Brigida Corte-Real (2013)

Our visit to East Timor in July was a wonderful opportunity for us to be introduced to the nation’s people and culture. Also, my parents are both East Timorese, so I was very fortunate to be able to witness first-hand the conditions in which they spent the early childhood, while also meeting many of my extended family members for the first time.

Our eight-day stay in East Timor’s capital of Dili was filled with visits to various sights and meetings with locals. These experiences overall gave us an insight to the struggles endured by the Timorese people, particularly in the last forty years, as well as the strength and determination of the population to develop a better life for themselves and for future generations.

The first of a variety of places we visited was called ‘The Archives and the Museum of Resistance’. Built in 2005, the public can learn of East Timor’s heritage and the struggle of the population. Although confronting, we were able to read about the Indonesian troops arriving and tearing families apart, forcing people to seek safety in the mountains, and wiping out nearly one quarter of the entire nation within four years.

Another museum we visited was the ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commission’ which combined with the ‘Chega! Exhibition’. The primary focuses of these displays were (i) 1960 when the United Nations declared that East Timor was not an independent nation but had the right to be one; and (ii) the basic human right to live in peace and freedom, not evident during the Indonesian Occupation. Featured were many personal accounts of people who endured and survived torture and displacement, which led to the conclusion that the strength of those who never stopped searching for liberty should be celebrated.

We also visited a monument called Cristo Rei (translated to ‘Christ the King’), and Dili’s main Catholic cathedral. We learnt that these landmarks were built by the Indonesians during the Occupation for East Timor’s Catholic population. The way religion unites people in Timor is inspiring and completely understandable; if it were me in their position, I too would believe that a lot more than mere luck would have gotten me through those traumatic events.

Another location that we visited which was the standout for me was ASSERT, East Timor’s only centre for physical disability rehabilitation. Loosely translated, the organisation’s objective is ‘to include physically disabled people in the social and economic life of East Timor’. The centre currently focuses on physiotherapy and occupational therapy for road accident victims, people with developmental problems and club foot. The centre’s limited staff faces a number of difficulties. Volunteer physiotherapists and other medical practitioners have to arrive from overseas because the nation does not have an adequate education system in the faculty of health sciences, and people who are successfully treated in the centre find it difficult to integrate back into society. For example, patients who leave with wheelchairs find that many buildings and roads are not wheelchair accessible.

Towards the end of our stay, we attended Victoria University and the National University of Timor-Leste’s joint conference about food security. With the majority of the conference conducted in Timor’s native language Tetum, it was difficult to understand what was happening, but the main thing I took away was that young people who attend university aim to learn in the business faculty so that they can hopefully get overseas job opportunities to help their families back home. The nation of Timor itself really needs young people to gain an education in the agricultural sector, because it is the main way that the Timorese can generate income for themselves and their nation. However, the general perception of farming is that it’s for people with very low status, and people who are privileged to receive a university education do not belong back in the farms. They do not realise that the areas of farming that need educated people refer to developing new technologies to assist with the productivity of the land and growth of new foods for the economy.

The final and most important part of our trip to the nation was meeting the members of East Timor’s SCM branch. The Movement’s vision is ‘to promote peace and social justice, and to be the voice of injustice’. In a nutshell, the Movement’s biggest problems were money and staff. Where students were once able to volunteer their time and skills to the development of the SCM, they are now finding it difficult to continue to do so because they now need to earn money the support their families and livelihoods. Our aim as part of the ASCM is to foster a partnership with our closest and poorest neighbour, so that we can assist each other in a number of different ways to grow and promote our values through Christianity.

Aside from these invaluable experiences, our stay was enhanced by seeing how the locals live every day. Cars don’t have to meet roadworthy standards and are not equipped with seatbelts. The majority of our travelling was done by foot, where we were constantly beeped at by passing taxi drivers offering to give us lifts. We quickly realised that if we need to set an alarm to wake up, nature provided us our own alarm clocks in the form of roosters. On a personal note, I quickly found out that almost everyone we met from Dili were part of my extended family; I met my cousins, second cousins, nephews, and great uncles and aunts. It was lovely, as I was able to learn of the life that my parents left behind when they escaped in 1975, and the lifestyle that I so easily could have been brought up in.

Overall, our trip to Timor-Leste was enjoyable, eye-opening and rewarding. We as a group bring back many memories of the people and places we visited, as well as ideas for projects that we hope to implement in the nation to assist Timor-Leste's SCM group.