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Romance and revolution: reflections of E Timor

By Geoff Thompson for Correspondents Report

Posted 3 hours 19 minutes ago 
Updated 2 hours 10 minutes ago

Anniversary of independence: For activists, East Timor is the poster country for the agitators' ambitions.

Anniversary of independence: For activists, East Timor is the poster country for the agitators' ambitions. (AFP: WEDA)

The ABC's Indonesia correspondent, Geoff Thompson, was in East Timor 10 years ago to cover the vote for independence and the subsequent outbreak of violence. A decade later he returns to Dili.

East Timor is like a mirror reflecting so many different things to so many different people and only some of them actually live here.

Those million or so souls are mixed up somewhere inside the strange brew of romantic hopes, political dreams, victories and disappointments which people bring to this half-island home for fewer people than live in just a few Jakarta suburbs.

For me, it is the place where a decade as a foreign correspondent began.

The place I landed in in April 1999 was full of excitement, anxiety and fear.

That day, when the militia came to Dili, remains burned in my memories much more vividly than countless other occasions which have also got the heart racing over the past 10 years.

It is also the place I abandoned, leaving on one of the early evacuation flights after the August 30 vote for independence.

Sometimes, I tell myself that after four months of round-the-clock reporting and being chased by militias, I just had to stop, that the decision to flee was justified.

But more often I am plagued with guilt, a form of survivor guilt, I suppose, that I got up and left when the East Timorese simply did not have that option.

Many of my journalistic colleagues stayed, some never left and I will probably always harbour the feeling that just because of that alone, they are better journalists and human beings than I.

Sound self-indulgent? Yeah it is - it is a weird terrain where journalistic ego, questions of commitment, courage and prima donna grandstanding dance awkwardly together.

But I am not alone. I think more than most places on this planet, East Timor lends itself to self-indulgence.

'Badge of morality'

For activists, East Timor is the poster country for the agitators' ambitions, a place where impoverished and terrorised innocents were successfully freed from the talons of an evil empire led by Indonesia and its allies, Australia and the United States.

For John Howard and Alexander Downer, East Timor is the badge which proves their government's morality, simply because on their watch Habibe forced them down the path toward East Timor's independence, and foisted on Australia's military the responsibility of cleaning up the mess.

Compared to many other more dismal failures for the United Nations, East Timor's transition to independence remains a model of success, despite the many billions of dollars spent here being unable to deliver a better sustainable standard of living to most East Timorese.

For romantics and revolutionaries, at least in the popular imagination, the East Timor story delivered the region's only real rival to Che Guevara, in the form of Xanana Gusmao and perhaps Jose Ramos-Horta filling the shoes of Fidel.

For journalists and now filmmakers, in East Timor's brutal history they find a darkness where they can forever try to a shine a light.

Ten years on from choosing independence, there is more light here than there once was, but not as much as I think any dreamer might have hoped.

I met first met Liliana when she was seven. A pretty young girl who had one eye destroyed by a militia man's gun in 1999. But on the occasion of East Timor's independence, she was full of optimistic hope

I met her again the other day. Now 16 and prettier than ever. But her happiness is gone. Instead she sobbed and sobbed because her country's people are still so poor.


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