Peacebuilding in East Timor: Partners on the long journey to peace
"To make peace a reality we must be flexible as well as wise. We must truly recognise our own faults and move to change ourselves in the interests of making peace...Let us banish anger and hostility, vengeance and other dark emotions, and transform ourselves into humble instruments of peace...The people in East Timor are not uncompromising. They are not unwilling to forgive and overcome their bitterness. On the contrary they yearn for peace - within their community, and within the region. They wish to build bridges with their Indonesian brothers and sisters. They wish to find ways of creating harmony and tolerance." Bishop Carlos Belo, Nobel Laureate
A displaced East Timorese woman mends a pair of trousers inside her tent at Don Bosco Comoro camp, outside Dili.
Jess Agustin says that when a war is over, many people may dream of peace, but reality shows that it is a long process and it needs a lot of effort to be sustained.
“You’ve just come out of a war, you’re still hungry, you’ve lost your home, you may have lost your son or daughter. It’s an incredible challenge for anyone,” he says.
Mr Agustin worked for Caritas in East Timor before and after its independence in 1999. Up to 100,000 people were said to have died in the tiny country during the 24-year occupation by Indonesia.
He was an advisor to Bishop Carlos Belo and was with him when he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996 for his efforts to bring peace to East Timor. He also helped set up a radio station under the Indonesian occupation and a Justice and Peace Commission.
“At the time, the Red Cross was the only real source of information regarding the killings,” he says. “We decided that we needed a body within the Church that would document human rights violations.”
Mr Agustin says the radio station played an important role in showing the Church was there for people. Also, by providing information and promoting religious values it encouraged people to pursue self determination in a peaceful manner.
Once East Timor gained independence, Caritas started helping people who had been forcibly removed to the Indonesian side of the island to return home.
“We provided emergency relief to returnees and created reception centres to help prepare people to return to communities,” says Mr Agustin. “We were very conscious of the conflict and trauma inflicted on communities. We set up peacebuilding activities to help people address this.
Mr Agustin says they used the Caritas Internationalis Peacebuilding Manual and the exercises were deceptively simple yet very effective.
For example, young people were encouraged to trace their family tree. As a result they discovered the genetic lineages of East and West Timor were inextricably linked, which lowered people’s suspicions towards each other. Other peacebuilding initiatives encouraged young people to play sports together and create songs which are still sung today. However, Mr Agustin says that you cannot obtain peace without promoting development.
“You can talk about reconciliation, but if young people haven’t got jobs and they see other people who have money and expensive cars, it’s not easy,” says Mr Agustin. “Peace without justice is not going to last.”
The fragile peace in East Timor was rocked when violence erupted following a dispute within the military in 2006.
“People were in a hurry to set up a government and peace hadn’t taken root. The agenda was heavy,” says Mr Agustin. “It takes time to move from resistance to cooperation and collaboration and for over 20 years, people and leaders were in resistance mode.”
Mr Agustin says that the current government in East Timor wants a better relationship with Indonesia. In April’s Indonesian elections three candidates are former generals who have never faced justice for alleged killings during the occupation.
“People in East Timor aren’t looking for revenge; sometimes they just want the truth about how their husband or son died so they can have closure,” he says.
The Church has been pushing to address the impunity of those who committed atrocities in East Timor, says Mr Agustin. Caritas has been taking every opportunity to instill the values of peace while continuing the work of reconstruction.
“At Caritas, we don’t see people as projects, we see them as partners on the long journey to peace,” says Mr Agustin.