By Fr. Ramoncito Padilla sdb
I have been in East Timor for almost ten years now. When I arrived here in 1991, I remember that there were people, among them some of my Salesian confreres, who were saying that the greatest blessing this land had receive was to be integrated to the “great” Republic of Indonesia. It was easy to see why they said that. There were new roads, a lot of infrastructures that were being constructed especially in Dili, schools were being opened, government employees were being paid well, there was modernization. But as the years passed, it proved to me that these things were not enough. If the people were not happy because they are afraid, intimidated and oppressed, what was the use of all these things?
Right to be free
I was in the Parish of Venilale for six years, and I do not exaggerate when I say that every family has a story to tell about how loved ones were apprehended, tortured, killed or “disappeared”. Even after two prominent Timorese, Bishop Belo, SDB and Jose Ramos Horta, received the coveted Nobel Prize in 1996 and helped awaken the world on the terrible suffering of the East Timorese people, the Indonesian military continued to rain down more terror on the Timorese population. Bishop Belo described it as “even worse than before.” Yet, I have seen that even if the damage to East Timorese society as a result of more than two decades of Indonesian military occupation is so overwhelming, the East Timorese people have not given up something they cherish dearly in their hearts – their right to be free.
Not a tear
Everyone here, except the Indonesian Army and the pro-Indonesians, welcomed the news when President Habiebie said he desired that by January 2000 Indonesia should leave East Timor. Jose Ramos Horta “predicted” in a speech: “No tears will be shed by the Timorese people. When the Indonesians finally leave, they will leave behind a country thoroughly destroyed, a society profoundly traumatized by its 23-years savage colonization, a culture of violence, corruption and lies that used to be alien to the East Timorese traditional society prior to 1975.”
Casting ballots amid martial violence
The Timorese were supported to cast their ballots on the 8th of August, but the day for it was postponed for two or three times. Meanwhile, the Indonesian Military and the army-backed Militias continued to remain defiant and were bent on denying the people their hard won rights to choose their future; military goons pointed guns at children, machete-wielding hooligans terrorized the population and killed the unarmed, the army and the Indonesian police supplied the weapons for the violence and then joined in when no one was watching.
The day finally came to cast the ballot. It was the 30th of August 1999. In spite of intimidations and fear, the vast majority of the people went to the polling centers to accomplish their duty. The members of the United Nations Mission in East Timor assisted the people even if there numerous obstacles to a fair, democratic and transpa-rent consultation perpetrated by the Army and the Militias who were supposed to be responsible for creating a climate of peace and tranquility for the population, but were not.
78% for freedom
The outcome of the ballots was easy to predict. He 4th of September will always remain an important date in the history of Timor. The Secretary – General of the United Nations announced to the entire world the result of the Consultation Process. Seventy-eight percent of those who voted rejected the proposed special autonomy for East Timor, this leading the way to East Timor’s total separation from Indonesia. Before the Consultation, Indonesian President BJ Habiebie said, “If the people of East Timor decide for a separation we will do everything to make it happen in peace. We will separate in peace, in honor, as friends and we will live as neighbors and we will assist them within our capabilities.” Those were beautiful words.
The terror began
The very next day after the announcement, the world saw on their television screens how the militias and military started to sow terror among the people throughout the island – burning, lockings and killing, especially in Dili, the capital. And this continued for several days. Thousands of people-men, women and children – were abandon their homes and to Atambua, Kupang, Alor and other places against their will. The Military were ordered to leave Timor, and as they did so, the more they caused havoc.
Our Lady’s House
We continued to pray, and in spite of what was happening around, we Salesians, together with our novices, seminarians and students, decided to stay put and just do our ordinary duties. Our House is still alive. Two or three times we were threatened, but the militias never came. Some were saying it is because Fatumaca is Our Lady’s House – the Shrine of Mary Help of Christians is here - and because Pe. Alfonso Nacher, our nonagenarian who died a few months ago, has been interceding for us. I believe that is true.
Systematic elimination of leaders
We heard in the news that “there has been a systematic persecution of the leaders of the Catholic Church” by the Indonesian Army and the militias. In the Diocese of Dili there were four priests who were killed, and in the Diocese of Baucau, nine gave up their lives (Three deacons, two nuns three workers for the Church and one journalist). The fruit of their sacrifice is now beginning to surface.
Soldier from the Philippines
On the 11th of September, the news began to be a lot better. Several powerful nations promised to send as soon as possible their troops to keep order in the land and to stop the hostilities. On the 12th President Wahid, responding to international pressure, said that the government will allow peacekeeping forces to enter Timor, and at the same time gave authorization for humanitarian aid to be flown to many people who fled to the mountains and elsewhere. After a few days of waiting, which seemed like a thousands days, the international peace-keeping forces, headed by the Australians, did arrive. On the 26th of September, Sunday, I was so happy to meet our soldiers from the Philippines who arrived in our city of Baucau the day before. I have been saying the Sunday Masses for them since then, and have enjoyed speaking with them and teaching them the Timorese language, Tetum.
I am almost sure that East Timor will become the 183rd nation to take a seat in the United Nations. Then, all of us here will be able to shout unlike before, without any fear at all, without any fear at all, with all our hearts’ content: VIVA TIMOR VIVA TIMOR LESTE!