East Timor
Sr Libby Rogerson of Parramatta Diocese writes from East Timor, where she is a volunteer with Caritas Australia's solidarity program and an official election observer during last Monday's ballot. She reflects on the thoughts and feelings of the people of East Timor during this period of crisis, uncertainty and hope.
    As East Timor balances precariously on the edge of a much dreamt future, the mood is a curious mix of euphoria, apprehension and absolute fear.
    Heady with the sheer joy of an opportunity, after centuries of colonial rule, to actually have a say in the future of East Timor, people laugh, joke and embrace. But this joy is tinged with anxiety and apprehension - the future holds so many questions: What will happen in the transition? Will we be safe from the militia? How will our telephones, our power, our post, our transport work if Indonesia pulls out quickly? Is reconciliation a possibility? And all the while fear is never absent as a desperate militia kill, burn and threaten in a last ditch stand to hold on to the little power they have left. What does the future hold for these young militia quickly to be abandoned by the Indonesians, ostracised by their communities, deserted and penniless?
    The lead up to the ballot was tense and uneasy. Convoys of motorcycles, buses, trucks and taxis crammed with youths, red and white bandannas around their heads, waving flags, daily circled the main towns. The kids are on holidays and they swell the crowd. It was hard to tell how many were there out of conviction and how many there for the new T-shirt, cap, a ride around town, some excitement and a free meal. The police were everywhere - in trucks, helicopters and motorcycles sometimes complicit, mostly unwilling to prevent violence.
    But the people came in their thousands, many walking long distances to vote. Buses and taxis disappeared from the streets once the threats and shootings began. By 5.30am on Monday morning, cheerful, jostling queues had formed outside most polling centres. Nothing, not violence nor intimidation nor distance, would prevent these people from playing their part in determining the future of East Timor.
    Whiel I was touring polling centres in the Comoro area of Dili; I saw an elderly couple lifted from a truck and struggle in on walking frames to the polling centre while another, with drip attached, came from hospital to vote. Given the difficult circumstances, UNAMET's organisation of the elections was excellent and most of the voting was completed by lunchtime. During the ballot sorting process, official observers, the press and other interested people were able to visit the UNAMET centre and witness the procedures. The four Electoral Commissioners held a public hearing to deal with some of the complaints. Every effort has been made to be as open, fair and honest as possible.
    In Caritas East Timor, much of the focus these days is on the people driven from their homes and farms. Concentrated militia attacks in a number of areas have forced more people to flee their homes and go into hiding in the mountains or take refuge in the bigger towns. In the last week a few hundred more have come to Dili. The seminary in Dili is currently giving shelter to 700 refugees, the Salesian sisters have taken in another 200 and others are in makeshift camps on the outskirts of Dili. These are people, driven from their villages by militia attacks, their houses burned and farms destroyed - left with absolutely nothing but fear and panic. Fear stalks the people of East Timor. The violence of the sudden sporadic militia attacks, the unpredictability of daily life and the uncertainty of the future allow for no peace.
    Reports from the parishes indicate that there are about 50,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) in East Timor; the areas of greatest concentration being Dili with around 12,000, Bobonaro 8,000 and Liquica 6,500. Despite recent difficulties in obtaining supplies from Indonesia a new supply of rice, funded by Caritas Australia, has just arrived. Parish teams will distribute this and any available medicine to refugee families in their areas. Being an extraordinarily generous people, many refugees are housed by family and friends. Fr John Herd, a Caritas volunteer from South Australia recently visited refugee families in Dili where there were fifteen to twenty people living in small three room houses. Resettlement of these displaced people poses an enormous challenge for East Timor in the future. Caritas Australia and the other partners of Caritas East Timor will be asked to help in the purchase of basic housing materials, seeds, agricultural implements and domestic animals.
    Along with resettlement must go reconciliation and the mending of wounds, hurts and suspicions - not an easy task. The Diocesan Justice and Peace Commission, the Bishop Belo Centre for Peace and Development, Caritas and other agencies will have an important role to play in this. Caritas East Timor has requested funding for a Community Development Training programme which will involve Caritas staff and leaders from a number of parishes. Essentially Community Development is about working with people in their village and parish communities, supporting them in their efforts to build a better way of life and with them identifying the needs and aspirations of the community. Such a project can make a significant contribution to the development of peace and cooperation.

- Libby Rogerson (Dili, 3 September 1999) 1:36pm 6/9/99

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