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in East Timor, November-December 2006
By Sr Sonia Sangel FdCC
Sister Sonia, who has written from East Timor in these pages before, was in Dili from 17 to 28 May. She was ushered back to safety in Baucau, where she’s based, by the Portuguese military.
Despite the arrival of troops from Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Portugal, the turmoil and violence continued to escalate. Most of us living in East Timor found it hard to understand why things could disintegrate so rapidly to this point. Most of us felt that we had woken up into a nightmare we couldn’t escape from.
Threats on people’s lives, the burning of houses and looting continued daily. Most crimes occurred at night. Numerous neighborhoods in the city were under constant automatic gunfire and grenade explosions. People from the western part of East Timor sided with the two rebel groups fighting the Força de Defesa de Timor Leste (F-FDTL), the official Defense Force of East Timor, which seemed to be aligned with the eastern part of this small country.
Since then many people have flocked to Catholic churches, schools and convents. Our four Canossian houses and schools in Dili were filled to the brim with refugees. It was as if a mass exodus of families came running to us for shelter and security.
The Sisters, having experienced the political disturbance and violence of 1999, knew what to do. Some stayed with the people to keep them company as well as to remain as their shields and protectors so that no one could touch or harm them. Others led people to pray the rosary continuously, begging the Lord and our Blessed Mother for peace and order. Quite a number of young, brave and courageous Sisters stayed at the gate to take people in and send men with firearms and long bush knives away. The communities started to light candles and to pray, taking turns in adoration.
We stayed with our people
While many of the UN and NGO workers and volunteers, including the Canossian Volunteers, were evacuated by their respective heads, the Filipino Consul twice arranged for planes to evacuate Filipino workers back to their homeland. We missionaries were also offered a chance to leave if we wanted to. With little hesitation, the three of us Filipina Canossian Sisters, Violeta San Miguel, Mila Carpena and I, remained firm in our commitment to stay with our Sisters and with our beloved Timorese whatever might happen. This was the time when with strong courage, we testified to the gift of ourselves which we had given to God for the mission, and which we would never take back. We would stay united with our Timorese brothers and sisters in season and out of season!
Yet, I cannot but ask how this could ever happen and why?
So many people in East Timor still struggle to feed themselves and their families on a daily basis, living hand-to-mouth. They asked for shelter and food after the total destruction of 1999, when Indonesia’s army of occupation left. Last year was the fourth consecutive year of drought, leaving many people hungry. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) earlier this year put out a report stating that East Timor was South East Asia’s poorest country. Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri publicly made fun of this and stated, ‘There is no hunger in East Timor.’ Many people still live as squatters in make-shift shelters made of burnt corrugated iron from the 1999 destruction, but the East Timorese government had money to buy expensive modern weapons.
Before, people lived peacefully side-by-side as neighbors, but now are threatening each other, hunting each other down and burning each other’s houses. How could this ever happen?
Let’s pray for East Timor
In my prayer for East Timor, I pray for the leaders of the country that they may stop giving ‘stones’ and automatic weapons to our people who ask for bread, and stop giving ‘snakes’ and grenades to our people who ask for fish.
And you, our dear friends, brothers and sisters from all over the world, who lit candles and prayed with us for peace in East Timor, we thank you. May God listen to our prayers and grant us peace.
You may email the author at firstname.lastname@example.org or write her at: Canossian Sisters, PO Box 23, DILI, EAST TIMOR.