Thursday, June 8, 2006

Letter from East Timor

It wasn’t so long ago (2002) when I wept while I watched on television East Timor’s declaration of independence after being under the Portuguese for 400 years and Indonesia for almost 30 years and Xanana Gusmao taking his oath as the first president.

I was in East Timor so very briefly in 1995 for the Ahi Naklakan Solidarity Tour (Ahi Naklakan is Tetum for light) with human rights activists. After several days we were found out and promptly rounded up by the Indonesian military and brought to the airport.

When independence was nigh in 1999 violence erupted and many were killed, among them religious missionary sisters. Foreign journalists left in haste but thanks to information technology and e-mail, the world knew what was happening there. Even while surrounded by bursts of gunfire, missionaries e-mailed letters some of which I used in this space (``Epistles via e-mail’’, 9/23/99).

East Timor is again in the throes of war. (It is now supposedly the other Christian country in Asia besides the Philippines but what does this mean really?) Here again is a letter from a missionary whom I know and who had worked in the Philippines. She was assigned to East Timor a few years ago. For reasons of security I have removed names from her letter.

``Yesterday 28 May, I decided to temporarily leave East Timor via one of the evacuation flights to Darwin, Australia…

``The situation in Dili (the capital) became more and more chaotic with roaming youth gangs terrorizing the city. They have been burning houses, looting, threatening people, etc. It is a very complex and confusing situation. It is very hard to understand just what is happening.

``Saturday night there were pistol shots in the compound where I live. I was in my house with five Timorese friends who had sought refuge. The complicating factor is that my landlord is related to Prime Minister Alkatiri who is disliked by most of the population. Some of the homes of people related to government officials have been burned. I feared that my place may be burned even though it is at the back end of the Australian Embassy and adjacent to the Australian-East Timorese Defense Cooperation Program compound…

``On Saturday night my friends and I went to the airport and joined other internally displaced persons (IDP) there. We slept under the stars. By yesterday at noontime, the reports said that the situation was becoming more dangerous. The rebels were allegedly on their way to attack Dili.

``Around 1:30 p.m. on Sunday I decided that I would leave the country temporarily…Around 3:00 p.m. I just walked to the airport entrance and told an Australian soldier that I was an American with an Australian visa and would like to evacuate to Darwin…We left Dili around 8:00 p.m. on a C-130 with Timorese and other internationals.

``I am determined to return to Dili once the situation becomes more calm… I am willing to do anything to help East Timor. Let me start by writing what I know has been happening there…

``On the night of 27 May there was heavy shooting near (a Timorese friend’s) home and it continued until Saturday morning. They finally evacuated to a Catholic seminary at Fatumeta about one kilometer from Surik-mas. Yesterday afternoon while I was waiting for my flight to Darwin, I received a text from a friend who is British, that the seminary was being attacked. I immediately informed an Australian soldier at the airport and asked them to send troops to the seminary. Later I received another text message that the attackers were going to burn the vehicles to be used to evacuate the people from the seminary…

``A colleague and his family made it safely to Baucau on Friday afternoon. There was terrible shooting and burning of houses in Becora and Kuluhun since Saturday. (Someone) called me yesterday while I was at the airport and told me that his home and (our NGO’s office) have been burned…

``Other friends of mine have left their homes. There are thousands of IDPs at the airport, church compounds and religious communities. Some have been attacked.

``Around 1,800 Australian troops are on the ground but as far as I know they cannot attack; they can only fire if they are fired upon. One of my friends witnessed a house being burned by gangs in the presence of Australian troops who only fired shots in the air. I was told today there are road blocks put up by the gangs in different parts of the city. I experienced one on my way to the airport yesterday…

``I understand that the Prime Minister is under pressure to resign. President Xanana finally has complete control over the national and international forces. Up until last night Alkatiri was saying that he also was in control of the military forces. The police force collapsed and is totally dysfunctional. This is a very critical period for Timor. I believe that if the Prime Minister steps down now there is a chance that much of the violence will stop. But if he doesn't, I fear there could be all-out war.

``Please pray for us. The people have suffered so much. It is so tragic to see them at makeshift refugee camps. Men, women and children in their tents, on the ground, with kerosene stoves, sacks of rice, plastic bags filled with their belongings, just sitting and waiting, hungry and cold.

``The evening I slept on the ground was quite cool. So far there has been no rain. But if it should rain, I don't know where the people will go. My heart is weeping and I am also so angry with these power hungry men who lead countries for their self-interests and have no concern whatsoever for the people they are supposed to be serving. It is so unjust! Sometimes I just want to scream and ask, `Where is justice?’

``Please keep all of us in your prayers.’’