East Timor celebrates its first year of independence


The people of East Timor yesterday held Masses, solemn ceremonies and joyful parties to commemorate the anniversary of last year's UN-sponsored referendum on independence, which ended Indonesia's often-brutal 24-year occupation.

"It's wonderful, it's incredible, finally I know it's real," said law student Ms Nina Marcia, who was forcibly evacuated to West Timor during the violence that followed the ballot, and is now studying to be an East Timor diplomat. "I never said that before," she remarked from her home in Dili. "Even though I lost my sister [killed during the turmoil] I can go out now and celebrate."

"What is so hopeful is that the people are so happy about independence," said Sister Nora, a Filipina Maryknoll nun in the mountain town of Aileu, still scarred with burnt-out buildings.

"They talk now for the first time. They tell their stories of what happened over and over again. They even share their opinions if you don't ask for them, they have been quiet for so long."

Bishop Carlos Belo, spiritual leader of the majority Catholic population, held a Mass of thanksgiving at Dili's Immaculate Conception Cathedral, dazzling under a new coat of white paint.

The congregation then went to Santa Cruz cemetery, scene of a massacre of over 100 people by Indonesian troops on November 12th, 1991.

Wreaths were led, and Australian Sgt Barry Stevens, serving with UN peacekeepers, played a lament on the bagpipes.

East Timorese leaders Mr Xanana Gusmao and Mr Jose Ramos Horta addressed crowds at the former governor's palace, now home to the UN Interim Administration in East Timor (UNTAET).

Sharing the platform, the Australian Foreign Minister, Mr Alexander Downer, said his country would design and build a parliament for the East Timor government when it takes over from the UN next year.

The crowd gave an especially warm welcome to Mr Ian Martin, head of the now-disbanded UN mission which organised the August 30th, 1999, referendum, and later refused to abandon hundreds of refugees despite intimidation from armed militia.

In the vote, 78 per cent rejected autonomy with Indonesia, after which militias and Indonesian soldiers laid waste to the country.

Mr Gusmao said UN troops might have to stay on the border after independence if "there is still instability in Indonesia and attempts to create trouble from the other side".

One of the striking things about East Timor a year after the terror is the lack of bitterness towards those caught up in militia groups.

In Aileu for example, where all but 1,000 of the 17,000 people have returned, successful reconciliation sessions have been conducted in traditional fashion, though there were some beatings and a Protestant church was burned for the alleged pro-Jakarta sympathies of the pastor.

The accused person is put "on the mat" with the accuser, Sister Nora said, and elders try to settle differences by getting him or her to make restitution, usually with a goat or a horse.

However, a consequence of the UN presence, she said, was that "people now use the standard of the dollar for work that was free before", such as preparing the church for a special occasion.

Indonesia will clamp tight security around the venue of former President Suharto's trial on corruption charges today, as students said they would ignore calls not to protest against the 79-year-old former dictator. Jakarta police spokesman Supt Nur Usman said yesterday that some 1,250 police would ring the site of the landmark trial.