Timor launches commission to reconcile nation with troubled past

By Hamish McDonald

The Age (Melbourne) - April 22, 2002

In this land where mountain warriors have maintained feuds for generations, no one knows better than Jovito Araujo the difficulty of quelling the yearning for revenge among the Timorese.

Although he has been a Roman Catholic priest and fighter for human rights for nearly six years, Mr. Araujo admits he still feels the passions of a feud that has split his own family.

Now he has joined a panel to expose and heal the mental pain and guilt of a quarter-century of atrocities involving Timorese as victims and perpetrators during the transition from colony to nation.

Mr. Araujo is deputy chairman of the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation, whose job during the next two years is to investigate human rights violations by all sides, from the start of Portugal's decolonisation program in April, 1974, until the departure of Indonesian occupation forces in October, 1999.

The commission aims to set up a "truth-telling" process for victims and abusers to acknowledge what happened, community reconciliation procedures for lesser crimes, and to refer serious crimes for prosecution.

The commission starts this week by launching public hearings into the exile of thousands of political suspects in the early 1980s by Indonesian authorities on Atauro, a small and arid island that lies off Dili, where they suffered hunger and abuse.

In part, the reconciliation effort is designed to encourage former rank-and-file members of pro-Indonesian militias to return from West Timor by enabling them to settle their moral debts with their home communities rather than face a lifetime of hostility.

It will not be easy, says Mr. Araujo.  "Timorese are not a people who find it easy to forgive.  They keep everything a long, long time. Especially revenge.  They will not forget something that hurt them.  They will keep it going a very long time, generation to generation."

Although he sometimes feels that Christianity has only touched the Timorese as deeply as the batter around a pisang goreng (fried banana) snack, he notes that during the Indonesian occupation formal church membership rose from about one-third to nearly everybody among the East Timorese.

From being an "instrument of colonisation" with heavy Portuguese character, the church became an institution that identified with the Timorese and fought for them.

"This background gives us hope," he said. "The Catholic Church will be a strong mechanism, a strong pillar, an institute that can help people to reconcile."

The commission could only help, he said.  "The revenge that is inside the people's hearts, only the one who owns this revenge can take it out."  He said political leaders should also study their past conduct.

A month after Mr. Araujo was ordained, he was serving in Dili's picturesque waterfront Motael church in December, 1996, when there were clashes between crowds and Indonesian security men.  A young man ran into the church seeking refuge after stabbing a government spy.  Mr. Araujo hid him for several days, and smuggled him out to a resistance group.

Recently the man returned.  In 1999 he had been caught by the Indonesian militias, beaten so badly his skull was fractured, and almost thrown down a well. But when the same militia members returned to Dili a few weeks back, he went to the airport to receive them back.

"He is a crazy guy, but how could he get this strong courage to welcome those who wanted to torture him, to kill him?" Mr. Araujo asked.  "I don't know.  There is no reason to explain this.  I don't understand.  He just said to me, 'I think it's over'."

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