East Timor marks independence day

DILI, East Timor, Reuters

Business in the capital closed as people turned out for mass, speeches, concerts and to lay flowers at cemeteries in what was a day of mourning and a day of celebration.

And they counted the cost of more than 23 years of Indonesian military control and last year’s vote that triggered bloody reprisals from pro-Jakarta militias.

They also celebrated their freedom from colonial rule and the massive improvements that have come with United Nations administration guiding the territory to independence.

“We are here today at the resting place of those who gave their lives so East Timor can be free,” Nobel peace laureate and deputy head of the main pro independence group, Jose Ramos-Horta, said at the Santa Cruz cemetery in Dili.

“Those who survive have to bear the burden of responsibility for building a better East Timor.”

In 1991, Indonesian troops massacred mourners at the cemetery. On Wednesday, thousands streamed into Santa Cruz to remember the victims of that slaughter and other abuses under Indonesian rule.

Most clutched colorful flowers, some wept quietly.

Among them was Diego Cartres, who has lost count of the number of relatives to have died in East Timor’s conflict, including the Santa Cruz massacre. Sad, happy

“I am very sad today, but happy too,” he said, holding a small bunch of flowers and wearing an Australian army slouch hat. “Before things were not good. But now we are free. There is no trouble anymore.”

More than 10,000 people gathered in searing heat outside U.N. headquarters, once the seat of Indonesian power in the territory, where charismatic independence hero Xanana Gusmao told them the day marked their freedom.

“You are suffering because you are hot … but today is a day of liberty,” Gusmao, the man most expect to lead an independent East Timor, said in brief remarks.

Much of the country remains in ruins after the pro-Jakarta gangs backed by the Indonesian military went on a rampage in retaliation at the decision to split from Indonesia, whose rule was never recognized by the United Nations or most foreign governments.

Hundreds died and about 300,000 of the territory’s 800,000 people fled to Indonesian West Timor, or were forced there by the militias. At least 120,000 remain, many barred from going home by militias operating unchecked by Indonesian forces.

The militias have also stepped up activities in East Timor, although the United Nations says security is under control. But its 8,000 strong peacekeeping force is on a heightened state of alert.

Head of the U.N.’s East Timor mission, Sergio Vieira de Mello, urged the militias to lay down their weapons and return to their villages.

He also told the crowd they were “a living lesson in humanity to us all”.

“You have prevailed over force, over evil, over untold suffering and over indifference,” he said, drawing cheers.

He read out a message from U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who said: “I salute the courage of every Timorese citizen and the memory of those brave men and women who perished in the struggle for independence.”

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer was among the low-key foreign turnout. He told reporters Australia was prepared to provide troops for a longer deployment if security was bad enough.

“We are not going to abandon East Timor,” he said. “It’s possible that there will be a need for the United Nations peacekeeping operation after the point of independence and obviously we’ll play our part in that if we’re asked to do so, which you could safely assume we will be.” Foreign troops to stay? Gusmao’s National Council of Timorese Resistance (CNRT), which will provide the nucleus of the first government, has already decided to ask for foreign soldiers — possibly U.N. peacekeepers — to stay after the U.N. administration pulls out.

But despite the razing of East Timor, the refugee problem and the increasing militia activity, optimism is high as the former Portuguese colony moves towards elections due by the end of 2001.

The economy is showing signs of picking up, reconstruction is gathering pace and East Timorese, like the United Nations, are increasingly optimistic that after more than three centuries of foreign rule real independence is at hand.

“We lost everything (last year), our home was destroyed, we were refugees for months,” said Maria Virginia, another mourner at Santa Cruz. “But today, I feel hopeful.”