Timor-Leste: Stuck Between Peace and Justice

UN Photo/Martine Perret
By Filipe Alfaiate

It is official: the wet season has landed on my front step and what an entrance it has made. My street is a stream of mud-covered feet and animals. And yet, its heartbeat remains surprisingly unchanged by the dramatic weather. 

The same everyday cadence of people, bikes, pigs, cars, dogs, goats and chickens just going about. And kids, of course. Masses of those little creatures of God everywhere, trying to find a childhood with their barefoot cruising Dili, walking up and down my street.

The flagrant normality of it all in face of the abnormality of what this people have undergone disconcerts me. This incredible human persistency in being human, this appetite for normal routines despite all this sticky mud throws me off balance.

Sitting at my doorstep, I observe a world oblivious to me, the foreigner, the malai. Our street is a melting pot of the Timorese culture – here you find migrant families from almost all the thirteen districts. If the relationships of my neighbours were any indication of the quality of country’s national unity, I would say things are pretty normal but slightly stiff.

The exact meaning of “slightly” remains a mystery to me. Hope (another human persistency) forces me to believe in the imperial powers of the Oxford Dictionary to define “slightly” in Timor-Leste as something “small, inconsiderable, not serious or important”. But I am probably wrong.

In this Southeast Asian country – probably the poorest - things are not always what they appear to be. A culture of resistance and self-preservation was nurtured by the violent and illegal occupation of Indonesia for 30 years and 400 years of Portuguese colonial rule. However, despite that resistance, the local Timorese culture has absorbed, in two different times, elements of the two foreign cultures. So, the Timorese who are now in their sixties have cultural references attuned with the Portuguese way of life before the 1974 Revolution. Naturally, these cultural references are very much different from the ones that the younger generations raised under the Suharto Regime have. All of this creates a rather interesting and puzzling mix of Asian and Latin behaviour tempered by the strong hold of the Catholic Church. In a nutshell, I am lost in translation most of the time.  

Just on the back of our street a vibrant local market strives. Built on what is nothing more than the ruins of what used to be the market. There are a few walls standing and most of the stalls are little more than some sticks put together. The ruins of the old market are notorious, but maybe it is just me. Perhaps it is the same as this sticky mud that I cannot take off my shoes and that is bluntly ignored by everyone else. But surely, the mud, the burned walls, the falling ceilings are acknowledged by everyone, they must be. The war traumas are present in daily life, although in an understated manner. Nevertheless, a more conspicuous sound similar to the fire of a gun can trigger people to run automatically.

I struggle to accept. I think that is the correct word: acceptance. In all honesty my soul cries for the setting up of an international criminal tribunal to punish the perpetrators of the hideous and violent rapes and massacres that happened during Indonesia’s occupation, in particular in 1999 after the referendum. Any westerner that reads the findings of the Truth and Conciliation Commission, which collected the depositions of the victims, feels an almost uncontrollable wish to punish the criminals. Impunity seems a crime in itself.

I struggle to accept that there will be no international tribunal to punish those responsible for so many deaths. To accept that it is up to Timorese to decide alone. 

And, as I realize that maybe Timor-Leste prefers peace to justice (to my concept of justice), I ask for a strong coffee, a strong espresso to sober my mind while I force myself to think about my street and the market just behind it, where the mud is carefully ignored regardless of its stickiness, because old wounds are lousy playgrounds for the future.


9 November 2010


Photo Credit: UN Photo/Martine Perret