19 August 2009

Matheus Guedes: From fight to flight to fight

Jakarta Post Wednesday, August 19, 2009 8:37 AM Matheus Guedes: From flight to fight Iman D. Nugroho , The Jakarta Post , Atambua Tue, 08/18/2009 12:59 PM - With his generous smiles and amiable demeanor, Matheus B. C. Guedes is a man with many friends. But his ongoing struggle to help refugees means he also has many enemies.

"I don't care what people say, I just want to defend the rights of refugees from the former East Timor," says the former combatant from East Timor, one of the many made a refugee after opposing East Timor's independence.

The 1999 referendum in East Timor that saw the province become an independent state called Timor Leste was a major event in Indonesia's recent history, colored by the tragedy of those caught up in conflict.

Matheus Guedes was a witness to that history. The youngest of eight children in a coffee farming family chose to join the Aitarak organization (which means "thorn" in Tetun, the Timorese language), first as a computer technician in Dili, to help fight for citizens who supported integration with Indonesia.

"I call it a fight, because we defended what we considered to be true," he says.

When the result of the East Timor referendum was announced on Sept. 4, 1999, Matheus started to mobilize those citizens to take refuge and to protect them.

In the growing conflict between those who were pro-integration and those who were pro-independence, Matheus armed himself.

"The choice was to kill or be killed," he says "I only fired *my gun* once, when an unknown person approached the refugees."

The mobilization was long and complex, and ended when he and his extended family safely occupied a refugee camp in Atambua in East Nusa Tenggara (NTT).

Shades of d*j* vu for the family: Back in 1975, when Portuguese rule ended and East Timor was integrated with Indonesia, Matheus, then 7, and his family members were among the group of pro-Indonesia people who became refugees in NTT.

"There were also some of my relatives who chose to be pro-Portugal," he adds.

When the situation stabilized and East Timor became an Indonesian province in 1975, Matheus and his family returned to East Timor to build their lives in Dili. Twenty-four years later, he was a refugee again.

For the past 10 years as a refugee, Matheus has lived in an area only six by three meters in size, watching as all the refugees struggle to survive, without knowing their fate.

Matheus was fortunate to have found a job in the employment department of the Belu regency government.

"But remember there are thousands of other refugees who weren't as lucky as me," he says. "They didn't have a job, they didn't have any land to be worked and they didn't even have a house because the houses that they occupied and built were on land belonging to NTT people."

Matheus was among those who formed the Humanitarian Forum to support Indonesian citizens from the former East Timor; he was given the position of secretary-general.

The forum set about organizing the refugees - who now total around 20,000 families - and made a list of the problems they face. Their work was necessary because, he said, "there has been a lack of government attention".

Every day, Matheus, an avid reader, clips news items about the refugees; he has a collection of thousands of clippings in his house.

The information in these clippings is used by members of the forum to explain and document aspects of the refugees' situation, and Matheus raises awareness by sharing the information with local and national media outlets

"I often send SMS to television programs, or directly to journalists to share our concerns," he says.

The records gathered by Matheus' organization show that the refugees have had their ups and downs over the past 10 years. While there has been aid - funds for food, for housing and resettlement, for the poor - for them, there has not been transparency over its usage.

"Refugees' houses and resettlement projects, for example, were built in locations where there is no water, which is affecting people's health," he adds.

Facts such as these were included in a report submitted to the government. It came to nothing.

Finally, in 2008, Matheus led a demonstration outside the Belu Regency Council to draw attention to the refugees' plight. On the seventh and final day, the demonstration turned into a riot; Matheus was arrested, and ultimately sentenced to four months in jail.

But his sacrifice wasn't in vain. Not long after he was sentenced, aid started pouring in for the former East Timor refugees, totaling Rp 8 billion (US$800,000). Efforts were also made to repair the roads leading to the refugees' homes.

Not that it is over. Matheus is calling for the refugees to be given land, with secure ownership, so they can build houses and develop businesses, for which they also need startup capital.

"Very soon every refugee family will get Rp 5 million aid through the welfare department," he said, before adding, "but I hesitate to accept information from the government."

Another initiative of the forum was to boost the refugees' political involvement.

In this year's election, 28 former refugees ran for a seat in the Belu legislative assembly, with two winning office. Five others ran for seats in the national House of Representatives.

"But no one was elected," he added with a laugh. "Our hopes now depend on former East Timor officials who are now officials in the NTT government."

Whatever small advances made are not enough for him to rest.

"But right now, change is not taking place, and because of that I will keep fighting for the rights of refugees from the former East Timor."

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