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28 September 2008

Simu Malu: Finding Peace in East Timor

ETLJB Editor Note: This item is being posted notwithstanding that it dates back to 2007 (apparently) to promote the work of CRS in peace building in East Timor and also because it includes a report on traditional law - tara bandu - which has been the subject of recent press reports and posts on ETLJB.

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From Catholic Relief Services - A market that used to sell rice and tropical fruit is now a beaten expanse of dirt and burnt remains. The road that children used to walk to church and school is now the setting for battles between youth. A city that used to be populated with just "other Timorese" now consists of West Timorese and East Timorese.

Sebastiao Ximenes, the village leader of Moris Foun, works to create a peaceful community where his neighbors can feel safe.

And Sebastiao Ximenes, who used to be leader of a whole community, now struggles to bring families home to Moris Foun again.

Moris Foun is one neighborhood in Dili, the capital city of East Timor, where civil unrest has driven thousands of the 167,000 residents to seek safety in makeshift camps in schools, parks, convents and empty buildings. Churches are again a place of sanctuary. It has been over a year since accusations of discrimination in the military set off a wave of violence in East Timor, and Dili still doesn't know when the arson, looting and violent clashes between gangs of youth will end.

In a place where chaos can descend at any moment, Sebastiao and CRS are trying to bring simu malu — that is, mutual understanding — and with it, peace.

A Vision of Peace

As a first step, CRS' Simu Malu project team carried out a Vision of Peace workshop where Sebastiao and other determined community members imagined what peace would look like in Moris Foun. Then, they put their plans into action — with events like a CRS-sponsored soccer tournament.

In preparation for the tournament, youth from conflicting communities came together to paint peace-themed murals on the walls around town. These new friends were joined on the day of the opening game by government officials, leaders from other nearby neighborhoods, CRS East Timor's country director Jason Belanger, and at least 200 local citizens.

Among them was a village elder, who, with his son, had left a camp for people displaced by violence for the first time in five months. The elder was warmly welcomed and hugged, and spoke to the crowd before the first game of the monthlong event began.

From Trauma to Healing

"Those who did not leave were attacked," remembers Judit, a Moris Foun resident who now works for CRS. "Given the circumstances, I felt I must leave." So she packed her things and sought safety in a camp. CRS runs five camps in Dili for as many as 8,000 displaced people and provides support for several more camps.

Back in February, many people were fleeing Moris Foun and the nearby neighborhood known as 30th of August because of confrontations between local youth and residents from other villages, says Judit.

Renewed violence swelled the population of the closest camp from 775 people to over 1,700. CRS provided tarpaulins and bamboo to build temporary shelters and contributed critical funding for food. Until it was safe outside the camp, a CRS health promotion team kept conditions safe inside the camp with activities for children that focused on improving hygiene and hand-washing.

Despite the Pacific blue of the waters that edge the city, most citizens are too familiar with fear and violence. They have already lived through the abuses of an Indonesian occupation and the war that won their independence.

But Sebastiao says that the activities first imagined at the Vision of Peace workshop have managed to bring a sense of trust and security to Moris Foun, and that hundreds of families have begun to return. "CRS has provided support which has allowed the community to heal from the trauma of the recent crisis," he says.

Bringing Them Home

In fact, just a month after the surge in violence, over 600 people felt safe enough to leave the overpopulated camp because Sebastiao and the community leader of 30th of August — named for the date in 1999 that East Timorese voted for independence from neighboring Indonesia — had taken a vow of peace.

The vow was made with CRS support in a public ceremony known as the Tara Bandu. Residents gathered at the sacred house to hear an elder read the terms of the agreement — no more blades used in fighting, no more destruction of property, no more killing. The elder slaughtered a cow as a sacrifice. Then Sebastiao and 30th of August's leader shook hands and signed an accord.

The law of the Tara Bandu is not lightly broken. Anyone who breaks the Tara Bandu must pay the sacred house an amount equal to the value of the sacrifice. If the guilty do not pay, they either enter the judicial system or are punished by the sacred house.

"With the Tara Bandu … people finally felt free to return home, children were able to resume school and small businesses reopened," says Judit.

Despite this progress, simu malu still has further to spread. Citizens fear that when they go back to Moris Foun they may just have to leave again. Until everyone returns, Sebastiao says, "I will go back to my people and try to figure out how to bring them home."

Our Work in East Timor

CRS East Timor started as a division of CRS Indonesia in 1979. It became an independent country program in June 2000 to better respond to the devastation of East Timor's struggle for independence from Indonesia. In addition to food and agricultural assistance, CRS East Timor runs microfinance, peace and reconciliation, and civil-society programs. CRS East Timor works closely with local nonprofits and promotes active participation of Timorese citizens to address injustices in their lives.

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