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Peace and Reconciliation are Needed in Timor

Monday 5 June, 2004

Peace and Reconciliation are Needed in Timor Leste

Sister Consula and Manuel – refugees fearful of violence return to the convent at night


DILI, TIMOR LESTE – Situated throughout the capital Dili are scores of camps for hundreds of internally displaced people (IDPs). Some are in makeshift locations, such as the camp near the airport where tarpaulins are used as shelter. Many though are situated in Catholic churches and schools, where families sleep in courtyards and classrooms and are taken care of by the local religious.

Since the unrest began, Caritas member organisations - Caritas Australia, Caritas Dili and Catholic Relief Services - have been on the ground supplying food, and non-food items to many of the IDP camps located in the convents, churches, schools, mosque and government buildings around the capital.

For the priests and nuns it is welcome relief and talking to them, one gets a real sense of how difficult the past month has been, and also how resilient they are.

Father da Silva at an IDP camp in the district of Becora is a slight, quietly spoken priest who offers refuge to 450 families that are now mainly only staying at night, although 28 families whose homes were burnt now stay full time.

With food and water supplies established, Fr da Dilva says that in order to restore peace in the community, “Reconciliation is the most important thing now.” Talking to members of the Caritas Internationalis assessment team he had many ideas about how this could be achieved including sports and games, which he felt would bring the children and then the families together.

At another IDP camp in the district of Fatuhada, 200 people from the surrounding neighbourhood have taken refuge with the Carmelites in their convent.

In the central courtyard is a garden with lush green trees and a statue of Jesus surrounded by children. It is a quiet and tranquil place that provides cool relief from the sweltering heat. It is nearly silent, broken by the slight chatter coming from the nearby dining room where about 20 IDPs are having lunch.

While supplies of mosquito nets, women’s kits and soap from CRS are distributed, Sister Consula, a small woman with bright brown eyes and a warm smile, explains that many return to their homes during the day to wash, cook and clean, they return to the convent at night.

Bedding at the Carmelite convent


She says she does not know how long the families will stay but adds that they will be sheltered at the convent for as long as necessary.

This message is repeated at Sabraka Laran where the SBSS sisters are sheltering 46 families from the recent violence.

When the Caritas Internationalis assessment team arrived with supplies of instant noodles and condensed milk from Caritas Australia, we were greeted with quiet murmurs of “Bella” from Sisters Immaculada and Assina.

Sister Immaculada explained that many homes in their district had been destroyed and many families had been staying with them since 28 April, the day of the first outbreak of violence.

“I was here in 1999,” she said, referring to the massacre of Timorese by the Indonesian military after the ballot for independence. “When it happened again, it was not easy, you have to trust in God.”

Much of the recent violence has come as a surprise to many, including the nuns. What began as a political response to government treatment of the army has turned into East versus West, a division previously unheard of that is now affecting everyone and is proving difficult to understand motives and reasons behind it.

As many of the families in the camps are a mixture of people from the East and West, efforts are being made to keep the peace. “Every night we pray together in our chapel,” says Sister Immaculada. “We have told them that to live together they need to live in peace and to listen to the sisters!”

Across town at Comoro one of the city’s hotspots where much of the burning and lootings have occurred and is now heavily patrolled by international troops, is a school run by the Salesian sisters. Here 1,075 people or 162 families have taken refuge.

As far as IDP camps go this one is well set up. The classrooms have becomes bedrooms to shelter families and facilities such as bathrooms and toilets are more numerous than elsewhere. Caritas Australia and Catholic Relief Services have also visited, distributing relief items.

Sister Maria and Sister Lubelia

Sister Maria said she and the other nuns were surprised as disappointed about the recent East/West antagonism. As the Salesians are involved in education she wondered what had happened to the young people to make them turn to violence and looting and like the SBSS sisters says the East/West division is something new.

Her fellow sister, Lubelia agrees and says, “It is the people who are the ones who have to deal with the consequences.”

In the school the nuns say the refugees are mixed, with families from the East and West, sharing classrooms at night in which to sleep. So far there as been no violence inside the camps but both say that is a concern they have.

Both agree that while the families are in the camps they need to work at reconciliation and peace building as a way forward. They have many ideas, including sessions to talk through problems the two groups may have while they are in the camps, as well as teaching the children, when school resumes, about peace.

As the sun begins to set, and the heat of the day cools, families can be seen trickling back into to the camp for safety and the nuns take their leave as they prepare for the evening ahead.


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