30 August 2009

East Timor celebrates, but memories of a violent past remain

The Courier Mail (Australia) Bernadette Connole August 28, 2009 Friday A decade since the historic vote for independence, there is still plenty of rebuilding ahead, writes Bernadette Connole

ONE night almost a decade ago I was awoken by my ringing phone.

It was my friend from Timor Leste, Amelia Rodrigus, who had been missing for eight days. She called me to report that she was safe and in Dili.

I cried. I had feared the worst. Reports from Dili were grim and there were estimates of more than 100,000 dead from the violence after the referendum a few weeks earlier.

Amelia, a translator and electoral assistant, and I had worked together in Lesibutok, West Dili, for 33 days before Timor took its major step to independence. We were employed to register people to vote.

As the ballot drew near, you could smell the impending violence in the air. The pigs stopped running across the road, the goats hid under the trees.

Each evening after we did the voter education in the villages, the militia would torch the houses as a clear indication that voting against Indonesia has immediate consequences.

The polisi, or Indonesian police would arrive on motorbikes, circle the compound and check staff IDs. It was as if they were making a list of who would be punished.

Events spiralled out of control to the point of civil war. I was one of 400 volunteers evacuated to Darwin.

As we left the UN compound, I told Amelia to go to the Australian Embassy. But she ended up in an Indonesian re-education camp on the border. Many staff were killed and her boyfriend was shot.

After that late-night phone call from her I felt calmer.

But back at my normal life in Australia, I realised I needed to return to see what had happened, to see if things had changed and to visit my friend.

I stayed with the Rodrigus family in Dili, chickens in the room and water buffalo watching from the window.

Amelia and I returned to the village of Lesibutok.

We went back to Mass, played soccer with the children and the healing began.

It will be 10 years this weekend since that historic vote took place and most years I return to East Timor. Amelia now has four children and I visit for their birthdays.

We eat ice-cream, laugh, play football and watch the pigs play in the back yard. I am godmother to her son Jonathon.

She was one of the first UN volunteers to work in Liberia and she trained an assistant there.

It is easy to romanticise aid work - how we help save fragile states and bring democracy.

There is glory in arriving in a UN helicopter, but most of us realise it's the hard yards on the ground that matter most.

On this 10th anniversary there is much focus on those who lost their lives during those turbulent days in August 1999.

Yes there was loss, but it was also a time when many of us found ourselves and new friends.

I still have Amelia.

Above all else, we must remember our commitment to this young country. We must continue to help rebuild radio stations, roads and the soul of this young democracy.

Bernadette Connole worked as an electoral officer for the United Nations in 1999 and received two bravery commendations for her work in South-East Asia. She is a board member of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies.

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