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East Timorese Seek—And Find—Peace

By Florentino Sarmento

I've seen my country, East Timor, mired in conflict. There were times when hopes were raised and then crushed. I have lived through three major periods of violence that swept Timor from tip to tip, from 1975 up until the most recent conflict in 2006 to 2007.

Students at the Comoro/Haslaran Conossian School reflect on peace.

Since its independence from Indonesia in 2002, East Timor has faced conflict among neighbors and outside groups. Today, students at the Comoro/Haslaran Conossian School reflect on peace. Photo by Jennifer Hardy/CRS

In 1975, a civil war erupted between the two political parties and created an opportunity for neighboring Indonesia to invade, occupy and annex the territory—a conflict that lasted 24 years and resulted in more than 200,000 deaths.

In January 1999, then-President B.J. Habibie of Indonesia bowed to international pressure and announced that a referendum was needed to end the East Timor conflict. He presented two options: an autonomous region of Indonesia or independence. The majority of Timorese voted for independence. The departing Indonesian military and their Timorese militiamen carried out earth-scorching attacks that triggered waves of violence across the country. The violence destroyed most of the infrastructure, killed 1,200 and displaced 300,000 (about one-third of the population), who then sought refuge in neighboring West Timor of Indonesia.

The 2006 to 2007 political–military crisis and general elections led to widespread violence across the country and displaced 150,000 people from their homes. At the time, the United Nations estimated it would take at least 10 years to resettle those people. But, under the leadership of Prime Minister Kay Rala Xannana Gusmão and his newly formed government, the displacement crisis was resolved in fewer than 3 years. The people of East Timor have slowly moved forward from this pattern of violence.

Our history is flush with conflicts that have occurred each time we have faced a major political change, from freeing ourselves from colonial power, to enduring occupation by a foreign country, to, most recently, going through a democratic process of general elections in 2007. Violence, destruction and loss of life have become part of everyone's experience in Timor. Even after independence, this history held the Timorese people in fear as we approached another cycle of general elections in 2012.

'We Are Grateful to Catholics in the United States'

In this climate of fear and distrust, the Church and Catholic Relief Services stepped into action to do everything possible to advocate for peace and to give hope to the Timorese people for a peaceful election process in 2012. On February 21, 2012, when the Church and CRS launched a campaign of 111 days of prayer for peaceful elections, a crowd of 10,000 people flooded the main road with candles in their hands, walking under the hot tropical sun, echoing songs and prayers for peace.

Young people participate in a 2-day peace camp

Young people in East Timor participate in a 2-day camp to discuss how to promote peace in their homes, communities and country. Photo by Jennifer Hardy/CRS

A day after watching the procession that was broadcast on television, Father Justiniano de Sousa of the Salesians of Don Bosco told me, "It was very amazing. There couldn't be a more powerful message for peace in this war-torn land of Timor."

The truth is, peace has prevailed in East Timor throughout the hectic electoral cycle, after two rounds of presidential elections in May and the parliamentary elections in July. A new national parliament was installed in August 2012. Despite the many rounds of voting and debates about the candidates, everything remains peaceful. It seems that major violence will not erupt.

"We are very, very grateful to the Catholics in the United States, who, through CRS, joined the Church in Timor in prayer for a peaceful election," says Sister Claire Garcillano of the Sisters of St. Paul of Chartres.

The Timorese can now celebrate the peace and stability that we have prayed for these many years. But the path forward in this little half-island nation is still challenging. Along with difficulties such as the fragility of state institutions and lack of a skilled and experienced work force, more than 50 percent of our people still live in absolute poverty.

Despite the odds, East Timor, which is overwhelmingly inhabited by Catholics, is ready to face the future with hope. And CRS will continue to work in Timor, helping to move those hopes closer to peace and a better life for people around the country.

Florentino Sarmento is the partner relations and capacity-building manager for CRS in East Timor. He has worked for the agency for more than 30 years.

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