A Victory of Faith: The Birth of East Timor

It was midnight on May 20, 2002. The flag had just been raised, the national anthem sung, and the world’s newest nation was born. I turned to the man next to me, a priest who was the first from his country to be exiled. His name was Rev. Francisco Maria Fernandes, and he’d lived in exile for a quarter of a century. Had he ever believed he’d live to see the day when his country would be free? “Yes, I did,” he smiled. “All around the world, during our struggle, people asked me: ‘Why do you carry on? You are fighting a losing battle. The world will never help you; the oppressors will never let you go. Why don’t you just give up?’ But we had one thing those people did not know about. We trusted God. This was a victory of faith.”

East Timor’s liberation was indeed a victory of faith—one in which the Catholic Church played a crucial part. After 400 years as a Portuguese colony, the prospect of freedom appeared fleetingly in 1975 when Portugal with-drew from the tiny half-island. East Timor quickly declared independence, but freedom was snatched away when, just a few days later, Indonesia invaded. In the brutal 24-year occupation that followed, a quarter of the population died. Many were shot by the Indonesian military, or tortured to death, while others died of starvation and disease.

After the fall of Indonesia’s President Suharto in 1998, East Timor’s fortunes changed, although not without further bloodshed. Suharto’s successor, B. J. Habibie, stunned everyone by agreeing to allow the United Nations (UN) to conduct a referendum on East Timor’s future. Despite being held in the most intimidating atmosphere, 98 percent of the people turned out to vote on August 30, 1999, and 78.5 percent chose independence from Indonesia. The Indonesian military and the militia gangs they had recruited, armed, and directed unleashed a further wave of violence resulting in the killing of thousands, the displacement of 200,000, and the complete destruction of the island’s infrastructure. Eighty percent of the buildings in the capital, Dili, were destroyed. In outlying villages, the telephone networks were cut, houses burned, furniture looted.

For several weeks the country was ransacked while the world stood idly by. Finally, after a telephone call from President Bill Clinton, Habibie agreed to accept the result of the referendum, withdrew Indonesian troops, and allowed an international Australian-led peacekeeping force to restore order. The peacekeepers, known as the International Force for East Timor (INTERFET), were replaced a short time later by UN peacekeepers and a UN transitional government. Two and a half years later, they handed over full sovereignty to the East Timorese.

Amil, a 15-year-old street boy, was the first person I met in East Timor, just five months after the referendum. He approached me outside a little hotel on the seafront, just half an hour after I arrived in the country. With a gentle smile and in broken English, he said, “My mother—dead.” He drew his index finger down his stomach and demonstrated the action of pulling out his intestines. “My mother, with baby—both dead.”

I reached out to place my hand on his shoulder, as he continued with his graphic account. “My father dead, too,” he said, indicating a thrusting movement of a spear going through his stomach. “And my big brother, too,” he added, describing how his brother’s attackers had burned both sides of his face with cigarette butts before hacking off his arms with machetes.

Amil stood before me, homeless, orphaned, desperate. He had witnessed these horrors with his own eyes. But he wasn’t unusual. For thousands of other East Timorese men, women, and children, their liberation is bittersweet. The burden of pain and trauma and the challenge of reconstruction that confronts Asia’s poorest nation mean that five years after the bloody referendum, East Timor’s struggle is not over. Gone is the armed struggle, the fear of rape and torture and death. But these fears have been replaced with a struggle against poverty, disease, illiteracy, unemployment—and for justice, reconciliation, and the resources that are rightfully theirs.

How to Build a Nation

East Timor has the potential to create an economy based on oil, coffee, and eco-tourism, but it’s hampered by one major obstacle: reaching a fair deal with Australia over the oil in the Timor Gap. For the richest country in the region to deny the poorest, newest nation what rightfully belongs to it—after all it has gone through—seems an extraordinary act of avarice. And yet, there it is.

The oil and gas reserves of the Timor Sea could yield royalties of more than $30 billion, which would help East Timor move beyond dependency on international donors. But the nation has inherited the legacy of a maritime boundary drawn up between Indonesia and Australia, which granted Australia extremely favorable terms in return for turning a blind eye to the brutal annexation and occupation of East Timor. When East Timor became independent, it tried to renegotiate the terms with Australia, but the maritime boundary is still disputed. Under Australia’s proposal, East Timor would be entitled to just 18 percent of the revenues from the richest oil fields, known as Greater Sunrise, while Australia would gain 82 percent—despite the fact that some of the oil fields lie well within East Timor’s side of the boundary, the midline between the two countries’ coastlines. Australia, in defiance of international maritime law, claims instead that the midline is halfway between the edge of the continental shelf and the Timorese coast—in some places less than 100 kilometers from East Timor. To make matters worse, Australia withdrew from the international tribunal for the law of the sea, preventing the issue from being brought to international arbitration.

Democracy cannot be built “on empty stomachs,” said East Timor President Xanana Gusmao, the head of state and former resistance leader. Nor can Australia afford to have a failed nation as a neighbor. “The future of our nation and our children is being jeopardized by Australia’s greed,” President Gusmao said. Schools can barely afford desks and writing materials, he pointed out. “The oil is our only hope in the short-term. Please tell the politicians in Canberra to be more generous.”

The world’s lack of generosity has been a sad hallmark of East Timor’s story—with the exception of the UN intervention and international donors during the transition to independence. But for most of the occupation, East Timor’s plight was ignored. When Indonesia invaded in 1975, Alarico Fernandes, East Timor’s information minister, sent out an urgent appeal for help: “Indonesian forces have landed in Dili by sea…. They are flying over Dili dropping our para-troopers…. A lot of people have been killed indiscriminately…. Women and children are going to be killed…. We are all going to be killed…. SOS…. We call for your help. This is an urgent call.” This would be the first of many cries for help, and the first of many to be met with silence. In 1989, the apostolic administrator and bishop of Dili, Dom Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo, wrote to the UN secretary-general. He called for a referendum and made the chilling warning: “We are dying as a people and a nation.”

The reply would come ten years later.

The Church Takes a Stand

While the Church’s response to the invasion was initially cautious, when Dom Martinho da Costa Lopes became the first Timorese bishop in 1977, it could no longer remain silent. Da Costa Lopes’s activism became so troubling to the Indonesians that they asked the Vatican to remove him. The Vatican complied, and da Costa Lopes was exiled to Portugal in 1983 and died there in 1991.

Bishop Belo, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996, replaced da Costa Lopes, and was initially regarded as someone who would be more conciliatory toward Indonesia. In fact, he was regarded as such a friend of Jakarta that some priests boycotted his installation. But he couldn’t ignore the reality for long.

The turning point for him, according to Australian Bishop Hilton Deakin, was a visit to an area of East Timor in the aftermath of a dreadful massacre. “When he went there, there were no villages where there had been villages, no people where there had been hundreds of people,” Bishop Deakin told me. “He suddenly started walking up a hill and saw a foot sticking out of the ground. He saw pieces of people strewn around. He became quite ill. While he wanted to concede as much goodwill as he could to the Indonesians, this was when it changed.”

One of the most symbolic gestures that the Catholic Church made was in changing the language of the Mass. The Indonesians banned the use of Portuguese in schools and workplaces and required the people to speak Bahasa Indonesian. They also tried to ban Tetun, the indigenous tongue. In defiance Bishop Belo decreed that Mass would be conducted in Tetun. “That preserved a cultural place for the things the Indonesians wanted to destroy,” Bishop Deakin said. “That was the beginning of the Church identifying itself with the culture that was being destroyed.”

Progress, Paid in Blood

In early November of 1991, students planning a peaceful protest found themselves surrounded by the military and sought refuge in the Motael Church. They were there for several days before a young man named Sebastian Gomes ventured out onto the church steps and was shot dead. On November 12, hundreds of people gathered at the church for his funeral and then marched to the Santa Cruz cemetery to lay flowers on his grave. They marched unarmed, waving banners that called for peace and freedom. When they reached the cemetery, Indonesian troops surrounded them and opened fire. Eyewitnesses estimate at least 270 people died that day, trapped within the walls of the cemetery.

Gregorio da Cunha Saldanha was one of the leaders of the march and now sits as a member of parliament in the free East Timor. He was shot during the demonstration and taken to a hospital, where he was subsequently interrogated. The wounded man was tortured, put on trial, and sentenced to life imprisonment. After passing sentence, the judge stepped down from the bench, weeping. “You are a Christian. I am a Christian. I did not want to do this, but I had no choice,” he confessed. The judgment and sentence had been predetermined by the Indonesian authorities. There was no choice—and that was the tragedy of East Timor until August 1999.

Saldanha was imprisoned with other organizers of Santa Cruz, including Francisco Branco. For both men, their faith sustained them in jail. “I trusted God. No one else could help me except God,” Saldanha told me. They prayed together and studied the Bible. Branco wrote these words in one letter from his cell: “My brother, God is very kind and just, and He loves us, you and me who believe in Him. We can never feel angry and upset at God when we suffer, because behind all the suffering He has a beautiful surprise for us.”

During the last two years of their imprisonment, someone smuggled in a cell phone, which Saldanha and Branco hid under the mattress. At night, when the guards were asleep, they used the phone to contact their families. One evening Saldanha did a live interview on Portuguese radio. The term “cell phone” had taken on new meaning.

East Timor’s Mother Teresa

Priests and nuns formed the spiritual backbone of the resistance, but none more so than Sister Maria Lourdes, or “Mana Lou” as she is sometimes known. She is East Timor’s Mother Teresa.

Sister Lourdes’s Christian faith began in 1966 when she was just four years old. Her father, a coffee farmer, told her the story of the birth of Christ, of how there was no room for Mary and Joseph at the inn in Bethlehem, and of how Jesus was born in a manger. Outraged at this injustice, little Maria prepared her bedroom to receive Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus, and prepared her heart for a lifetime’s relationship with Christ. At school she rejected boyfriends, telling her classmates that Christ was her lover. While the affection her friends experienced was temporal, she said, the love she received from God was eternal.

As a teenager, Sister Lourdes recognized her calling to become a nun and spent her vacations accompanying priests around the country. At 13, she entered a Canossian convent, with a view to joining the order. Two years later, she befriended some foreign missionaries and began to work with them. At 17, she worked with the Liquica parish priest and helped prepare 10,000 people to receive the sacraments. This caught the attention of her bishop.

Sister Lourdes’s spiritual quest took her through more than ten convents, but in each order she felt restless. The bishop encouraged her, suggesting that she attend a catechetical school in Java, Indonesia. There, she found her vocation.

One day in 1985, when Sister Lourdes was 23, she had a profound experience. Devastated by the suffering of her people, she retreated for several days of prayer. At one point, she looked up at a picture of Christ on the cross, the crown of thorns upon His head. “I am suffering. What will you do for me?” came a voice from deep within. “Why do you spend all your time inside the convent? I do not only live in the convent. I live out there with the poor, with the people in the mountains far from the town, especially in places where there are no priests, no pastoral companionship. I need you to follow me there. I need your help.”

She collapsed, unconscious. When she awoke, she knew what needed to be done. Sister Maria Lourdes founded the Secular Institute of Brothers and Sisters in Christ, and the picture of Christ that inspired her that day now hangs in all the group’s houses. The institute functions as an order, with perpetual vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, but it’s unusual in that it combines men and women, who dress in civilian clothes and live among the poor in the villages.

Sister Lourdes’s mission developed over time, but she made her most significant impact in the violence before and after the 1999 referendum. In April, four months before the vote, troops and militia fired tear gas into the church in Liquica where hundreds of villagers had sought sanctuary. As the people rushed out, blinded and choking, the soldiers opened fire. Some panicked villagers hid in the roof of the priest’s house, but the soldiers knew where to find them. They fired round after round into the ceiling until blood dripped through the holes. (When one soldier tried to shoot the priest himself, the gun jammed.)

In the immediate aftermath of the Liquica massacre, most of the community’s leaders fled. In contrast, Sister Lourdes drove through militia roadblocks with food and medicine and spent several weeks with the displaced people of the town. Watched closely by the Indonesians and their militia, she restricted her speech to spiritual encouragement. According to Dr. Daniel Murphy, an American doctor in East Timor, her ability to communicate was extraordinary. Faced with row after row of militia roadblocks, he recalls, she would get out of her car and speak to the militia. “Within minutes she would have them laughing with her, then crying with her, and then on their knees praying with her.”

Even in the most difficult times, there were instances of grace. In the violence immediately following the referendum, an estimated 15,000 people fled Dili and sought refuge in the forest around her house. She told me that she and the members of her institute looked after the people. “All 15,000?” I asked. Yes, she said. “God worked a miracle. We did not have enough food for even 15 people, let alone 15,000. But each day I got up, I prayed, and then I started cooking rice—and the barrel of rice never ran out for three weeks. The day it ran out was the day the international peacekeepers came.”

But the arrival of the UN didn’t end Sister Lourdes’s work with the militia and the refugees. Thousands of East Timorese were still being held in camps in Indonesian-held West Timor, and so, in the spring of 2001, Sister Lourdes traveled there to persuade the refugees to return home.

The camps were still controlled by militia who wanted to kill her. Each time Sister Lourdes held a meeting with refugees, bare-chested, menacing militia would ride their motorbikes right into the assembly. They would sit inches from her, revving their engines and trying to intimidate the nun. She decided finally to confront them.

“Will you come home?” she asked them. “Will you come home to the Father’s house—to God?”

As she shared the gospel with them, many of the militiamen—thugs guilty of horrific crimes—broke down in tears and converted to Christianity on the spot. Those who converted joined her in her work, encouraging the refugees to return home—the very same refugees they’d been holding hostage.

With independence won, Sister Lourdes is now focused on empowering the poor to become truly self-sufficient by developing cottage industries, handicrafts, and agriculture, as well as helping them grow spiritually. “As servants of Christ, we have ideals and dreams. We would like to work with all our strength to build a new world where there will be sisterly and brotherly relations among people,” she wrote in a message accepting the Pax Christi Award. “In the spirit of being daughter, sister, initiator, and animator, we would like to help people love one another as true sisters and brothers in Christ…. If we could succeed in this, we would be sure that peace, love, justice, truth, freedom, forgiveness, and unity will be born. Peace begins with solidarity.”

The Triumph of East Timor

Sister Lourdes is unique but certainly not alone. Rev. Domingos Soares, a fellow recipient of the Pax Christi Award, spent years smuggling food to the resistance fighters in the jungles around his parish of Lete-foho. The Carmelite Sisters in Maubara have run clinics and an orphanage. And the sisters of the convent in Los Palos stood firm when the Indonesian military ordered them to leave at gunpoint. One Indonesian nun told an Indonesian soldier that her place was in East Timor with the injured and dying. The soldier, amazed that anyone would defy orders, said: “Don’t you know who I am? I am military.”

“Yes, I know who you are,” she replied. “I am military, too—military for Christ.” The soldier left, and the nuns stayed.

When I met them, I asked how we might stay in contact and whether they had e-mail. One sister laughed and flashed a joyful, gracious smile. “No, we don’t have e-mail— we have Emmanuel.”

Such is the spirit of East Timor.


  • Benedict Rogers

    Benedict Rogers is a journalist and human-rights activist working with Christian Solidarity Worldwide (www.csw.org.uk). He has co-authored a book with Joseph D'Souza: "On the Side of Angels: Without Justice, There Can Be No Mission."

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