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Timor Gangs Give Peace A Chance

By Laura Sheahen

Julti Tilman was five years old when he saw his first massacre. Growing up in East Timor as it struggled to become independent from Indonesia, Julti often saw angry people hurt each other. But this was bigger. "I was going home from school and passed the cemetery. I saw people putting flowers on a grave, and then the Indonesian army started shooting." More than two hundred pro-independence demonstrators were shot dead during 1991's infamous Santa Cruz massacre. It was Julti's introduction to a political and social conflict that would tear at his life for the next two decades.

Julti's family eventually moved away from Dili, the city where the massacre happened. But trouble seemed to find them. In their new neighborhood—Suai, in an area called Covalima—"there was still fighting and killing," says Julti. People would fight over politics or over personal problems: "A father fought his daughter's husband over a buffalo," Julti remembers. The Indonesian police were always present to quell flare-ups among people seeking independence.

Surviving on what his father earned as a carpenter, Julti's family had little money. But there were happy times. Julti played with his little sisters or neighbor children, and worked with them in the corn fields. And on his birthday, "as a special treat, my mother boiled me an egg," he says. "I was happy. My parents loved me."

When Julti was eleven, violence almost broke out again. No longer a spectator, Julti joined a crowd confronting the Indonesian police. "We brought knives, stones and slingshots—I had a slingshot," Julti recalls. But the police came out to talk to the crowd, and "no one got hurt."

Two years later, people did. Julti was 13 when "the pro-Indonesia militia attacked my community early in the morning, when people were taking their buffalo to graze. There were knives, machetes, homemade guns and crossbows with jagged tips." In the turmoil, the young teenager went to live with relatives. But a few months later, as East Timor became independent, another massacre hit home.

"My uncle said, 'Don't ask about your parents. Take care of your sisters,' " Julti remembers. His aunt was sobbing. "That was when I knew. They didn't tell me, but I felt the truth. My parents had been killed."

In the Gang, I Felt Safe

Three tumultuous years later, 16-year-old Julti did what most teenage boys in Timor do: he joined a "martial arts group" or gang. In the group Sete Sete (77), he says, "I felt safe, like I had power." Gang members may do meditation or practice their martial art regularly, but they are also involved in activities like extortion and gambling. In Julti's group, fighting was expected. "Sometimes we fought with our hands. Sometimes we used machetes, slingshots, or bows and arrows." They'd fight to see "who is the most powerful," Julti says.

Gangs provide social support and activities in a country where the unemployment rate for young people is more than 40 percent. "There's not much here for youth. So this is what they do," says Catharina Maria, project director for Catholic Relief Services' Laletek (Bridge) program in East Timor. "It's prestigious if you're part of certain groups."

Initiation rites ensure that gang members "feel closer to the group than their own family," says Catharina. The leader, or guru, conducts a ceremony separating the new member from his ancestors. After this, gang members receive seven cuts on one arm. According to Julti, a white powder put on the cuts magically cures them, but leaves scars that are a mark of belonging.

"Here, everyone belongs to certain groups," says Catharina. "If one man is killed, there will be revenge." The country's relatively young justice system cannot keep pace with events. "If someone is jailed for violence, he might be released in three days because there is not enough evidence or no witnesses dare to step forward. Then they will run free for months or years as there is more than a two-year backlog of cases," says Catharina. "There are lots of killers walking around." Gangs and neighborhood youth step in, providing vigilante justice.

Because the country has changed hands over the decades, land ownership is often called into question. "When someone wants to occupy certain land, they send youth groups to get rid of squatters," says Liliana Amaral, Laletek technical advisor for CRS East Timor. Simple jealousy is also a factor in the fighting. "If your neighbor has a new motorbike or a new TV, you'll be jealous," says Liliana. "Sometimes the reason given for violence is 'they had a party and didn't invite us.' Then, if there is chaos, they'll say, 'Let's burn this house.' "

Over the years, Julti saw first-hand how the culture of vengeance played itself out. One of his friends in Sete Sete, Anis, was stabbed in the marketplace in his early twenties. Julti's gang brother Isaias remembers Anis as "always joking."

Building the Path to Peace

To stop the fighting and save lives, Catholic Relief Services runs the Laletek program for young men like Julti and for villages at risk. The program offers activities like mural painting, traditional dances symbolizing unity, skits, and non-violence training for young adults who have no jobs. It also seeks to reconcile angry neighbors.

"People don't want to just forgive when someone in their family has been killed," says Liliana. "We work to get them to a point where they don't insist on revenge." If a crime has been committed, the program "brings in the police and the prosecutor to explain to the community the steps that have been taken to bring the suspects to justice."

"We bring people together in a safe place. We talk to each group and see what they want," says Liliana. At times, CRS brokers a reconciliation ceremony based on a traditional code called Tara Bandu. In it, families may call on an ancestor and say, "You witness these groups will not use knives or take property."

The Laletek program has already helped mediate several violent conflicts. In one case, a man involved in a land dispute became ill and died. His family accused others of using black magic, and mobilized local youth to attack and burn down a house. CRS intervened and no harm was done.

CRS also helps community leaders create "conflict maps" that chart areas of tension, with red marks indicating trouble spots. Every month, a CRS team goes to the high-risk areas, where they discuss ways to reduce potential conflicts and resolve current ones. CRS forms dialogue groups for villagers and arranges dialogues. In one instance, leaders of opposing groups spent the day with each other, building a fire to cook a meal which they ate together.

Finally, CRS works with villagers on small infrastructure projects that even angry people can agree on, such as clean water piping. Through peacebuilding programs like Laletek and earlier ones, CRS offers alternatives to thousands of Timorese who used to settle arguments with guns and knives.

'Who Am I Right Now?'

Joining CRS' earlier peacebuilding program was a turning point in Julti's life. "CRS staff who lived close to me approached me," he remembers. He had become a leader in the Sete Sete gang, but was open to thinking differently.

Julti began asking himself questions. When anger flares, he says, "I have to ask myself, 'Who am I right now?' I have to control my emotions." He started asking his gang brothers and neighbors the same kinds of questions. "Now I ask, 'Why are you fighting? Can we talk?' "

Now 24, Julti has a chance for a better and longer life. His influence with Sete Sete may save his gang brothers' lives as well. "Our community still has a lot of problems," Julti says. "But I have a responsibility to my family, my two sisters."

If Julti and other people in the young country can put tensions to rest, East Timor's future will be far less bloody than its past. "I feel happy," says Julti. "I know how to build peace."

Laura Sheahen is CRS regional information officer for Asia. She is based in Cambodia.

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