in the World Council of Churches, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and Asian Conference of Churches. Rev. Marcal eloquently pleaded the case for the right of the Protestants in East Timor. As a result, he received many overseas invitations, and participated in many international consultations and conferences. This, in turn, brought many overseas church leaders and representatives to East Timor for ecumenical visits.

Following the referendum, many pastors left for West Timor and other parts of Indonesia, leaving only about eleven pastors who are now serving approximately twenty thousand church members throughout the region. Many churches have been partially or totally destroyed by pro-Jakarta militias who were assisted by members of the Indonesian armed forces. In some cases, pro-Jakarta church members and even pastors themselves participated in burning and looting their own church properties. Many of these pastors who fled as refugees also took with them automobiles and other possessions of the Protestant Church. This was the case in Hera, a small village on the outskirts of Dili and in the town of Liquisa, where the church building and parsonages were completely destroyed.

In the wake of the vote for independence on August 30, 1999, the Protestant Church of Timor Lorosa’e finds itself in a state of disarray. It remains to be seen whether those who fled West Timor (including many pastors) and other parts of Indonesia will ever return, although some families are gradually coming back. Many churches, especially those in cities such as Dili, have seen drastic reductions in membership. Large congregations with two or three ordained clergy and paid administrative staff, and whose membership was drawn from the ranks of civil servants and members of the Indonesian armed forces, were particularly hit hard by this exodus.

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