Witness K and Bernard Collary are in trouble. They are to be prosecuted as whistleblowers. The support for their cause gathers strength. They spoke of a breach of trust between Australia and East Timor. News of Timor Leste brings me back twenty years to my own encounters with the people of East Timor. In September 1999 I spent a night in dark vigil among crowds of East Timorese women and men. The people of East Timor were voting for independence. Their friends and relatives in Sydney judged that when the results were announced there would be bloodshed. They prayed for a UN intervention, Australian intervention, anything that might save their their country and their loved ones. .
Their fears were well founded. The people voted overwhelmingly for independence from Indonesia and the Indonesian military and allied militias went on a rampage.
Australia intervened. The UN intervened. But not before the killings, the burnings, the total terror.
Fast forward a few years. I stand in Dili, the capital of East Timor, and see the destruction. Every street show the scars. Every family that I meet tells of fear and grief. Someone takes me to a dank underground prison cell. In the rock wall a prisoner has scratched deeply the word ESPERANSA. Hope!
UNTAET, the UN led transitional government in East Timor, was under the leadership of Sergio Vieira de Mello whom I had known in Cambodia. Between the bloodshed and the birth of the independent nation, decision making and reconstruction rested in UNTAET’s hands. I understood that a UN force would be funded mainly to keep the peace and engage in quick impact projects, I had seen this in Cambodia. A ceasefire, an election, and a fledgling new nation will be on its own. The generosity of developed nations stretches no further.
Fast forward once more. May 20, 2002, Because of the decades of tireless work of Josephine Mitchell and Susan Connelly, there were Josephite invitations to attend the birth of an independent nation. I stood with Josephine as daylight turned to dark on a vast flat stretch of land outside of Dili. A colourful crowd of local people pressed around us, and to as far as the eye could see. Timorese men women and children had travelled from across the country, many coming from the villages for the very first time. They had suffered for decades but now they had great hope for the triumph of independence, a free and prosperous nation bought at the cost of so much blood.
All eyes were on the brightly lit stage. What happened next I will never forget. Xanana Gusmao stood tall and roared into the microphone with a great howl. He held the hand of the Indonesian Prime Minister on one side and the Australian Prime Minister on the other then reached his own arms high.
The crowd roared in response.
If only we could return to that moment of unity.