Fr Antonio Tallón, a Salesian regional superior, made a special visit to East-Timor from 17th to 25th November. During his stay on the island he was able to see the situation by visiting each community and meeting all the Salesians. This is his account of life on East Timor after all the troubles.
On my visit to East Timor I was delighted to find that all the Salesians were back at work in their own houses. The Salesians of one community in Dili, together with the Provincial, decided to accompany the deported Timorese to Kupang (in the western part of the island). There they remained for two months, living with the refugees and sharing their conditions. A Salesian belonging to another community stayed also for two months in Darwin (Australia) to take care of the refugees who were arriving there. The Bishop of Darwin had asked him to do so, as none of the local clergy spoke the language of the refugees. The rest of the Salesians remained in their houses. In some cases, they have even carried on the scholastic activities without a break.
The majority of refugees have returned, but very many are still missing. Some 250.000 people, in fact, were forced to abandon their country. Most of these are waiting for the International Organisations to guarantee their safe passage back. It seems it will take one or two months before all the refugees can return.
Meantime, many of them who have come back, find either their houses burnt or being occupied by some other families. A lot of time will be needed to sort out their problems. A serious problem has been caused by the return of some of the families of the pro-Indonesian 'militias'. Those who dare to return, run the risk of being lynched by the people. It already happened in our house itself: The sports hall was used as a place of initial reception for the return of the refugees; some of them began accusing the others of being part of the 'militia' families and attacked them. The police had to be called to restore order. While in some cases the accusations are genuine (one man was accused by his own son); usually it is impossible to prove the connection. The result is often further violence.
The people, however, are returning with the hope of a better future, although they are exhausted with long months of suffering. I have seen old people and mothers of families completely malnourished and almost without any physical strength.
It seems that the work of the International Force East Timor (Interfet) is well co-ordinated. In fact, one couldn’t help noticing how the soldiers of different nationalities carried out well-defined tasks. The people trust them, and that is the most important thing. At the same time, the civil authority, appointed by the UN, is beginning to come to terms with the day-to-day running of the country. They have asked the Church to co-ordinate the provision of Education. Meetings are held regularly to determine the curriculum, the use of language, books, teaching materials, deployment of teachers, reconstruction of schools that were burnt… etc. There is a lot to be done urgently in this area alone. The decision to reopen the schools immediately has been taken, in most cases, to get the young people off the streets. Conditions are far from ideal, but they are benefiting from the experience of the teachers who remained in the country. A lot of teachers who were originally from other parts of Indonesia have fled and it is not so easy to find substitutes.
Now the ‘militias’ are gone, one can travel anywhere in East Timor without fear. Surveillance is provided by helicopters and aeroplanes. On the border of East and West Timor, there is still some difficulty because the ‘militias’ block the people from returning. Last week Interfet succeeded in making an agreement with the Indonesian military to guarantee safe passage from West to East and the the refugees are now returning more freely.
The Salesians are convinced that their contribution to the renewal of East Timor should be, above all, in the sphere of education. This must be organised as soon as possible, to prevent the children living on the streets. The material losses of the houses of the SDB and the FMA can be calculated at the equivalent of a million and half US dollars. Help is more desperately needed for those numerous poorer families whose houses were burnt and who lost the few household possessions they had. Among the relatives of our Timorese Salesians, for example, rarely one can find a family that did not suffer great loss. It is hard and almost impossible for them to restore their modest houses all by themselves without help from outside.
The reopening of the schools requires enormous help: books and notebooks, all sorts of teaching materials, etc. The Humanitarian Organisations assure food, although there are always some groups that are forgotten.
We, the Salesians run two houses for orphans and the Salesians Sisters also have two. Any type of help to these houses will always be welcome.
We can show our solidarity by helping the families to reconstruct their houses, maintaining our work for orphans and in providing the schools with teaching materials of all kinds.
Monsignor Belo (Bishop of Dili) and Monsignor Basilio (Bishop of Baucau) are a sign of great hope for the people. The Church they represent, was and continues to be, close to the people. The international organisations, when they want to reach the out-lying villages rely on the Church. It is the only surviving organisation that has a reliable network reaching needy families. The catechists of most villages are taking responsibility for the distribution of essential provisions and they do it well. Some medical organisations rely on support from the Church because it provides contact with the people in greatest need and furthest away. The religious were a great help when it came to translating for the doctors. The people did not trust others to translate their needs and illnesses from tetun into English. The Church has been always at the service of the people and the people really experienced that help in their hour of need. The Church has shared their sufferings.
Fr Antonio Tallón