Living with the memories of East Timor
By Maria A. Ressa
(CNN) -- During 24 years of Indonesian rule, a quarter of East Timor's people died fighting for independence.
There were numerous incalculable acts of courage: each person, each risk bringing East Timor closer to its goal.
There was Father Hilario Madera, the parish priest of Suai.
He began taking in refugees in February of 1999. Two thousand people fled to him for shelter after pro-Jakarta militias attacked a nearby village. A pregnant woman was among the casualties.
The head of that militia group, Cancio Carvallho Lopez, admitted to CNN in February that he hunted pro-independence fighters.
He claimed if they can go after him, why shouldn't he go after them? His guns, he said, were supplied by the Indonesian military.
That was the beginning.
By August 30, 1999, Father Hilario sheltered as many as 6,000 refugees in the Suai church.
On September 5, one day after results from the independence referendum were announced, dozens of armed men along with Indonesian policemen attacked the church, killing as many as 200 people, including Father Hilario.
Less than a week before the vote, I remember seeing 25-year-old Joaquin Alfonso Guterres.
He was running away from a confrontation between Indonesian police and pro-independence demonstrators. In his left hand, he carried his rubber thong slippers. In his right, a stone.
A policeman took aim and fired.
The bullet hit Guterres, killing him instantly. A pool of his blood flowed downhill, staining the street.
Until today, that policeman remains free, not charged of any crime, not charged of putting a bullet through the back of a young boy.
Two years later, I drove around Dili's streets.
So much had changed, and yet so much stayed the same. Around 85 percent of its infrastructure had been destroyed, but today much had been rebuilt.
In the commercial side of town, there are new restaurants charging outrageous dollar prices. Hotel boats charging more than $150 a night cater to the U.N. and other aid staff.
The other side of town has a more surreal feel: Korem, the former Indonesian military command center, has now been turned into the base of the U.N. Civilian Police. Other government buildings in the area have been turned into barracks and base for the 8,000 strong U.N .peacekeepers.
Our CNN team drove into East Timor a week before the multinational troops arrived -- and there at Kompi C, home of East Timorese battalion 745, was where we stayed, setting up our makeshift camp among the barracks the Indonesian troops ruined and abandoned.
Now it's used by the Thai and Filipino peacekeepers.
Across the street, the wife of one of the Thai officers set up East Timor's first Thai restaurant.
The memories live with me: a clinic on the airport road -- that was where the U.N. civilian policeman who was shot in Liquica on September 4 was brought.
Over across the street was where the militia hid and started shooting at us.
I thought that would bring a much greater outcry from the U.S., but surprisingly, the U.S. chose to largely stay out of the fray.
It was the Australians who helped push the rescue mission.
They headed the multinational forces that arrived in September, but they were too late.
An estimated 600 people had been killed while hundreds of thousands more chased into the mountains and across the border into Indonesian West Timor.
Matter of life and death
In 1999, nearly 98 percent of registered voters cast their ballots.
To them, it was literally a matter of life and death and ironically, despite the violence surrounding the run-up to August 30 and immediately after, the day of the vote was peacefully calm.
The stark contrast proved the Indonesian police and military could enforce peace -- if they were so inclined.
Two years later, the mood was dramatically different for East Timor's first democratic vote.
No extremes of emotion. No fear. No violence. People joked with friends and the U.N. civilian police while waiting in line.
This time, voter turnout was only 91 percent, but it was a historic milestone -- the first time the people of East Timor have ever voted without fearing for their lives.
After so much suffering, so much sacrifice, East Timor takes another step forward in its march to full independence.
The people seemed optimistic. Unlike last year, where many began to complain about the lack of jobs, the lack of facilities and the dual economy, this year the focus is on what else needs to happen before full independence, expected next year.
We looked for people we knew from 1999 and asked them, "Was it worth it?" "If you had it to do over, would you vote for independence again?"
The answer was a resounding yes.
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