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Aussie priest remembers East Timor’s troubled, violent beginnings and the glimmers of hope

Hope: Children in East Timor, 1999, were looking to a brighter future.

AMID the bullets and terror surrounding East Timor’s vote for independence, an Australian priest witnessed the depth of humanity, but he also saw courage, spirit and glimmers of hope.

“The faith of the Timorese was completely powerful,” Jesuit Father Peter Hosking, who headed the Jesuit Refugee Service in East Timor at the time of the independence vote 20 years ago this week (August 30), said.

“The vote was overwhelmingly for independence and it was really, really positive.

“But there was a sense of dread not too far beneath the surface.” 

With his background as a clinical psychologist, Fr Hosking had been called in to provide trauma counselling for United Nations (UNAMET) staff preparing for the referendum ballot for the East Timorese people to choose whether to remain part of Indonesia or vote for independence. 

These days Fr Hosking is the rector of St Ignatius’ College, Adelaide – the same school he attended as a student, and a world away from the turmoil that confronted him after the polling day on August 30, 1999. 

Scorched earth to follow

The day of the vote was quiet in many parts of Timor, but not in the town of Gleno where pro-Indonesian militia attacked a polling station, throwing stones and shooting at people waiting to vote later in the afternoon. 

Australian federal police overseeing the election were amongst those who were threatened, forced to defend against the militia, and later evacuated under fire.  

Already the Indonesian strategy was clear: if the East Timorese were going to vote for independence, scorched earth would follow – revenge on a grand scale.

The militia were the Indonesian military’s instrument of revenge, and part of the plan was to intimidate and threaten all foreigners – journalists, aid workers, election observers and the United Nations – until they left.

“It began in earnest – the campaign of violence that resulted in so many homes, and schools and hospitals and other buildings being destroyed,” Fr Hosking said.

An estimated 1500 people were killed while an estimated 500,000 people were forced to hide in the mountains or herded into refugee camps across the border into Indonesian West Timor.

Fr Hosking was part of an international contingent forced to take cover in the UN’s compound in Dili. 

Waiting: Fr Peter Hosking with East Timorese refugees stranded after the vote for independence.

They were not the only ones taking refuge there; chased by militiamen, desperate Timorese men and women scaled the walls, braving coils of razor wire on top – several threw their babies over. 

Fr Hosking turned into a frontline medic supporting doctors treating scores of injuries – and meeting other medical needs too.

“There was a baby born in my office,” he said. 

“A beautiful Liberian nurse helped with the delivery, and a French doctor was there also.  

“The mother, Mrs Remejio, was so brave amidst the chaos that night. 

“It was a moment of life and hope amidst such senseless violence. 

“I baptised the baby and, at (Mrs Remejio’s) wishes, he was called Pedro UNAMET Remejio.” 

Fearless sister steps up

More refugees arrived, including an organised column of 800 led by a fearless Canossian Sister Esmeralda, who marched the refugees – mainly women and children – from her Canossian convent to the UN compound. 

Holding her Bible, she had walked up to a unit of Indonesian army and militia, who had opened up a corridor, like the parting of the Red Sea for Moses, to let them pass.

Around Fr Hosking, the Catholic Church was being targeted by the militia.  

On September 6, Bishop Carlos Belo’s home in the capital, Dili, was attacked and burned by a handful of militia backed up by a larger number of soldiers. 

The home of the Bishop of Baucau, Basilio Nascimento, was attacked, and the bishop and staff were forced into hiding.

From the town of Suai, Fr Hosking heard the shocking news of the murder of three priests and about 100 displaced persons who were taking cover in the grounds of a church, and the murder of a 70-year-old Austrian priest, Fr Karl Albrecht, just outside the UN compound.

There were more sisters and brothers who died in ambushes and attacks, including six Canossian Sisters, killed near the city of Baucau. 

“They were incredibly committed to the people … steadfast in just providing a sanctuary for people amidst all sorts of intimidation,” Fr Hosking said. 

“These were some of the most courageous people you will ever meet. They were pastors and lived close to the struggle.”

Within a few days food and water was running short inside the UN compound. 

Outside, militia and Indonesian forces were looting Dili. 

The sky was thick with black smoke from burning buildings.

Fr Hosking was told the UN staff, international and national, would be evacuated to Darwin.

“We were evacuated in a deal that had been done between the Indonesians and Australians and certainly there was an effort to get the internationals out,” he said.

The international community was working around the clock to find a way to rescue Timor.

On September 20 the International Force for East Timor, or INTERFET, under the command of Australian Major General Peter Cosgrove, entered Dili.

The arrival of thousands of international troops in East Timor caused the militia to flee across the border into Indonesia, where they started sporadic cross-border raids against INTERFET forces.

Fr Hosking returned to East Timor within weeks and was part of the efforts to help refugees to return to their homes.

“There was grief and outrage and fear during all that, but there was a sense this is a new beginning so there was a lot to be faith-filled about,” he said.

“The balance between emotions, faith, hope all became important.

“Those months were just hard work, and meaningful work – the most meaningful work I’ve ever had and sense that my training as a Jesuit, as a psychologist, all coming together.

“Probably about a year later though, I felt just exhausted.

“The reconstruction was so slow, and the imbalance in the way aid was being distributed was so disappointing that I felt more demoralised later.”

Fr Hosking returned to East Timor after independence was officially granted in 2002, working to support victims as they told their stories to the country’s Truth Commission.

Later, he also visited East Timor with school groups to encounter a new nation starting to find its feet, and with half the population aged under 18.

“So it’s a young population. Half the population wasn’t alive at the time of the referendum so I think they are living a different reality to what we were,” he said.

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