Aidan Stewart (2013)
Prior to going to East Timor I had some knowledge of their history and culture, stemming from my family and friends links to the solidarity movement from the nineties to the present. However I was not, nor am I now, an expert on such things. So rather than attempt to give you a broad sweeping take on the history of the fledgling nation I thought I would reflect on how journeying to the country has changed my perceptions of its culture, people and history.
My understanding of Timor prior to the trip was largely to do with readily accessible information on the major events in the lead up to their recognition as an independent nation. These included the withdrawal of Portugal and subsequent invasion by Indonesia and the complicity of Australia and other nations in allowing this to happen. Being around solidarity groups and in the presence of my parents from a young age meant that I shared in a sense of collective shame and subsequent disassociation with my country and in particular the governments inaction and even acceptance of Indonesian colonialism in Timor. Other than being exposed to footage and images of the Santa Cruz massacre and the public profiles of Xanana Gusmao and Jose Ramos Horta I knew very little of the actual people, culture or country that was and is Timor.
My initial impressions of Timor upon arrival were that it shared quite a lot in common with South American nations, the tropical climate, the Portuguese influence, coffee, coconuts, bananas, palm trees and poverty. Dilli itself is a strange mess of impressive looking presidential palaces, embassies and political buildings, incomplete or discarded construction and lopsided cast iron homes. The streets and footpaths are full of holes, filled with dirty water and rubbish. Stray dogs, cats and roosters roam freely and children do the same. The people, though, are filled with an unmistakeable spirit of hope and gratefulness, for the country that is now their own.
More than the planned trips to museums or the University led conference it was in the discussions with the people we met that I felt my appreciation for the country’s history and soul was most extended. Whether it was Mira, Fransisco or Bridgeda’s relatives it was the individual stories that I felt we were most blessed in receiving from the trip. It’s one thing to read a recount of the Santa Cruz massacre it’s something altogether different to sit and talk to a man who was there; lived and experienced it. Because of this it is hard for me to relay what exactly I gained or was told to me other than that it both deepened my respect for the Timorese people, their spirit and the strength of their faith in both God and humanity that pushes them publicly towards reconciliation in the face of such a painfully agonising past.
There is a deep maturity and wisdom in the way they have chosen to deal with the past. They preserve it in a multitude of ways, museum’s, discussion, art; they learn from it without letting it define them. It seems incredibly hard to put aside the hate, the pain and the anger from a Western point of view; yet the Timorese do and to me this is one of their greatest strengths. The country faces numerous problems: political, environmental, practical, economic and nearly every other variation yet their tenacity of spirit leaves them in a strong place to deal with them. This doesn’t mean that they don’t need our help and in fact it should endear us to give of ourselves even more willingly.