I was born into a mixed family, with a Portuguese father who had opposed the Salazar fascist regime in Portugal, and therefore was exiled to East Timor in the thirties, and a mother from East Timor. We grew up in remote a village without electricity, running water, roads, or cars. Tetum, the main native language, was spoken in our home. I only learned Portuguese at the Catholic Mission school. We had very little: I remember getting my first shoes when I was a teenager and since I didn’t want to ruin the shoes, I saved them to wear at Christmas. By the following Christmas they no longer fit me-—I was so upset.
The Catholic Mission was also very poor. For almost ten years we had corn for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They’d throw it in a drum, boil it, and then put it on your plate. It was old and hard and I have a tooth ruined because of that corn. We’d have meat maybe, oh, once a month. And the Catholic school was very conservative. You had to pray fifty times a day, and confess constantly because the priest used to tell us that even if you were young you could die at any moment, and if you died with sin, you’d go straight to hell. So I thought that if I prayed two acts of contrition instead of one then that would double my protection—even as a kid I was already covering all my bases!
I wanted to be a journalist. In my late teens I began working as a reporter in Dili, the capital, for a local newspaper, The Voice of Timor. I managed to get an extra job in radio presenting news, and a part-time job on Portuguese television, where I started to shoot news stories for them, and, afterwards, wrote the news myself. In the process, I became very pro-independence, very critical of the Portuguese colonial rule. (No offense to the Portuguese today who have done an outstanding job for East Timor. But the colonial Portuguese pre-1975 were so incompetent and lazy and did nothing to really develop the country.)
When I was only twenty I started working at the tourist information department, and made some outrageous remarks while having drinks with two guys, one from the U.S. The next day I was called in by the Portuguese political security police, the famous PIDE, notorious in Portugal and Africa for using torture against civilians. They repeated everything that I had said about them. I was impressed. Two days later I was again interrogated, for hours, lost my job, and left for Mozambique for two years. They did not torture me—just interrogated me and I left. I don’t want to pretend that I was a hero. If I were not drunk, I would not have said what I said. That was my defense, also. To which they said, “It doesn’t matter. You thought it. You actually believe it.”
In 1974 I founded the first social democratic party in this country, which, within weeks, became the most popular, practically a revolutionary front for an independent East Timor. Some Marxist students who had just returned from Portugal joined and took control. That is where it got its reputation as a Marxist-Communist organization. But it was never a Marxist group. It just had a lot of rhetoric in speeches. We used to call each other “Comrade,” do stupid things, like salute with the clenched fist (why not just wave?).
And then in 1975 came a civil war. The Portuguese left, and the city was like a ghost town. FRETILIN (Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor) was in control. Not one single house had been destroyed. Not one single thing was damaged. The Portuguese bank was intact. Even the cars that belonged to the Portuguese government were untouched. The Mercedes of the governor was not touched. There was respect, but the town was deserted. Thousands had fled. The war had ended. I did not see it because I was in Australia during the brief period of the civil war which lasted about two weeks. But when I came back I saw the consequences of the war, brief but vicious and stupid.
Then came the invasion on December 7, 1975. In November 1975 I was made foreign minister and on December 4, I was sent out of the country. A light aircraft came to take me to Australia, and then on to Europe and the U.S.
I arrived in New York two days after the invasion, which took place on December 7 when I was mid-air between Asia and Europe. Two days later I was on my way to New York to plead the case of East Timor at the United Nations. I arrived in New York in the midst of the North American winter. I had never been to a major city in my life and had never seen snow. My task as the newly appointed minister of foreign affairs of East Timor was to plead our case before the UN. I was lucky to have been helped by the newly independent nation of Mozambique. They set up appointments for me and introduced me to the members of the Security Council. At the age of twenty-five I was probably the youngest foreign minister ever, certainly the youngest ever to address the Security Council. Along with the first two factors, is the reality that I was the least experienced and most naive. So when I say I was the youngest it was not necessarily as a tribute but a defense. And though Indonesia was a powerful regional leader, courted by the U.S. in the post-Vietnam, antiCommunist, Cold War world, we managed a stunning unanimous decision in the Security Council. But that was also my first lesson in international hypocrisy. The same countries that voted to condemn the invasion and demand that Indonesia withdraw, were the same ones selling weapons to Indonesia, enabling Indonesia to pursue the war in East Timor for the next twenty-three years.
The only country that gave us money at that time was Mozambique. By 1981 they were broke, so Angola, which had a bit more money, although at war, supported me with sometimes five hundred dollars a month, or one thousand dollars a month. That was how I survived. I lived mostly in run-down sublets of friends or of people I knew. Occasionally I would do translations for a friend of mine who worked with a church, translating funding requests from Portuguese, French, and Spanish, at ten dollars a page. And if I double-spaced them, she didn’t mind. Later I had a full-time job for the Mozambique government in Washington as an advisor on American politics, media, and congressional relations. In 1988, I went to Oxford as a senior fellow. After that I moved to Australia. The late seventies were the darkest years in East Timor’s history: 200,000 people died because of weapons sold by the Americans. My own sister Maria was killed by a plane delivered to Indonesia two weeks before by the Carter administration. Those planes caused huge devastation in East Timor—my two brothers were also among the thousands killed. By the end of 1976–77, the Indonesian army was at a standstill. Because they never had a truly professional, disciplined army, they never expected such a huge resistance. They took thousands of casualties. If the U.S. had not intervened massively the Indonesian army probably would have been defeated militarily by the Timorese resistance force. So the Carter policy made a difference with a massive injection of weapons to Indonesia that changed the balance of power and prolonged the war for twenty years.
I’m not sure of what kept me going in those dark decades. Some people fight because they believe in world revolution. But I am not an ideological person and I don’t believe in world Marxism. Nor am I a fundamentalist Catholic who believes in the dominance of the faith. Instead I thought of the spirits of those in East Timor, telling me to fight on. I was totally isolated in the U.S. and could have gone and taken a job, like so many exiles do, defected and gotten on with my life. Instead I worked on the cause of East Timor as a full-time job, twenty-four hours a day almost. I had no money but I would get in the bus and go anywhere in the U.S. to talk. I got an invitation to go to Milwaukee—I went and spoke there. A friend of mine had the brilliant idea that I should speak in Birmingham—so I took the bus there and found an audience of twelve Eritreans listening to me. One day I went all the way to Chicago because a very kind activist managed to get my name included in a big conference in a fancy hotel. Sharing the talk with me was a university professor with a very loud voice, Roger Clark of Rutgers University. There were all old ladies in the audience, most of them half-asleep. I was so polite I didn’t want to wake them, so I talked softly. When it was the professor’s turn, I wondered whether the ladies would have a heart attack. He definitely woke them up.
On November 12, 1991, five thousand young people went from a church to a cemetery to pay tribute to a young Timorese student who died two weeks earlier, shot inside the church by the Indonesian army. It was a very peaceful procession. Suddenly Indonesian special troops arrived with machine guns and started shooting at the people. At least five hundred died that particular day. Many were killed in hospitals by Indonesian doctors in collaboration with the army: poisoned with toxic pills, their skulls crushed with rocks. We had witnesses. Two of them (both paramedics) survived and escaped. One of them took samples of the pill given to people. Those pills were tested by forensic experts in London and found to be a highly toxic substance usually mixed with water to clean toilets. There were soon many more massacres. The difference between this one and the others is that an incredibly courageous British cameraman was there and filmed the whole massacre. As the Indonesians kept firing, he kept filming and when they stopped, he took out the tape and buried it in the cemetery. They took away some of the pictures he had left, and that night he climbed back into the cemetery to recover the film and smuggle it out of the country. He was lucky he was a foreigner and the Indonesian army was careful not to harm him. But after this, things began to change greatly.
In December 1996 Bishop Belo and myself received the Nobel Peace Prize, which gave me easy access to international media and world government leaders. As you can understand, Indonesia was not too terribly pleased. I then became the target of a vicious campaign of innuendoes and physical threats—even death threats.
The citation was for more than twenty years of work, and for a peace plan which was based on a step-by-step resolution, strikingly similar to the Israeli-Palestinian Oslo peace accord which came out later. If the Indonesians had accepted it, war would have ended without further destruction and killings. Indonesia would still be here in an honorable way and East Timor would be enjoying a period of autonomy within Indonesia. A referendum would have been held at the end of twelve years from the day of signing. The problem is I was dealing with a dictatorship that does not understand that dialogue, concessions, and flexibility allow all sides to win. The military only understands the “we win” concept.
In spite of the relentless campaign of intimidation and bribery that went on for months, well over 90 percent of East Timor voted for independence. And according to internal UN sources an additional 6 percent of the votes were stolen through fraudulent ballot counting. Then came the violence. It was orchestrated. It was planned in minute detail over many months. Almost every town in East Timor was destroyed, almost every house. Not only of the rich, or the better off, but humble homes of the peasants, homes made of grass and thatch, all burned down. In one of the most unprecedented phenomena in modern history at least one-third of the population of the country was abducted at gunpoint and taken to another country via transport ship. My oldest sister (whom I had not seen in almost thirty years) was taken in a warship to Indonesia with her children. There are still over a hundred thousand of our citizens in West Timor camps. The repression was organized by an army with infrastructure, with money, with power. Two-thirds of the militias were from Indonesia (not East Timorese). This kind of violence was done by people alien to this society. Timorese who were part of the militias have surrendered saying they were given alcohol and totally possessed. There were hundreds of Indonesian police disguised as militia in the midst of shootings. But later they removed the disguises, and the army operated in uniform. My nieces who live on the south coast said there were never any militia there; instead it was the army burning things, because there were no journalists there—why bother hiding?
Meanwhile, during this bloodbath, I tell you, I was so sad, so alone. I had to handle hundreds of phone calls every day. I went to Washington and met with senators Patrick Leahy, and Tom Harkin, and people in the State Department like Thomas Pickering. I spoke at the National Press Club, and appeared on program after program for NBC, ABC, Night Line, and CNN—who were fantastic; I was on CNN constantly.
Hundreds of thousands of people made phone calls and sent Internet messages. And the tide began to change. At one point I thought if I didn’t get the peacekeepers into East Timor, I would have failed. And I did not know what I would do with the rest of my life. I felt I betrayed the people, who trusted me, and because they trusted me, they took risks. I was constantly on the phone with people underground. Even in the worst times their phone was still working. I was on the phone to a Catholic priest, a great Jesuit priest. As the shooting was taking place he was under cover inside the house. I could hear on the phone cars driving by, killing, shooting. And he said, “I don’t know if I will be alive a half hour from now.” I tried to get the UN people to rescue him but even they did not feel safe. My own sister suddenly disappeared. But fortunately she and her family were next door to the UN and they managed just to jump the fence and enter the UN compound. I was in New Zealand attending the APEC summit when I heard President Clinton live from Washington say that Indonesia must invite the international community to intervene. And two days later the Indonesians did. Two days after that, I finally met President Clinton. Now meeting the most powerful man in the world was incredibly reassuring to all Timorese, because once the president of the U.S. makes a decision, it’s done. And Clinton was so personable, so charming, you feel totally at ease—and he asked pointed, informed questions. Much more intelligent than most journalists ask. That evening I phoned Xanana, the Resistance leader under house arrest in Jakarta, saying I had met with the president of the U.S. and was confident the peacekeeping forces would arrive soon—and so they did.
This turn of events was totally unprecedented for Indonesia. They were so used to crushing every opposition voice, peaceful demonstration, every dissident, to seeing their army as invincible— yet for the first time in history they were defeated. Scholars claimed they had never lost a battle though they failed to explain that the battles were against civilians. It showed the power of public opinion. Because it was the people who went to the phones, to the Internet, to the fax machines, sending a barrage of messages into Bill Clinton’s office, to the U.S. State Department, to Tony Blair and Robin Cook in London, and to the French that made peace happen. In Australia tens of thousands were demonstrating. In Portugal over a million people demonstrated. And that made Clinton lead a charge to rescue the people of East Timor, and also showed that when the U.S. wants to use its power effectively for good, it can prevail. I am prepared to forgive the U.S. all sins of the past after this courageous leadership by Clinton.
Now you say this victory took courage, but I think more courage is required to be humble, to admit your mistakes, your sins, to be honest. More courage is required to forgive than is required to take up arms. Which means that I am not the most courageous person in the world. Because after all, courage is easier said than done.
Originally appeared in Speak Truth To Power: Human Rights Defenders Who Are Changing Our World by Kerry Kennedy.