It has been only two weeks since East Timor became the newest country on the planet, and already it has fallen out of the news. But the triumph of that day, achieved against such impossible odds, will be with me forever. The last time I had seen East Timor, it was over my shoulder. I was retreating with a pack of election monitors and journalists, racing for the last flight out of the country through a gantlet of Indonesian military and militia blockades. They were chasing us away so we wouldn’t witness and report on the destruction they were about to unleash.
At the airport in Dili, there was no security, nobody looked at my bags or documents. I have no stamp showing the date of departure: Sept. 5, 1999. It was the week after the country had voted overwhelmingly for independence after 24 years of brutal occupation by Indonesia.
I had gone to the region as a U.N.-accredited election monitor along with many other solidarity workers. When I returned in May, it was to witness East Timor’s birth as a nation.
I was drawn by memories of those left behind on my first visit–especially the family in whose mountain compound I had bunked–and the memory of my brother, who would have been there if only he could.
At the airport, I again found myself in the midst of solidarity workers and journalists. This time we were not being chased, but welcomed. Instead of militia blockades, there were workers from the United Nations Transitional Administration for East Timor calmly seeing us through customs.
On my previous visit, graffiti scrawled on walls said: “You want freedom … eat rocks.” This time, the road from the airport was lined with fluttering banners for … Coca-Cola.
We election monitors were there three years ago to help make sure the vote was free and fair. It was neither. The intimidation by Indonesian forces was horrific, but 99% of the voters turned out anyway.
Our presence was also intended to help ensure that nothing bad would happen after the vote–the idea being that the Indonesian army wouldn’t try anything with so many foreign witnesses around. In that mission, we failed utterly.
After the election results were announced, we were both forced and allowed to leave. We were helpless to stop a country from being crushed. Guilt over that haunted me and the others who got out.
By the time the carnage ended, nearly 70% of the buildings in the country had been burned–including nearly every school. Militias killed an estimated 1,000 people; a quarter million refugees fled or were forced into West Timor –50,000 of whom remain trapped there.
In the end, though, East Timor survived. And I and the other international solidarity workers were among those invited back to see the flag raised May 20 over a new nation.
I first became involved in the East Timor solidarity movement the week after my brother John died. He had been a lifelong activist, if the word lifelong can be used for someone who lived only to 42. You name the cause, chances are he was involved with it. He was always showing me articles about issues that struck a chord with him, hoping I’d share his passion. In 1997, he was diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer, and exactly one year later, it claimed him.
One of the last articles he’d shown me had been about East Timor, a tiny half-a-country suffering under the illegal occupation of Indonesia since 1975. He wanted me to get involved. When I returned home to L.A. after his death, in my grief I turned to the cause he had handed me.
Working with the East Timor Action Network was pretty much the only thing that got me out of bed during those first months. I knew what that was about: I couldn’t save my brother from suffering or from death, but maybe I could save someone else.
It was selfish, really, but it felt purposeful when nothing else did. We held rallies outside the Indonesian consulate, we hosted fund-raisers, we went to Washington to lobby members of Congress.
And then the day came that people barely dared hope for–Indonesia was going to allow a referendum in East Timor. People would get to vote on whether they wanted continued Indonesian rule or independence. The catch? Indonesia insisted on providing security for the vote.
When I was invited by the International Federation for East Timor to serve as a monitor, my first response was no. I was afraid of getting hurt or killed, of seeing someone else get hurt or killed, of malaria, of dysentery–the list of fears was embarrassingly long. But this vote was everything the solidarity movement had worked toward.
I knew I needed to see it through. And I knew John would have gone if he’d been around.
When invited back for the celebration, my first response was again, no. It was impractical, unaffordable; I couldn’t just drop all my work and travel 24 hours for a big soiree. But then, I was drawn back again. How could I not go?
The circularity called to me, or maybe the Hollywood ending of it. And of course, I thought of John. He was never one to miss a good party.
Back in 1999, I was stationed with a team of six in Ainaro, a cool mountain town of 2,000. We lived in the compound of Rita and Mario Ferreira Sarmento. They had 13 children, not all of whom were home. (One, Steven, was a member of Falantil, the armed resistance movement; he lived in the mountains hiding from and fighting the Indonesian military.)
On the day the vote results were announced, after our team had been recalled to the capital Dili for security reasons, Rita and her family were sitting down to breakfast.
No sooner had the radio aired the news that the vote was overwhelmingly in favor of independence than a militia member set fire to their house.
They had time to grab the children and race out the back door into the mountains. The rest of the town ran too, as every house was systematically burned down. They survived in the mountains living off stream water, bananas and root vegetables for four weeks. I knew none of this at the time. I only knew–as I prayed for them each day–that Rita was the strongest person I’d ever met, and if anyone could save her family, she would. She did.
Two weeks ago, I was staying with Rita and her family in Dili, in another house–the one they had left Dec. 6, 1975, the day they saw men parachuting down from the sky. They fled to Ainaro before the Indonesian attack on Dili began, where the slaughter was so intense that the water in the harbor turned red with blood.
Now the family was back home and Mario had been elected to the new Assembly, representing Ainaro. I finally met Steven, who quit the Falantil after the Indonesians left. He was tired of fighting.
On the night of the independence celebration, I walked with about 200,000 others to Taci Tolo as dignitaries from around the world drove by in their Range Rovers. One East Timorese friend cracked that she didn’t want the dignitaries there, she just wanted the people who’d actually helped over the years.
Ford and Kissinger gave the go-ahead to Suharto for the invasion in 1975, the U.S. had provided nearly all the weapons Indonesia used against East Timor. The ambassador to Indonesia, Stapleton Roy, said in 1999: “Indonesia matters, East Timor doesn’t.”
And yet, during the independence celebration, when Clinton was introduced, the crowd cheered like he was a rock star. In 1999, after weeks of carnage and intense international pressure, Clinton cut off military ties to Indonesia. The Indonesian government was jolted into allowing U.N. peacekeepers into East Timor, and the destruction stopped. It was too little too late, but it wasn’t forgotten by the Timorese.
And, despite a long, bloody occupation, and bitter ending, the Timorese cheered the presence of Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri at the celebration, welcoming her and acknowledging the opposition she encountered from her own government over the visit.
During the ceremonies, I was sitting with Asiri, one of Rita’s sons. During a film tribute to the heroes that showed picture after picture of the fallen who couldn’t see this glorious day, he began to cry. Like every other Timorese, he lost loved ones in this struggle–including close friends tortured to death by the Indonesian military.
Then the living heroes were honored: Falantil soldiers, men and women, filed silently into the arena and up to the stage, through lines of children holding candles. Everyone had suffered so much, and sacrificed so much, to get to this day that the emotion was overwhelming. At midnight, after speeches were made by the new leaders of the country–the flag of the U.N. transitional government was lowered, and the East Timor flag was raised.
There were fireworks and music and dancing into the night. I got to bed as the sun rose on the first day of East Timor’s independence.
In the light of day, it is hard not to be overwhelmed by the amount of work that lies ahead. The U.N. administration, caught up in its own lumbering bureaucracy, has done little to repair East Timor. The newest country is one of the poorest, with an average income below $1 a day, and it faces formidable political, health and social challenges.
As a friend in Dili put it, East Timor was exploited by Portuguese colonial rulers for 400 years, oppressed by Indonesia for 24, run for almost three by the U.N. and is now ruled by people whose only previous experience with governments is in resisting them.
The day before I left, a meeting was held between those in the new government and about 150 solidarity workers to discuss how we and rest of the world could help now: East Timor needs to feed its people and rebuild. It wants grants, not loans that will later trap it in a cycle of debt. It seeks justice and asks for an international war-crimes tribunal. It wants not to be forgotten.
When I said goodbye to Rita in 1999, we burst out crying as we embraced, holding on tightly, not knowing when we’d see each other again, what was to come. This time, again we embraced and cried. But she says she’s coming to the U.S. in 2003. And she expects me back in Dili too.
Last time I came home in shock. I couldn’t bear hearing anyone complain about anything, and the world looked cracked and warped. This time the shock is more subtle. I still can’t bear to hear anyone complain, but oddly, everyone and everything I encounter looks beautiful to me. The grief is gone.
It has been only two weeks since East Timor became the newest country on the planet, and already it has fallen out of the news. But the triumph of that day, achieved against such impossible odds, will be with me forever.
The last time I had seen East Timor, it was over my shoulder. I was retreating with a pack of election monitors and journalists, racing for the last flight out of the country through a gantlet of Indonesian military and militia blockades. They were chasing us away so we wouldn’t witness and report on the destruction they were about to unleash.