Over the last ten years I have had the opportunity to travel to East Timor on five different occasions, to have made many friends there, and to have worked on a fairly regular basis with José Ramos-Horta, one of this new democracy’s “founding fathers.” Along the way, I have an opportunity few have in their lifetimes — to witness, from the ground, a country’s birth and growth, from the ashes of conflict to a vibrant, new democracy.
East Timor, now called Timor-Leste, is a small island at the bottom of the Indonesian archipelago. It is just North of Darwin, Australia. A Portuguese colony for 400 years, from 1975 to 1999 it was occupied by Indonesia. One third of their population had perished under the occupation. Torture centers had been commonplace in the cities. Women forcibly sterilized. And more.
In 1999, after a UN sponsored referendum allowed the citizenry to vote for their independence, Indonesia-backed militia were unleashed and virtually burned the country to the group. 85% of the buildings — virtually every school, every business, were burned.
During my first trip, in 2000, we drove and walked past the scars of conflict all around us. Some of the roads were littered with burned out buses overturned by the side of the road. Buildings that had once been businesses, schools and homes now stood charred and uninhabitable.
The country was under UN administration at the time. Armed Personnel Carriers traveled the roads.
Yet a sense of optimism was in the air. It had been a very long winter, figuratively. But the clouds were breaking. Spring would be on its way soon.
Life was hard. It was a country, as many post conflict countries are, of young people and widows. Every family had a horror story. Power was scarce, jobs even more so. The buffalo used to work the fields had been slaughtered or stolen by the militia. Trucks were either stolen or purposely and permanently disabled. If you were still able to grow or catch something, it was hard to even get it to market.
But more than anything else, I remember being struck by the spirit of the Timorese people. Everyone had a living nightmare in recent memory. Most had lost family members. But now, in 2000, it was time for laughter. And tales of the resistance out on the veranda, by candlelight. On a drive to Bacau, the second largest city on the island, we turned a corner in our SUV and suddenly the road was filled with singing children. It was a Catholic feast day. While the children were in a procession, dressed as angels and monks, he adults, dressed in traditional costume, were dancing with drums and chewing on betel nut on the hillside.
In Dili, children and adults alike would shout out greetings to you as you walked down the street. A grocery store had opened in town, called Hello Mister — in honor of the phrase one heard over and over from the children walking and riding bikes on the streets. Things were difficult, yes. But the spirit was unmistakeably there.
In May of 2002 I was again in Dili, for the country’s independence celebration. I was webcasting it with UN Foundation. The UN was wrapping up its two and a half year administration of the country. Trucks were packing for Afghanistan.
The UN and other international NGOs had educated the population on democracy and held the first elections for the country’s Parliament, which would go on to write the nation’s Constitution. The first Presidential election had swept Xanana Gusmao, the leader of the resistance, into office. Roads had been rebuilt, communications restored, lives put back together.
Taci Tolo, the salt marshes that political prisoners had been been dropped live from helicopters into, had been filled, planted and consecrated as a peace park. It was here that they held their independence celebration. It was here that the UN turned over the reins of the country to the new Timorese government. It was here that East Timor’s flag was officially raised for the fist time.
There were plenty of dignitaries in the stands. Kofi Annan, Bill Clinton. The President of Indonesia walked in arm in arm with the President, signifying a crucial reconciliation between the nations.
I sat in the sand, just behind the fence, with the Timorese. I was one of very few white people in that section, and I liked it that way. One, because I had one of the best views in the house of the celebration. And it was spectacular, full of music, dancing, children, and tributes to the men and women who had fought in the resistance and had lost so much. More than that, when everyone around me stood up, put their hands over their hearts and sang the national anthem, I was fully immersed in a moment that would become one of the indelible moments of my life.
In the years since, I have worked off and on with José Ramos-Horta, bringing him to events and conferences, networking for Timor, acting as a media liaison, at times being an editor. I have stayed in touch with friends there and happily returned in 2005 with Paul Simon (yes that Paul Simon) to launch distribution of 4000 mosquito nets. In 2006 I was in New York with Ramos-Horta, attending the UN Security Council as part of the East Timor delegation. We were having dinner with celebrities, he was meeting with dignitaries. There was talk at the time — serious talk — of his being in the running for Secretary General of the UN.
Then his country blew up in conflict again — this time civil conflict started by a renegade group in the army. Homes were being torched again. 150,000 people would be displaced.
Ramos-Horta left his UN aspirations behind in New York and returned home, to work to restore calm on his island.
I spoke to him back in Timor during this period. He had stepped in as caretaker Prime Minister. He described walking down streets at 3 am with no security, to confront a group of youth getting ready to torch a home. He had spoken to them, they had put down theirimplements and go home. Under his leadership the country calmed down again. Before long he had peace building programs going, even employing the youth who had been involved in the 2006 destruction to help rebuild the city.
I was with Ramos-Horta again in 2008 at the tail end of that conflict. But this time he was in Darwin, in a safe house, recovering from an assassination attempt that had planted three bullets close to his spine, tearing nerves across his abdomen and sending him a sixteenth of an inch from death. I sat in the living room of his safe house and edited his first written piece, for CNN.com. When he returned home, the streets were lined with Timorese cheering him home. The renegade soldiers had filed down from the mountain and turned in their weapons. On his return, their leader came and laid his weapons at Ramos-Horta’s feet. It was over.
Last year I was back, for two months in September and October. East Timor, now Timor-Leste, is a different place. The first thing I noticed coming in from the airport is the new Toyota dealership. And then the motorbikes. Young people, lively, buzzing, shouting to each other through their helmets. Going to work, going to the market for food, bringing children home from school.
With double digit growth for three years running, helped by oil revenues, their economy is strong. There are jobs. There are international bike races, fishing contests off of their pristine coast. No it is not perfect. But the country is in an entirely new era. It has achieved what those resistance fighters dying in the mountains less than two decades ago probably didn’t dare dream about as they fell asleep at night.
Twenty four years in exile, José Ramos-Horta walked the halls of the UN, flew around the world, slept on the couches of friends, talked to any group who would listen, to save his people from annihilation. It was his efforts more than any other person’s that led to the powers that be to eventually agree to the referendum that would end the occupation in 1999. Alone in New York, separated from his family, working against an unbreakable military alliance between the US and Indonesia, representing freedom fighters in a Cold War environment, he must have only hoped he would see his country again, much less that they would be able to achieve independence.
When he returned to the country in 1999, Ramos-Horta became an integral part of the UN operations that established the democratic structure and foundation of the country. He has been the international face, the negotiator, the reconciliator, and even the patriarch, walking his country to this moment.
In April, Timor-Leste has held its first, completely peaceful Presidential election without international intervention standing guard. And nothing erupted.
On May 20, they celebrated the tenth anniversary of what the Timorese refer to as their Restoration of Independence, the day the UN handed the reins of the country over to their newly elected President and Parliament, and Timor-Leste stood on its feet as the millennium’s newest democracy.
The first new nation of our century has emerged from the dark and violent past, and is moving forward with its own momentum, in a new day.
We will wait to see where José Ramos-Horta goes next. But we can be sure of this — Timor-Leste is a model of how it’s done. And he has the blueprint.
We are so fortunate to have him involved in our team on TheCommunity.com. We hope you will take the time to find out more about the country and its history, and we look forward to bringing you more on this Nobel Peace Prize winner’s incredible journey as it unfolds.